Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Pope Better Be Careful

If Benedict XVI doesn't watch himself, he's in danger of losing any shred of moral credibility.

For those who aren't aware, the Pope recently lifted the excommunication of four bishops who, 20 years ago, were consecrated in defiance of the Vatican's authority. The schism initially occurred when the Society of Saint Pius X broke with Rome in the wake of the Second Vatican Council and the current Pope is acting to bring members of the group back into the fold. But it has since come to light that one of the reinstated Bishops, Richard Williamson, is a Holocaust-denier. Benedict has claimed that he knew nothing of Williamson's views on the Holocaust and demanded that he recant. Williamson is currently "re-considering the historical evidence" before deciding on a course of action.

The Holocaust is not a matter about which reasonable people can disagree. If you think that the Holocaust did not happen, then you have demonstrated, as clearly as anyone can, that you are not in touch with reality. And if you demand evidence that goes beyond the existing historical record before you are willing to concede that the Nazis murdered 6 million Jews, then you have shown that your beliefs about the matter have nothing at all to do with evidence and that such a conversation would be fruitless.

If Williamson asked me to prove to him that the Holocaust happened, I would demand that he first prove to me that he exists. For the demand in each case is equally legitimate (which is to say, not at all) regardless of whether you are able to provide a satisfactory response. In fact, proving the existence of other minds is far more difficult than proving the Holocaust, even though I assume Williamson doesn't doubt their existence.

The issue here is of a kind different from dealing with priests who themselves perform evil acts. One can be weak-willed or vicious in particular ways and still be part of the community of reason. It may be unwise to put such people in certain positions because of the wrong they may do to others. Nevertheless--even though it may sometimes be difficult to admit--such people can still have a moral compass that is overwhelmingly functional. But if you deny that the greatest crime against humanity ever happened, then you have proven that you have lost all sense of moral direction and any claim to represent Christ to the world.

If I were Benedict (and, for so many many reasons, I'm glad I'm not) I would say that Williamson can come back into the fold as a Catholic parishioner in good standing but that he is forever banned from saying mass or in any way speaking in the capacity of a church official. The mere fact that Williamson requires time to mull the issue over is all the proof Benedict should need that the denier should never serve in that capacity again.


Mark Traphagen said...

Many, if not most, institutions, religious or otherwise, at some point become more about the preservation of the institution than about whatever ideals upon which they were founded. When that stage is reached, they need to be watched with a hermeneutic of suspicion.

Jason said...

Is Bp Williamson an elderly crank? Yes. However, you do realize that lifting the excommunications is an ENTIRELY different matter from Bp. Williamson's (admittedly loathsome) views on the Holocaust, right?

Think of it in legal terms. If a man is accused of murder. He goes to jail, but later is found to be innocent of that crime. If he is found later to be a rapist, is the justice system at fault for releasing him? No, since he was innocent of the crime of murder.

My analogy isn't perfect, but there are some links. Bp. Williamson and the other 3 bishops of the SSPX were all excommunicated for being ordained without consent from Pope John Paul II. The excommunication was lifted as an act of mercy from Pope Benedict XVI in an attempt to bring the whole group back into the fold, as you pointed out.

Knowing a little about how the Curia works, I'm only slightly surprised that Pope Benedict XVI didn't know that Bp. Williamson was a Holocaust Denier. It's highly unfortunate, but it's also beside the point. The excommunications were lifted to bring a group of people back into the Church.

Were I to guess, should the SSPX be reconciled to the Church, then Bp. Williamson would not have any real authority to speak of. He's within 5 years of mandatory retirement for bishops anyway at the very very worst possible case.

With regards to Mark's point, I can't see how attempting to end a minor schism leads to the assertion that this is 'more about the preservation of the institution'. The SSPX numbers less than 10 million people. That's less than 1% of the total Catholic population of the world. It's far more apt to liken it to searching for the lost sheep than to preserving the institution.


AJK said...


You write as though you have some personal experience with such matters :-)


I do realize that the lifting of the excommunication is separate from Williamson's views on the Holocaust and I never suggested that the original excommunication should remain in place. But your analogy seems to support my point. If we find out that someone was wrongly convicted of murder, release them, and then find out that he is a rapist, we then prosecute him for being such. The justice system isn't at fault for releasing him. But it sure would be if it failed to prosecute him for the newly discovered crime. My argument only concerns how the Pope should treat a Holocaust denier if he is to claim any moral authority. I actually have no views at all on the SSPX.

Mark Traphagen said...

My comment is merely observational in general, and does not necessarily refer to any organization known to me or with which I have been in association.

Jason said...

The challenge is that there isn't a readily available ecclesial penalty for being an idiot.

Will he be shut up and shunted into a corner? Probably[1]. If he's not careful, he might wind up subject to the CIVIL penalties associated with being a Holocaust denier (in, say, Germany).

I guess the big thing I'm objecting to in your post is the explicit assumption in your post[2] that this should impact what you call 'the moral authority' of the Pope. To my mind, looking at the whole picture, it should actually increase said 'moral authority'. (looking for lost sheep, etc)

The Pope at this point CAN'T impose any sanctions (ecclesial or not) on Bp. Williamson because Bp Williamson has yet to submit to the authority of the Pope. When (God willing) the SSPX is fully reconciled to the Church, then the Pope will be able to place some sanctions on him. Until then, B16 is forced to take a somewhat 'hands off' approach. He can issue statements condemning Holocaust Denial (which he has), but he can't 'lay the smack down' on Bp. Williamson directly.


[1] Note: There's a political angle to all of this as well. The most radical and right-wing of the SSPX is attached to Bp. Williamson. If B16 wants to bring the whole group back in (and not risk the formation of a second group like the 'old catholics' in Germany), it will need to be handled somewhat quietly. This whole press storm has slowed down this process a lot.

[2] which I'm grateful for, since it's IMPLICIT in so much commentary out there.

Mark Traphagen said...

I just want to say that I'm saving "The challenge is that there isn't a readily available ecclesial penalty for being an idiot" and hope to use it somewhere, someday ;-)

Jason said...

Mark: You're welcome to it. ;-)

AJK said...

I'm probably not being sensitive enough to the procedural constraints that the Pope is under (although, in another way, perhaps I'm objecting to those procedural constraints). I don't think my 8th grade CCD teacher covered this kind of case.

But while I admire the impetus to reconciliation, I don't see any problem at all with imposing conditions on that reconciliation. Bring in the SSPX under the condition that Williamson spend some time in a corner. If Williamson won't accept that, and the radicals want to follow him, then let them. What would be wrong with taking that kind of approach?

Benedict might not be able to impose sanctions within the Catholic hierarchy because, as you point out, SSPX is not currently subject to that hierarchy. But he should certainly be able to impose the sanction of continued separation. And I'm inclined to think that taking that line on an issue like the Holocaust is perfectly appropriate. Indeed, if Benedict fails to adopt such a line, I'm perfectly happy to say that his moral authority/credibility has been compromised.

Jason said...

OK, how about a statement from the Vatican issued on Feb 4th 2009:

"Bishop Williamson, for admission to function as a bishop in the Church, will have to also, in an absolutely uneqivocal and public way, distance himself from his positions regarding the Holocaust, which were not known by the Holy Father in the moment of the remission of the excommunication."


AJK said...

I like to think of myself as optimistic about the possibility of positive changes in outlook so . . . fair enough. But what's Williamson going to say now that can be satisfactory? "Oops. My bad." Much preferable, I think, to just set the guy out to pasture.

Mark Traphagen said...

News Flash:

"Bishop Apologizes for Statements on the Holocaust"

AJK said...

I'm dangerously close to shooting the dead horse in the head. But doesn't this look like a "non-apology" apology? "I'm sorry you feel bad about what I said."

I concede that my way of phrasing the issue might have been too harsh on the Pope's stated position. But I stand by my more central claim that how he handles this issue bears directly on his moral credibility.

Mark Traphagen said...

I'm sorry that you don't like my news link ;-)

AJK said...

Mark, you know you can post any news link on my blog any time you want. It needn't even be relevant to the topic at hand.

Mark Traphagen said...

I was trying to make a non-apology apology joke <--- humor fail

AJK said...

Or, more likely, I'm just slow.

Jason said...

Well, I can't say what will happen. 'blog-speed' is almost INFINITELY faster than the speed of the Curia, so it may be a while before we see any reaction. There's even an outside chance that we'll never see a reaction at all (which will not mean that there isn't one)... It wouldn't surprise me if Bp. Williamson is required to go into seclusion and a life of penance for the rest of his life, but we may never hear about it...

And there's a mercy in that.

As you say, there's no way (to your mind) that Bp. Williamson can apologize sufficiently for his feelings. That of course begs several questions of Christian significance like forgiveness of any sin, etc, but that's not the point of this article and response.

I've pointed out that there's little the Pope can do RIGHT NOW to handle the issue. The Pope has already placed a precondition on Bp. Williamson's return to ministry in the Church (which should satisfy your demand for such), and he can't order him to a life of penance at this time (which you seem to require as well).

What would make you happy?

AJK said...

I feel like the thrust of my original argument has somehow been lost in the details of what options are or are not open to Benedict. My main point (couched in intentionally provocative language) was to say that there is a moral seriousness to denying the Holocaust--i.e., it isn't just some other historical matter for academics to debate--and that, as such, the Pope needs to be careful how he handles this case. And saying, "Well, he's kind of nutty on this one thing but otherwise he's fine" wouldn't cut it. That hasn't been the line out of the Vatican, so that, I suppose, makes me happy.

On the matter of forgiveness, I'm all for it. But two issues remain. First, it's not clear to me that the Pope's forgiveness is really relevant here since he hasn't been the one wronged by Williamson's statements. Exactly who needs to forgive him, I'm not sure. I recognize that for Catholics, this notion might be problematic. But I'll stand by it nonetheless.

Second, full forgiveness doesn't mean that he gets to serve in an official church capacity. Child molesting priests can be fully forgiven without being allowed back into their priestly roles.

Mark Traphagen said...


The Vatican seems to agree with AJK:

Jason said...

1) Do I believe that Bp. Williamson SHOULD be allowed to exercise the ministry of Bishop in the Church after the SSPX is reconciled? No. I hope he's shunted into a corner [1]. There actually IS a procedure for removing someone's consecration as bishop, but from what I know it has never actually been used.

2) I have never argued that Bp. Williamson is 'Kinda nutty, but ok'[2]. You're quite correct that the denial of the Holocaust is a HUGE problem.

3) Like you, I was underwhelmed by Bp. Williamson's apology. I am glad that the Vatican spokesman quickly said it wasn't enough.

4) Pope Benedict XVI lived through the Holocaust, and knows first hand, and far far better than most the full horrors of that time. If you don't think he's taking the matter seriously, I think you're wrong[3]. I think most hints that he's not taking it seriously are better interpreted as him trying to handle it QUIETLY and out of the view of the press.


[1] Unless he offers a true and sincere recanting of his position of holocaust denial, which I don't know if he'll do.

[2] Though I must admit that there are individuals who take that line, and worse. Thankfully, they're a very small minority.

[3] Witness his papal visit to Auschwitz, and several speeches about the 'Shaoh' during his pontificate.