Last weekend's announcement by the Vatican that Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the excommunication order his predecessor imposed on four so-called traditionalist bishops has provoked understandable hurt and outrage among Jews around the world.
All four bishops belong to a notoriously anti-Semitic sect called the Society of St. Pius X.
The group, which the Catholic Church has for decades regarded as schismatic, was founded in 1970 by a French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. When the aging Lefebvre consecrated the four bishops to carry on his work in 1988, Pope John Paul II excommunicated the prelate and his four followers.
Since then, the society, which is headquartered in Menzingen, Switzerland, has grown into the largest and best organized of the various "traditionalist" groups, with more than 30,000 adherents in the United States alone. Worldwide, in addition to the four bishops, the group has more than 600 priests and seminarians, and runs three universities and 70 primary and secondary schools.
The Vatican still considers the churches -- and their members -- to be operating outside Catholic law.
Most of the attention over the weekend centered on the society's British-born bishop, Richard Williamson, currently head of a seminary in Argentina. He's a longtime and floridly public denier of the Holocaust who asserts that only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews died in Nazi concentration camps -- far fewer than the 6 million historians generally believe to have been killed -- and does not believe anyone was gassed.
"There was not one Jew killed in the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies," he once said.
And when Williamson headed the group's Connecticut seminary, its bookstore carried "Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a notorious forgery outlining a purported Jewish plot to achieve world dominance.
Williamson and other society spokesmen also have insisted there is a historical basis for anti-Semitic folk tales in which Jews kidnap and murder Christian children to use their blood in making Passover matzo, the so-called blood libel. And a 1997 article by two society priests advocated segregating Jews in ghettos because they're "known to kill Christians."
On Sunday, a papal spokesman called Williamson's views "indefensible" but said the bishop's personal views were not a canonical matter. Msgr. Robert Wister, a professor of church history at Seton Hall, expressed his distaste for the whole situation, but he acknowledged that it fell within the church's canon law: "To deny the Holocaust is not a heresy, even though it is a lie. The excommunication can be lifted because he is not a heretic, but he remains a liar."
While many observers will see Pope Benedict's ill-considered action as an intramural matter between Catholics and Jews, the fact is that Lefebvre's followers believe things that ought to concern everyone. While many of the people attracted to "traditionalist" chapels are there because they crave old-style piety, particularly the Latin Mass, many others -- certainly the traditionalist clergy -- are there for frankly sinister ideological reasons. They reject the decisions of the Second Vatican Council not only because those decisions promoted celebration of the Mass in vernacular languages but also because they embraced religious liberty and freedom of conscience, and repudiated any theological anti-Semitism.
American notions of religious freedom and tolerance, separation of church and state, and all dialogue between different faiths are anathema to the traditionalists. Lefebvre, in fact, spoke of how he decided to break with Rome after John Paul II conducted an interfaith prayer service for world peace in Assisi, where St. Francis was born. (Williamson, by the way, also believes that the 9/11 attacks were an American plot to justify invading Afghanistan and Iraq.)
Pope Benedict may believe, as some have speculated, that he needs to find a way to bring the traditionalists back under Rome's authority before they form a parallel church. He may feel, as some have alleged, that the future Catholic Church would be better off if it were smaller but more zealous, which the traditionalists certainly are.
Whatever the motive, unless Lefebvreites abjure their views on religious liberty and anti-Semitism, it would be a huge mistake for the church to take the next step and welcome the society's congregations back into the fold. Doing so would forfeit Rome's ability to speak out on human rights and interfaith tolerance -- and that would be a loss to us all. If these last years have taught us anything, it's that religious views have material consequences. Somehow, one expects a pope to know that.
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