Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

And far too crazy

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 04, 2009

This from a reader: “There is absolutely no excuse for [Pope Benedict’s] current decision with the Pius X people, thus alienating the Jewish people just as he did previously with the Moslems.” Nor is this reader alone. Just look at some recent headlines:

  • German bishops criticize Pope amid calls he should step down (Bild)
  • Analysis: Rare public criticism heard at Vatican (AP)
  • Austrian Catholics up in arms over Pope’s comments (AFP)
  • Germans fall out of love with their pope (Reuters blog)

Never mind the remark about Muslims, with whom Pope Benedict has had more mutually-respectful discussions than perhaps any leader in history. The stories under these headlines are all concerned, like the main thrust of the reader's comment, with Pope Benedict’s lifting of the excommunications against the four leaders of the Society of St. Pius X, one of whom—Bishop Richard Williamson—denies the reality of the Holocaust.

This reaction, from individuals and the media alike, is so absurd as to be almost unimaginable by any sane observer. The SSPX bishops are not recognized by the Vatican as part of the Catholic hierarchy. They were, in fact, excommunicated in the first place precisely because their ordination to the episcopate, performed without the Pope’s approval, was a schismatic act. The lifting of the excommunication after twenty years was explained by Pope Benedict as a “paternal gesture” designed to encourage these bishops to take the remaining steps necessary to return to full communion with the Church.

Moreover, the Pope made clear from the first that these steps include an acceptance of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, which (among other things) had much to say about the positive relationship that ought to exist between Catholics and Jews. Therefore, any attempt to portray the lifting of the excommunication as an endorsement of Bishop Richard Williamson’s view of the Holocaust is either profoundly ignorant or gleefully malicious. In other words, one must be either a knave or a fool to take that view, or to express the outrage which typically accompanies it.

The question of how many Jews (or Catholics, for that matter) died in the Holocaust is not a matter of Faith, but of historical record. One is not excommunicated from the Catholic Church for faulty history, nor is an accurate grasp of history required for reconciliation with the Church. The key issues which divide the SSPX bishops from Rome are issues of Faith: The validity of the ordinary form of the Roman rite, the authority of the Pope, and Church teachings on both religious liberty and the nature of the Church herself. It is these problems that Pope Benedict hoped to begin to resolve by his “paternal gesture”.

Does anyone seriously propose that the Church should excommunicate those who deny the magnitude of the horror of the Holocaust? Then why not excommunicate all those who deny the magnitude of the horror of abortion, which has taken more lives by an order of 10 or perhaps even 100? Or all those who deny the magnitude of the horror of, say, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima? Or the carnage of World War I or the American Civil War? Now we might justly call for the excommunication of those who advocate the slaughter of Jews, or of the unborn, or of non-combatant women and children in wartime. Such advocacy runs clean counter to Catholic moral teaching. But a misunderstanding of the gravity of certain historical situations does not.

The Church does, of course, do her (often inadequate) best to keep out of the priesthood and episcopacy not only those who deny Catholic teachings, but those who hold disordered ideas, fascinations and attractions which must at the very least severely impede their pastoral ministry. Think, for example, of the efforts of the Vatican to keep homosexuals from being ordained, even if they accept all that the Church teaches. And now the Vatican Secretary of State has made clear that the Pope will certainly require Bishop Williamson to distance himself from the views he has expressed about the Holocaust before he can be given an episcopal assignment—even if he does eventually return to full communion by accepting everything the Church teaches.

Phil Lawler has already written that this whole thing has been an avoidable public relations disaster (see Far Too Late) and that those advisors who did the background research and orchestrated the timing should be fired. I agree completely. But that is only because this irrational reaction was so predictable. Neither the world nor those Catholics who are too much in it have ever shown the slightest understanding of what the Catholic Church is all about. Certainly PR specialists should be able to handle this with at least minimal competence. But a very stubborn fact remains: The world's want of reason is not their fault.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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