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Bishop Williamson, making trouble again

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 22, 2009

If the reports from Rome are accurate, within the next week Pope Benedict will lift the excommunication of the bishops who lead the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X. That would welcome news, promising a long-awaited resolution of a rift within the Church. 

By lifting the decree of excommunication, the Pope will be creating an anomalous situation, which will cry out for a prompt resolution. If these traditionalist prelates are validly ordained-- which the Vatican does not dispute-- and if they are now restored to full communion with the Church, then they are members of the Catholic hierarchy, and they must be given appropriate canonical status. Even now the Vatican must be planning what to do with the SSPX bishops: how to fit them into the structure of the Church. In all likelihood this lifting of the excommunications will soon be followed by another agreement to resolve that canonical problem. 

However, if the Pope is to welcome the SSPX bishops back into the Church, the Vatican will be forced to confront yet another problem, and it's easy to put a name on that problem. The name is Richard Williamson.

Bishop Williamson, one of the four bishops illicitly (but validly) consecrated in 1988 by the late Archbishop Lefebvre, has a history of making injudicious public comments. This week-- the very week when Rome seemed poised to take a step for which traditionalists had prayed for years-- it has emerged that Bishop Williamson recently told a Swedish television interviewer that he did not believe in the reality of the Nazi death camps. That remarkably stupid statement allowed the London Times to demonstrate its own penchant for irresponsible statements, with a story headlined: "Pope could welcome Holocaust denier back into the fold." The headline inaccurately hinted that the bishop's obtuse statements about the Holocaust were the cause of his excommunication. (Although the text of the story cleared up that confusion, reporter Ruth Gledhill could not resist taking her own ugly shot at the faith, with a reference to "nearly two millenniums of Christian anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust"-- as if Hitler's genocidal racial policies were a natural outgrowth of Christian teaching.) While the two subjects are not related-- the bishop's statements are appalling, but they are not grounds for excommunication-- there can be no doubt that Bishop Williamson poses an enormous public-relations problem for the Holy See.

However this may be a moot point. Over the years Bishop Williamson has been the most truculent of the SSPX bishops, and his public statements indicate that he sees no real likelihood of reconciliation with Rome. If the Vatican eventually does reach a canonical agreement with the SSPX, it is quite likely that a cadre of intransigent traditionalists will refuse the accommodation and remain separated from the Holy See. When that happens, I'll wager, Bishop Williamson will emerge as the leader of the holdouts, and he'll become someone else's public-relations problem. 

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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