For those of us, Christians and non-Christians, who count themselves as friends of Catholics and their church, these have been a bad few weeks.
On Jan. 21, Pope Benedict XVI revoked the excommunication of four priests who, in 1988, were illegally ordained bishops by the late renegade archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Those ordinations led to Pope John Paul II excommunicating Lefebvre and the four priests.
One of those four was Richard Williamson, who announced in an interview aired on Swedish television in November 2008 and on January 21, 2009 that “two hundred (thousand) to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps. None of them in a gas chamber.”
In the interview, Williamson also referred to the Holocaust as “the, quote unquote, Holocaust …” He has long been a Holocaust denier. As far back as 1989, for example, he risked criminal prosecution in Canada, where he praised books written by Holocaust denier Ernst Zundel.
While empirically true, it is misleading to simply say, as many news reports have, that Pope Benedict repealed the excommunication of a Holocaust denier. It is highly unlikely that the pope, a German who has visited Auschwitz and spoken forcefully about the Shoah (the pope used the Hebrew term for the Holocaust), knew about Williamson’s Holocaust denial. The pope, in his fervent desire to end schisms within the church, decided, wisely or not, to reach out to one prominent schismatic group, the extreme right-wing Lefebvre organization known as the Society of St. Pius X.
But it was obviously a mistake in the case of the Lefebvre priests. Williamson is a truly bad man who disgraces the church. When one watches him spew his venom in the Swedish television interview while wearing a large cross, the cross is rendered ugly -- just as the Muslim crescent is rendered ugly by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he spews his Holocaust-denying venom.
What is perplexing is not that the pope and/or his top officials made a serious mistake by readmitting Williamson into the church. People make mistakes. What is perplexing is that the moment Williamson’s big lie and Jew-hatred became known, the revocation of his excommunication was not halted or reversed. Rather, the Vatican demanded that he must “unequivocally and publicly distance himself from his positions on the Shoah.”
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