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Pope Benedict, Holocaust Denial and Real Interfaith Work

Pope Benedict XVI has reinstated four previously excommunicated bishops, all of whom are members of a far-right group that rejects Vatican Two and one of whom is a raging conspiracy theorist and Holocaust denier. Is he pandering to those on the theological far-right of the Church, and if so, why? Or could he be moving to create a genuinely more inclusive church, one which actually makes room for those whose views are loathsome to most church members? Perhaps it’s a bit of both.
If that is case, this Pope continues his tradition of making theological/communal moves which are so nuanced, that they end up being misunderstood by most and may actually hurt many, even if that is not his intention. Think his speech about Islam, his reinstating the Good Friday prayer which calls for the conversion of Jews, etc.
Whatever is going on here, the focus should not be on the fact that one of those reinstated, Richard Williamson, is a Holocaust denier and how painful that is to Jews.


The truth is it should disturb all people who actually care about facts and accuracy. Williamson’s reinstatement doesn’t bother me because I am Jewish, it bothers me because I would hope that it is beneath the Church to honor a man who believes and continues to teach such ugly and dangerous lies.
On the other hand, is it appropriate to judge this man based entirely upon his attitude toward the Holocaust? Is it fair to him? How would any of us hold up if the world measured any of us by the most outrageous belief we might hold?
In no way am I excusing Williamson. But I am willing to entertain that however much pain his reinstatement might cause relative to this issue, it may not be the only basis upon which the Pope should make his decision, nor should it govern the future of Church-Jewish relations, as some have already suggested/threatened it will.
The idea that this one move will jeopardize Catholic Jewish relations is either insane or tragic. And any leaders, especially those who call themselves inter-faith leaders who intimate that Williamson’s reinstatement will, should be ashamed of themselves. Real relationships between communities are stronger than what any one leader identified with either, might say. If they are not, then the relationships were never that strong to begin with and we should focus on that.
More interesting here, is the Pope’s willingness to find a place for these men in particular and for the Society of Saint Pius X in general. If our definition of inclusiveness does not reach beyond the boundaries of our own personal comfort, can we call ourselves truly inclusive?
How ironic then, that this conservative Pope who is deeply committed to maintaining the authority of the church, is willing to include those who challenge its authority on a number of theological and liturgical issues. Of course the test will be if in the weeks and months ahead, Benedict is willing to reach as far to his left as he has now reached to his right.
If he does, this Pope will have accomplished far more good than bad, not only for the Church he leads, but toward modeling how real inter-group and inter-religious relationships are nurtured. He will have demonstrated the danger of single issue litmus testing in relations between any people. And that would be a profound spiritual lesson for all of us, and one for which I would be deeply grateful.

  • budcath

    My understanding from reading a post by Father Jonathon, an American priest at the vatican who posts editorials for Fox News is that the Pope has offered the society of st. paul in France of which Williamson is a bishop the standing opportunity to return to full communion with the Church if they accept Vatican II and place themselves under Rome’s authority. They have not done so as of now, so they are still excommunicated. The Pope did this for the entire membership of that breakaway group, not just Williamson, so their are more souls at stake than his. If no one accepts, then its a moot point. The Pope has at least opened the door for any member of that group, which is fairly large and mostly in France, to return to full communion whether the bishops do or not. The media has really gotten this all wrong and not done due dilligence. They went for the headlines. Bless.

  • Eric

    Rabbi Hirschfield,
    This is a very powerful posting. I respect you as a Jewish Rabbi sharing this kind of view regards to a very complicated matter. I as a Christian strongly disagree with Richard Williamson’s views about the Holocaust and it is really sad to see this happen. But in midst of all that, I’m still very encouraged by your words of hope and seeing the good in everything, Rabbi Hirschfield. I agree that we should not judge anything by just seeing one part excluding everything else. But I also hope that with time the one part that does not seem right can be transformed for the better as well. And in order for this to happen, we need to have deeper considerations and love for each other.

  • Homo Mysticus

    Dear Rabbi,
    You have spoken well and wisely…….kavod.

  • budcath

    This from Father Jonathan at Fox editorials.
    By lifting the censure of ex-communication of their four bishops (ordained without Vatican approval in 1988), Pope Benedict is removing a legal–”canonical”–barrier for the bishops and their followers to return eventually to the fold, if they choose.
    An essential condition for “rehabilitation” completely missed by the media.
    But an invitation of this kind always comes with a condition: believe and obey what the Catholic Church authoritatively teaches on faith and morals, in conformity with the Gospel. This body of Church teaching would include the recognition of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) that officially and famously condemned all forms of anti-Semitism.
    The media missed completely this essential condition for “rehabilitation”.
    The result has been a firestorm of confused public opinion and righteous indignation over what was communicated by most news sources as a papal blessing on an unrepentant anti-Semite.
    If there was any doubt what the Vatican thinks about the schismatic Bishop Williamson’s claim that only a few hundred thousand Jews were killed by Hitler and that there were no gas chambers in Auschwitz, the Vatican official in charge of inter-religious dialogue, Cardinal Walter Kasper, cleared it up (why was he so rarely quoted?):
    “They are unacceptable words, stupid words. To deny the Holocaust is stupid and it is a position that has nothing to do with the Catholic Church”.
    And since the story continues to be told either poorly or dishonestly, in bits and pieces, with fits of fury by one not-so-expert, expert after another, the Vatican published today an editorial in its official newspaper saying Pope Benedict XVI deplores all forms of anti-Semitism and that all Roman Catholics must do the same.
    In my opinion, Pope Benedict XVI knew the public relations mess he was about to make, but believed the possibility of estranged members of the Catholic Church leaving the world of schism (and the conspiracy theories that often thrive in it) and coming back to the fold, would be more important for both Catholics and Jews long-term, than the unfortunate short-term affects of predictable media misinformation.
    For the record, as things stand now, and until the leaders of the schismatic Society of St. Pius X accept the Pope’s invitation to come back home–with this invitation’s monstrous condition attached–this group remains illegitimate (not sanctioned by the Catholic Church), its bishops (including Bishop Williamson) remain suspended and the services carried out in its chapels are considered illicit.
    Now that’s not exactly the story you heard most places, right?
    Take two.
    God bless,
    Father Jonathan

  • Robert

    In other words, the Pope’s inviting the bishops back into the Church makes sure their movements die with them, rather than perpetuating themselves. It’s a consequence of the doctrine of apostolic succession.

  • Gerard Nadal

    Dear Rabbi,
    It’s refreshing to read your words of prudent caution and fraternal restraint. Steven Waldman could do with a few sessions in your office. As a Roman Catholic, I offer you the following about one of your observations.
    You say, “I would hope that it is beneath the Church to honor a man who believes and continues to teach such ugly and dangerous lies.”
    There is no honor involved here. The truth is that these men have expressed to Pope Benedict, beginning with his tenure as Cardinal Ratzinger, and then as Pope, their deep suffering over being Catholic Bishops in schism. In other words, the excommunication under which they have been living has begun to produce its medicinal effect and intent. We want those Bishops to come home.
    Back in the fold, these Bishops will be able to receive the Sacraments of the Church, which are not rewards or status symbols. As I’m sure you are aware, we believe that the Sacraments are vehicles for God’s healing love and saving grace. They have very powerful and profound effects on all who engage them with a sincere heart.
    These men will never receive a place of honor or great influence in the Church. Even so, we want them home.
    When I listen to Bishop Williamson deny the Holocaust, I hear a Catholic Bishop not only deny what happened to six million Jews, but also what happened to anywhere between 5-7 million Christians in those camps. The ranks of the Catholic clergy and religious were decimated, yet he obviously denies this as well. Consequently, I believe he suffers less from a black heart than from a deluded mind.
    I lifting the excommunication, Pope Benedict is ministering to a weak, aging, and suffering brother Bishop. Thinking men and women of good will can see that he is capable of trying to heal a sinner and still maintain his abhorance for the pernicious evil of anti-Semitism.
    As for the idea that the Pope is reaching out to those on the right, as opposed to the left, this overlay of the secular political paradigm simply does not apply. In truth, these schismatic Bishops have been reaching out to Joseph Ratzinger for years. The Church welcomes back to the Sacraments any who repent. As Psalm 145:18 says,
    “The Lord is near to all who call upon Him, To all who call upon Him in truth.”
    God Bless you, Rabbi.


    Regardless if the media, Father Jonathan above or the Rabbi here are right I think we as Jews should look at ourselves and take care of us and not worry about what the Pope does.
    If you live in the West you see that except for the very young and the very religous who get smaller all the time, what the Pope thinks has little to do with daily life of ANYONE!

  • Scott

    I think you are on the right track. I heard that American RC’s pay less and less attention to the Pope. I’ve also heard the the Church is looking towards Africa and Asia. Do these potential converts respond to the bigotry and ignorance of these reclaimed Catholics? I have no idea. Maybe their lives are so far removed from European history, that it is not a factor for them and hence the Church does not care. Who knows? I don’t.
    And Laura is also right that we have our own far right lunatics for us to be casting any stones at others.
    All I really have to say, So you’re surprised the Pope may be an anti-Semite?

  • budcath

    Scott and Laura,
    The RC church is not looking to Asia and Africa for church members. The church has been there for hundreds of years. However; they are looking there for priests and nuns. American and European priests and nuns have suffered serious declines. But in S. America, Africa, and Asia this is not the case. People are still coming to the priesthood and convents in large numbers.
    I live in the Dallas area metroplex. My church has a vietnamese priest. Several of the parishes here have priests from Africa, Mexico, Vietnam, India, Bangladesh, etc. This is a universal church and these priests are no different from white American or European priests. When I was growing up in the church in Florida in the 50’s and 60’s a lot of priests were Irish or Italian. It’s the nature of the biz.
    Laura….Who is a jew these days? The ultra orthodox in Israel and elsewhere do not recognize any others like reformed, conservative etc. as jews. How many young jewish people in America and Europe just dont’ participate anymore. So, is Judaism a religion or a race? At one time several years ago I looked into converting to judaism, but found that it is not encouraged, and the rabbis will do everything in their power to dissuade you from converting.

  • new beginning

    budcath wrote: Laura….Who is a jew these days? The ultra orthodox in Israel and elsewhere do not recognize any others like reformed, conservative etc. as jews. How many young jewish people in America and Europe just dont’ participate anymore. So, is Judaism a religion or a race? At one time several years ago I looked into converting to judaism, but found that it is not encouraged, and the rabbis will do everything in their power to dissuade you from converting.
    Not being of the most observant of the Jews, I can’t speak to the Orthodox exclusivity with authority. Nor can you, as a non-Jew. The best you can ask for and hopefully, respect, is any people’s right to self-definition. You can’t define them. You can accept their definition of themselves.
    That said, active proselytizing has long been frowned upon in the Jewish Community. If you want in, you have to fight your way in. If you can be so easily dissuaded, it would seem Judaism was merely your ‘flavor of the month.’ What will you try next?
    Having read many letters on Rabbi Brad’s site and B’Net Judaism site for some time, I have seen the pluralism that is exhibited by it’s letter writers on the subject of their personal interpretation of Judaism. There is room for many views; maybe your’s too, if you decide to commit to something.
    There are now Jews from most lands on this planet. I have met Jews who don’t look European, (and frankly, we wouldn’t if we had stayed in our little Middle-Eastern enclave). But the world came to visit so many times… and we decided to go visiting in return.

  • Your Name

    new beginning. I meant no disrespect. I have been a student of comparative religion for at least 35 years. I realize that if you want to convert, it becomes more difficult as you move from reformed to ultra orthodox. Also the practice of making conversion difficult is a big part of Eastern religions (Vedanta, Buddhism) as well. But that is a process of a discipe proving himself worthy and dedicated enough to be taken on by a master. I was just trying to make a point about the controversy surrouning the pope’s decision. The SSPX folks would be the catholic equivalent of the ultra orthodox. But only in the aspect that they think mainstream catholics are not true to the faith and that they alone know what is right and true. In my research over the past 35 years I’ve come to realize that all religions are flawed, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many of them. There are somewhere in the vicinity of 2500 different christian denominations, there are 4 branches of judaism (Reformed, Conservative, Orthodox, Ultra-Orthodox). Islam has sufis, shia, sunni, etc. This is also true of buddhism and hinduism. So which one is the true one? i was raised catholic, but I am not currently a member of the church. I believe in God, and I have a personal spiritual practice and live by the golden rule. Of all the christian traditions I love the RC and Orthodox because of the Eucharist (mass). Also the history of writings going back to the new testament.

  • budcath

    The your name entry above is me.

  • Your Name

    I am neither Jewish nor Catholic but a follower of both and find this Pope’s action infuriating. Giving implied credence to anyone who publicly urges the view that there was no holocaust is wrong and sends an incorrect message to thousands of younger people who have had no first- or second-hand experience with the events involved. This Pope is quite aware of the nuances of publicity and could have made a comment on his actions. He did not. Therefore he left an open personal view. He is, in effect, an employer who has rehired a visible employee whose views are contrary to truth and disgusting to much of society.



  • Pavvel

    budcath wrote: “In my research over the past 35 years I’ve come to realize that all religions are flawed, otherwise there wouldn’t be so many of them.”
    Another way to look at this is: all religions are flawed, otherwise there wouldn’t be so few of them. I see a more ideal situation in a hypothetical world in which each person is a religion of one but placed on a matrix of countless belief continua within which each person shares some things with the person to their left, some things with people to their left, and so forth through the various axes and dimensions of belief. Lots of sharing but no orthodox position which can claim itself the sole authentic position.
    The variety of religions in existence in the world is, in part, a reification of the incompleteness of the claims of all religions. The more religions, the larger the area covered.
    The problem is not the multiplicity of religions, it is the urge many feel to claim their understanding of truth as applicable to and binding on everyone else, if only everyone else within a particular tradition.

  • Pavvel

    It’s okay to share things with people to your right too. 😉

  • Jean

    I feel the author is far too generous to my Pope, although I appreciate what appears to be a mature, evolved, commendable approach towards maintaining interfaith dialogue/relations. I am sad, outraged and deeply offended that the Pope has given priority and preference, with respect to his purported agenda of internal “inclusiveness,” to Williamson and his renegade society of holocaust deniers and Vatican II deniers. He does so while 50 percent of Catholics — women — are excluded from priesthood and Church leadership, despite there are many women with true callings to priesthood … a tremendous social sin on the part of the Church. He does so while women priests and the bishops who had the courage to ordain them remain excommunicated. I am utterly devoted to my Church faith. I feel the Pope should step down and be replaced with a true leader, someone with a true understanding of those he or she purports to lead in the reality of the 21st century. Respectfully, and in faith hope & love, Jean

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