January 31, 2009

The clumsy pope-academic

Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI, came to the papacy with strong academic credentials, having been a faculty member at Bonn, Münster, Tübingen (together with Hans Küng), and Regensburg for nearly two decades, a participant in Vatican II, and for 24 years the chief doctrinal officer of the Vatican as in his role as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Yet, for all of his academic brilliance, the Pope and his Vatican administration seem to lack common sense when it comes to inter-religious relations.  The first disaster was at Regensburg, with the Pope delivered a speech that offended Muslims around the world by quoting the “erudite Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus” as saying “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” 

The Pope attempted an inadequate healing by moderating the quote with this footnote in the published speech:  “In the Muslim world, this quotation has unfortunately been taken as an expression of my personal position, thus arousing understandable indignation. I hope that the reader of my text can see immediately that this sentence does not express my personal view of the Qur’an, for which I have the respect due to the holy book of a great religion. In quoting the text of the Emperor Manuel II, I intended solely to draw out the essential relationship between faith and reason. On this point I am in agreement with Manuel II, but without endorsing his polemic.” If you are a Muslim, would that paragraph reassure you?

The latest blunder by the Pope, of course, was his lifting of the excommunication on the far-right SSPX bishops, including Richard Williamson, who had just before denied the existence of the Holocaust on Swedish television.  The Vatican expressed surprise at at claimed to be ignorant of Williamson’s rampant anti-Semitism – but this seems to be a dubious claim at best.  A simple Google search would have turned up evidence.  As National Catholic Reporter columnist John Allen wrote in his personal blog

I take at face value the assurances of Vatican officials that they were unaware of Williamson's interview, but they hardly needed Swedish television to alert them that something was amiss. In 1989, Williamson narrowly escaped prosecution in Canada for praising the writings of Ernst Zundel, a German-born Canadian immigrant whose works include The Hitler We Loved and Why and Did Six Million Really Die?, both mainstays of Holocaust denial literature. All this was documented in press coverage at the time. In 1991, Williamson published an open letter referring to “the false messianic vocation of Jewish world-dominion, to prepare the Anti-Christ's throne in Jerusalem.” In 2000, Williamson went on record asserting that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are legitimate. His reputation was so well-known that in 2008, Shimon Samuels, director of international relations at the Simon Weisenthal Center, told the Catholic Herald in England that Williamson is “the Borat of the schismatic Catholic far-right.”

The Vatican quickly arranged for an apology from the head of the SSPX:

The containment strategy this time featured a Jan. 27 apology from Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the traditionalist Fraternity of St. Pius X, for the incendiary comments of Bishop Richard Williamson, who denied in an interview with Swedish television that the Nazis used gas chambers and asserted that no more than 300,000 Jews were killed in World War II. In a statement released by the Vatican, Fellay also said that Williamson has been barred from further comment on political or historical subjects.

but this apology really skirts the depths of anti-Semitism in the SSPX:

It would be equally misleading to style Williamson as a “lone gunman,” an isolated crank with no connection to broader currents of thought in the traditionalist world.  The folly of that view was illustrated on Thursday by Fr. Floriano Abrahamowicz, a well-known priest of the Society of St. Pius X in northeastern Italy, who gave an interview to an Italian paper in which he defended Williamson. Abrahamowicz said he wasn't sure that gas chambers had been used by the Nazis for anything other than “disinfection,” seemed to cast doubt on the number of six million Jews killed, complained that the Holocaust has been exalted by Jews at the expense of other acts of genocide, and called the Jews a “people of deicide,” referring to the death of Christ.

The fact that Abrahamowicz would voice these sentiments even after Fellay had apologized, and after Fellay insisted that the Society of St. Pius X has no competence to speak on anything other than faith and morals, illustrates how deeply entrenched they are in some quarters of traditionalist Catholicism. . . .

Meanwhile, Fr. Pierpaolo Petrucci, a prior within the Society of St. Pius X, told reporters on Thursday that traditionalists still believe that many aspects of Vatican II “contradict the teaching of previous popes.” In particular, Petrucci said the Lefebvrites [SSPX members] remain “scandalized” by Pope Benedict XVI's 2006 trip to Turkey, in which the pope paused for a moment of silent prayer in the Blue Mosque alongside the Grand Mufti of Istanbul. Petrucci said that popes before Vatican II had rejected inter-religious relations as a matter of principle, implying that Benedict XVI (like John Paul before him) is some sort of apostate.

In the wake of all this, the leadership of the Society of St. Pius X in Italy has canceled an upcoming national meeting, in order to avoid “further polemics and confusion.” Translation: the leadership wasn't sure it could keep a lid on what might be said on the floor of the meeting, or around the edges.

What recent events make clear is that there are two camps in the small universe that rotates around the Society of St. Pius X. The first, represented by Fellay, is composed of traditionalists whose concerns are solely liturgical and doctrinal, and who see the future of their movement as a leaven within the formal structures of the church; the second, represented by Williamson and Abrahamowicz, includes people for whom theological traditionalism bleeds off into far-right politics, xenophobia, and conspiracy theories, and who are far more suspicious of any “deal” with the post-conciliar church.

While prominent American bishops and priests have been cowed into silence, Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schönborn has spoken out:  “Hier ist offensichtlich ein Fehler passiert. Jemand, der den Holocaust, die Schoah leugnet, kann nicht in einem kirchlichen Amt rehabilitiert werden. Hier muss man auch eine gewisse Kritik an vatikanischen Mitarbeitern üben, die offensichtlich nicht genügend hingeschaut haben oder die in der Information sich nicht ausreichend die Sachen angeschaut haben.”  (“A mistake has obviously been made here.  Someone who denies the Holocaust, who denies the Shoah, cannot be restored to an office in the Church.  Here there must also be a criticism of the Vatican, which obviously did not research the matter or did not sufficiently examine the information that they had.”)

These constant missteps by the Pope threaten to characterize his papacy as a period in which the Catholic Church managed to antagonize much of the non-Catholic world – a step not into greater spirituality, but into greater conflict – ultimately marginalizing the moral influence of Rome to speak on matters that are not purely internal to the Catholic Church.  (See also Tzvee’s conclusion:  “this sordid affair . . . will bring down the papacy of Benedict XVI into ruin.”)

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