The Church has become increasingly solicitous of its public image. The media applauded Pope John XXIII, who wanted to open the windows of the Church to let in the air of the modern world. But the Church has paid a high price for that short-lived media approbation, and the breeze of modernity has swept her into the shifting winds of public opinion.
Whatever Bishop Richard Williamson’s differences may be with the leadership of the Society of St. Pius X, any honest assessment of his ultimate expulsion from the SSPX would have to begin with the incident that caused his superior to remove him from public ministry and sequester him.
Bishop Williamson is of the opinion that gas chambers were not used in the extermination of Jews by the Nazis during World War II. He accepts the conclusions of a disputed scientific study known as the Leuchter Report. Consequently, His Excellency thinks the number of Jews killed in the camps may be closer to one and half million rather than six million. He said as much during an interview with Swedish television conducted in Germany.
This opinion is really what has made Richard Williamson a problem for the SSPX and its supporters who want a deal with the Vatican. Bishop Williamson has been tried and found guilty of Holocaust Denial under German law. He has, unofficially, been found guilty of being inconvenient to the SSPX and the Holy See.
His Excellency’s expulsion from the SSPX was consummated in October. It was immediately followed by an announcement from Vatican officials that negotiations with the SSPX were not at an end or a standstill, as formerly thought, but that patience was needed and hope for a reconciliation very much alive. Coincidence?
Jewish organizations that maintain relations with the Vatican denounced the lifting of the excommunications of the SSPX bishops, noting that a “holocaust denier” was among them. The pope’s spokesman said the Holy Father did not know of Bishop Williamson’s remarks at the time of the decree, implying that such knowledge may have affected the lifting of the excommunications.
Without weighing in on the merits of Bishop Williamson’s opinion about the Leuchter Report, is it not pertinent to ask what that opinion has to do with the Catholic Faith? Must one subscribe to a particular version of history to be qualified to practice an episcopal ministry within the Catholic Church? One might also ask: To what extent has ecclesial authority been extended de facto to German courts, Jewish organizations and the popular media?
Bishop Williamson was removed as rector of the SSPX seminary in South America and exiled to Wimbledon not for transgressing any statute of his priestly fraternity; not for any infraction of canon law; not for any public or private dissent from the dogmatic teaching of the Church. Bishop Williamson was stripped of his ministry and hidden from public view for being a public-relations problem.
Had His Excellency recanted his opinion, apologized to all who were ostensibly offended by it, paid his court fine and made his mea culpa to his superior, all might have been well. The problem is: He is an honest man.
He has not been persuaded that he is wrong in his opinion, and he knows he has not transgressed any discipline or doctrine of the Church. He has continued to speak his mind through his blog site. And he has been forthright in stating his position regarding a deal between the SSPX and the Vatican: He thinks the time has not yet arrived when the SSPX can trust the orthodoxy and honorable intentions of the Roman authorities.
He opposes the efforts in this direction of his superior, Bishop Fellay, and has called for new leadership in the SSPX. Whether this merits his expulsion from the fraternity is a question best left to the members of that fraternity. But the elimination of Bishop Williamson certainly relieves the SSPX of a public-relations problem and eases any possible deal that may be in the works with an intensely media-sensitive Roman Curia. Of course, what those who welcome Bishop Williamson’s expulsion may not realize is that the charge of anti-Semitism will continue to be leveled at the Catholic Church under every possible pretext, for it is the Faith itself that many Jews find offensive.
Anyone who knows Bishop Williamson realizes that his integrity is beyond question, as is his charity. However unpopular his opinions, they are not held out of malice, but out of honest conviction. He may be judged eccentric, even imprudent. But he is Catholic to the core. And this may be the heart of the problem. It is time it was acknowledged.
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