Sunday, June 28, 2009

In the Matter of Bishop Williamson

I received an extraordinary letter yesterday that coincidentally concerned the very issue I wish to raise with you this week. The letter—a real one, by the way, not an e-mail—came from the Most Reverend William F. Murphy, the current bishop of the diocese of Rockville Centre, which is the seat of the Roman Catholic community on Long Island. And the issue both on the bishop’s mind and on my own mind is the announcement by Pope Benedict XVI last week that he had “lifted the excommunication” of four bishops ordained by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, founder of the reactionary splinter group called the Society of St. Pius X. Ordinarily, this would be considered by everybody, most definitely including ourselves, as an internal matter, as something destined to be of interest only to Catholics or to historians of the Catholic Church. The inclusion of Bishop Richard Williamson among the four, however, guaranteed that no one was going to consider this merely a benign effort on the pope’s part to heal the most important of the internal schisms that has divided the Catholic Church in recent years. And it was to address that specific aspect of the issue that Bishop Murphy wrote to me (and, I’m sure, to the other rabbis of Long Island) and that I am writing to you today.

Bishop Williamson is certain that the Shoah never happened. Just a few days ago, he spoke on Swedish television and publicly confirmed his opinion that “there was not one Jew killed in the gas chambers” during the Second World War. (At most, he allowed, a few hundred thousand Jews were murdered.) The bishop holds other opinions that will mark him in the minds of most as a seriously deranged person—he is also of the belief, for example, that the American government masterminded the attacks on 9/11 to lay the groundwork for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, that Protestants get their marching orders directly from the devil, and that at least part of the world’s woes derive from the fact that women are permitted to go to college—but, as Bishop Murphy acknowledged in his letter to me, this controversy is only tangentially about Bishop Williamson himself. (There are, after all, crazy people within every faith group, so why should the Catholics be exempt?) What this is really about is the Pope’s attitude towards the Jewish people, and about the quality of the advice he receives before making major decisions. It is about the future of the Vatican II reforms of the early 1960’s and, in particular, about the future of Nostra Aetate, the 1965 declaration promulgated by Pope Paul VI that firmly and unequivocally repudiated the charge of deicide that had prompted so much anti-Semitic fury of the centuries and which formally rejected anti-Semitism itself. And it is about the future of Catholic-Jewish relations as we head into the twenty-first Christian century.

Layered over all of this is the pope’s own past. The first unambiguously German pope since the eleventh century, Benedict brings his own baggage to work each day, including his own membership both in the Hitler Youth (which he joined in 1941 and which, to be fair, all boys his age were obliged to join) and the German Anti-Aircraft Corps (into which, also to be fair, he was drafted at age sixteen, and which he subsequently deserted when the American Army arrived in his hometown of Marktl am Inn in Bavaria). We were told, and vigorously, that the man had nothing but regrets about his peripheral involvement in the Nazi cause, that he had gone almost directly into the seminary after the war and devoted his life to religion and peace, and that, if anything, we could be certain that a German pope with Benedict’s past would be more, not less, sensitive to Jews and to Jewish causes.

And, indeed, many things happened subsequent to his election to the papacy in 2005 that supported these contentions. Shortly after his election, for example, the pope visited a synagogue in Cologne, where he referred to Nazi ideology as a form of insanity and committed himself to building an even stronger bridge of friendship between the Catholic church and the Jewish people. In 2006, he visited Auschwitz and gave a speech that was very well received in our circles, one in which he spoke forcefully about the need for the Church always to respect its Jewish roots and, by extensions, Judaism itself. Things started to go a bit less well in 2007, when Benedict authorized the use of certain prayers in Catholic worship that called openly for the conversion of the Jews “from darkness to Catholicism.” And it was the Pope’s decision to seek the canonization of wartime Pope Pius XII, who has been widely condemned for his silence and inaction during the years of the Shoah, that had until last month proven to be his most controversial act with respect to Catholic-Jewish relations. (For those of you who wish to know more about the issues surrounding Pope Pius’ role during the Holocaust, I recommend Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s book, A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair, published by Vintage Books in 2003, or Michael Phayer’s book, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 1930-1965, published by Indiana University Press in 2001). But the rehabilitation of Bishop Williamson has overtaken the canonization issue as the Pope’s biggest misstep with respect to Catholic-Jewish relations.

The story continues to unfold. Just yesterday, the Vatican Secretariat of State, speaking for the Pope, insisted that Bishop Williamson “must absolutely, unequivocally and publicly distance himself from his positions on the Shoah” if he wants to serve as a bishop in the Roman Catholic church. That sounds right to me, as did the secretariat’s contention that, in fact, Pope Benedict had been unaware of Bishop Williamson’s views when he revoked his excommunication. How that could possibly be true, I have no idea. (His views are hardly a secret, as a simple Google search of the bishop’s name will make abundantly clear.) But even if Pope Benedict is merely seeking to save face by feigning ignorance, it is a satisfying feint if it implies that the only way he found it possible to excuse this kind of misstep is precisely by insisting that he had no real idea what kind of man he was rehabilitating.

In the interim, the world-wide chorus of condemnation that this affair has occasioned has been extremely satisfying, including not least of all the comments of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who took the almost unprecedented step of demanding that the Pope issue a clear statement repudiating any attempts to argue that the story of the Shoah is a fabrication or that millions of European Jews were not annihilated during the Second World War. For his part, the Pope sounds chastened and just the other day referred openly to his sense of “full and indisputable solidarity” with the Jewish people.” That was provisionally soothing to hear, but it was only with yesterday’s announcement that Bishop Williamson must publicly retract his statements if he wishes to serve as a bishop within the church that the Pope’s sentiments acquired the force necessary actually to assuage the unhappiness and suspicion that this whole affair has occasioned. We seem to be on the right track. But we must also continue to monitor the story, just as we must never forget that any attempt to deny the Shoah is by definition fueled solely by anti-Semitism of the most rabid and destructive kind, not by serious academic arguments about this or that specific detail regarding the events of the Second World War.

And it was about this issue that Bishop Murphy took it upon himself to write to me and, by extension, to all of you as well. His thoughts on the matter, which are printed in this week’s edition of The Long Island Catholic newspaper, contain these words, “The anti-Semitism of Bishop Williamson remains for me personally an ugly fact. As a bishop, I apologize to all our Jewish brothers and sisters who once again have been deeply hurt and offended by the most deeply rooted prejudice of the western world, anti-Semitism. It is always sinful and, coming from the mouth of a bishop, even a schismatic one, makes me ashamed.” And Bishop Murphy finishes with the pledge “to do all I can by prayer and deed to deepen the bonds between Catholics and Jews with full respect for Jewish faith and traditions and full sensitivity for a history that is forever scarred by the Shoah and for far too long marked by countless acts of anti-Semitism.”

Those are sincere words, I believe, and it is very moving to me personally (and, I hope, to you as well), to see a Catholic bishop so shaken by a controversy within the Church as to feel called upon to address himself to our community not indirectly by preaching to his own people about the matter but by writing directly to us, by addressing us personally. Bishop Murphy, who has served as bishop on Long Island since 2001, is the same age as Bishop Williamson. But what a world of difference between these two men. One is demented by his hatred of the Jewish people, while the other is driven by his personal piety to attempt to heal the pain we all feel when the Church equivocates even slightly regarding issues relating to Judaism, Israel, or Jewishness itself. One is a man who can detect the malign influence of the devil everywhere but in his own heart, and the other is a man willing to pledge himself personally to try to lessen the scourge of anti-Semitism both within and outside the Church. One embodies personally our people’s worst fears about the virulence of latent bigotry within the great institutions of modern Christianity, and the other embodies our fondest hopes for a future characterized by mutual respect for each other’s spiritual paths and the nobility of shared endeavor in our common effort to make our world into a place of decency and goodness. I was very gratified to receive Bishop Murphy’s letter, and I feel that we are fortunate and blessed to have him in place as the leader of the Catholic Church on Long Island. (February 6, 2009)

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