The Vatican misjudged the public mood over Richard Williamson, but secular commentators don't understand the idea of excommunication
Is the Pope a Catholic? In most circles, this is normally a joke. But for the Society of Saint Pius X, the question is not entirely academic. Indeed, practically the function of this particular group of traditionalists, otherwise known as the Lefebvrists, is to question the catholicity of the Catholic Church after the Second Vatican Council. Pope Benedict’s decision to lift their excommunication, for illegitimately ordaining four bishops in 1988, was a pastoral attempt to bring into the fold a group of the church’s most contumacious critics.
Unfortunately, one of the four bishops, Richard Williamson, had gone on the record on Swedish TV to deny that six million Jews died in the Nazi gas chambers. This was not, from him, anything new. His remarks only had resonance from their coincidence with the Pope’s decision to lift the excommunication. He is now reconsidering his views but it will, he says, “take time”. But the upshot of the interview, posted on YouTube and watched by millions, was instant and hostile. The decision to lift the ban was condemned by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and the Council of Jews in Germany, as well as by Chancellor Angela Merkel, who demanded that “[the Pope] should clarify unambiguously that there can be no denial”. In fact, Benedict had gone out of his way to do just that, urging the crowds in St Peter’s Square to show solidarity with “our [Jewish] brothers and sisters”, to reflect on “the unfathomable power of evil” revealed in the Holocaust and most particularly warning against “forgetfulness, denial or reductionism”.
Two things stand out from all this. One is the capacity of the Curia, the Vatican bureaucracy, to misjudge the public mood. That small and introspective little world has astonishingly slow response times, an inability to communicate effectively in English and an incapacity to take on board information that is accessible with two clicks of a computer, including Williamson’s record. As the distinguished German cardinal, Walter Kasper, put it, “there have certainly been errors in the way the Curia handled this”.
The other is an almost complete misunderstanding on the part of secular commentators of the nature of excommunication. Excommunication is to treat a baptised Catholic as a stranger in the Church in order to punish certain quite specific offences, chiefly against the Church. The offences once included duelling, heresy and reading forbidden books. It still includes any attempt by a fornicating cleric to absolve his partner of sin. What excommunication is not is an expression of general disapprobation by the Church of an individual and his views. You can be a mass murderer and not be excommunicated. But lifting this particular excommunication is not a done deal. Already, the Pope has made clear that Williamson cannot act as a bishop in the Church while holding his unacceptable views. And there remain real doubts about whether the Lefebvrist bishops accept the authority of the Second Vatican Council, including its Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, Nostra Aetate, which states: “Whoever despises or persecutes this [Jewish] people does injury to the Catholic Church.” The Society has now rejected Holocaust-denial and the Argentine seminary which had employed Williamson has sacked him. Ordinary Catholics, mortified by the whole affair, will probably consider that reconciliation with the traditionalists is more trouble than it’s worth.