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Pope welcomes 'holocaust denier' back to the fold

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William Crawley | 23:04 UK time, Saturday, 24 January 2009

com0612c.jpgPope Benedict has outraged Jewish leaders by welcoming back into the Catholic fold a previously excommunicated bishop who is said to be a holocaust denier. Richard Williamson was automaticatically excommunicated in 1988 when he was consecrated a bishop by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) without papal approval.

Update 26 January: Pope Benedict has expressed his solidarity with Jewish people, whom he called "out brothers of the first covenant", and said that the Holocaust "should be a warning for everyone against forgetting, denying or diminishing its significance". He clearly had Bishop Williamson in his sites, but he stopped shop of challenging the bishop by name or more directly.

In a recent television interview (watch here or here), Bishop Williamson denies that six million Jews were killed in the holocaust, and claims that no Jews were killed at all in gas chambers. In fact, he says, there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. The convicted holocaust-denier David Irving makes the same claims, and the bishop draws on some of the same alleged "evidence" presented in Irving's writings. In this interview, Bishop Williamson acknowledges that making this case "is against the law in Germany". Last year, The Catholic Herald reported that Williamson has "endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic forgery that enjoys widespread currency in neo-Nazi circles." Sermons and addresses by the bishop are available on YouTube in which he defends 9/11 conspiracy theories. You get a sense of the bishop's liturgical style here.

Williamson is one of four bishops consecrated without pontifical mandate in 1988 by Lefebvre. The pope's decision to rescind the excommunication on all four bishops is part of an attempt to rehabilitate Lefebvre's ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X.

The Vatican is clear that the lifting of the decree of excommunication should not be interpreted as an affirmation of the personal views of any of these bishops. Theologically, this is certainly the case. Being wrong about the history of the holocaust is not a basis for excommunication according to canon law, and the original excommunication had nothing to do with holocaust claims, but with church laws on mandates for the consecration of bishops. Thus, it is quite consistent with lifting the excommunication decree that the pope issue a statement denouncing the Bishop Williamson's views in the separate matter of holocaust denial.

We wait to see if Pope Benedict is prepared to make such a statement. In the meantime, Jewish groups remain deeply offended and deeply suspicious of this development.


  • Comment number 1.

    If you don't mind me saying so, William, your tone of late is becoming more and more anti-Catholic. You know that this story is a very complex one; you know the history of excommunications, yet you chose to lead with this headline, as if the Pope has gone out of his way to welcome a holocaust denier - it's a shameful piece of tabloid journalism and I expect better from you.

  • Comment number 2.

    If Pope Rottweiler is looking to make enemies for the Catholic church he is succeeding brilliantly. Arabs, homosexuals, vicitms of sexual mollestation by priests are just some he has alienated. And now Jews. Even Catholics often find it hard to support his views and try to make a distinction between their Catholic faith and the Papacy. It remains to be seen what the Jews will do in this latest insult to those not of rottweiler's views but we saw what just happened to the Palestinians. Is the Pope inviting some form of retribution by people who feel themselves under siege already? Would Williamson be arrested, tried, and jailed if he advocates his views where they are illegal to voice in places such as Austria?

  • Comment number 3.

    Smasher- you're nothing if not predictable!

    All we really need to do, of course, is arrest this priest for his views and charge him for them. With any luck, he'll end up in prison and we'll never have to hear anything we disagree with ever again.

  • Comment number 4.

    Smasher's paranoia is up early today. In fact, this post reports this story much in the same way that the Times, The US press and others have reported it. With one difference I can see: Will actually notes theologically points that are sympathetic to Pope Benedict's decision at the end of the post. He explains that there's a difference between excommunication and any moral judgement one might make about Williamson's views. This makes the post more balanced than most journalistic summaries of the case. Smasher, let's not shout anti-Catholic every time a journalist reports a controversy about the Vatican or the Pope. It gets tiresome to read your defensiveness. This is not even about catholicism ultimately, but about whether the pope made a good decision in overturning excommunications. Catholics and catholic theologians will have different reactions to that question without feeling the need to change church!

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    Very ill advised move IMO on the pope's part. While antisemitism may be resurgent in Europe and socially acceptable there, it is fading fast in America where much of the Catholic Church's money comes from. The once reactionary Christian right, a bastion of antisemitism many decades ago is now Israel's new found best friend, its partner in defending "the Judeo-Christisn" culture, heritige and the future rapture and second coming American evangelical Christians think is right around the corner.

    American Catholics still having a hard time with the sexual mollestation of children by priests and the coverup cases will only have even more difficulty when it has to grapple with this too.

    The pope in one stroke seems to have tossed aside whatever progress has been made in improving the difficult relationships it has had with Jews for a millenium. Expressing Williamson's views is also illegal in some European countries and can result in imprisonment.

    The fact that there has not been widespread outrage across Europe is evidence of the divergence of culture between its still strongly racist and ethnocentric culture and the increasingly integrated and far more tolerant culture in the United States. One more wedge issue that exascerbates the growing tensions between the diverging civilizations.

  • Comment number 7.

    I presume, John, you were being ironic, since you are one of the stongest defenders of freedom of expression on this blog.

  • Comment number 8.

    Smasher- you got it!

  • Comment number 9.

    Nothing could better illustrate one of the points I have been arguing on the Belting the Pope thread than this decision. It perfectly exemplifies the dangers of, as Bernard put it, setting aside a class of believer "to ask and answer questions". Unless our asking and answering of questions is grounded in our experience of living daily in the real world of ordinary people we are utterly wasting our time. This is why I think most philosophy (not to mention so-called Theology) is ultimately nothing but a combination of the worst elements of dross and spume.

    Canon law is a vast edifice hiding Christ from anyone who looks into it - you cannot see the cross for the clauses. In this instance, unconscious of or unconcerned at the message that the action might send to the world at large, it has been used to justify the rehabilitation of an unrepentant vile creature.

    While it is good that Benedict can forgive someone who "belted" his predecessors pretty soundly, offering fellowship in Christ to someone of Williamson's views shows as clearly as anything I can imagine not just how far removed from normal perceptions and priorities the hierarchy of the Roman Church is but also how vastly immoral it is.

    I really wonder where Benedict's pontificate is going. Not long ago there was a thread here about an Anglican vicar who was removing a crucifix from outside his church. It doesn't appear he was alone: Benedict has done something very similar. Any recent pictures I have seen of him show him holding a rather vulgar, gaudy, shiny, gilded cross instead of the wonderful crucifix of the suffering Christ favoured by his recent predecessors. I wonder if there are spread bets going on in the Vatican as to how long it will be before we see him in the mantum.

  • Comment number 10.

    Calm yourself portwyne. Pope Benedict is not rehabilitating Williamson's holocaust denials. This move by the pope has nothing to do with holocaust denial, as Will explains. It's about bringing back into the fold 600,000 catholics in exile as part of the SSPX. The rescinding of the excommunication of the four bishops makes that possible. It's sad that one of those bishops is now engaging in holocaust-denying, but that's not the pope's fault. I also agree that the Pope should put out a public statement repudiating holocaust denial as a sin. It is a sin, in my judgment: against the truth, against justice, against mercy and compassion, and against the jews. Holocaust denial is a form of anti-semitism. I would like the pope to say that and condemn it. But excommunication is something entirely different. Even holocaust deniers can find forgiveness when they repent of their sin.

  • Comment number 11.

    Tut Tut.

    So we have had many a Prince of the Church putting their foot in it. The Bishop of Motherwell comes to mind.

  • Comment number 12.

    Ratzinger, the current pope, grew up when Ratti was pope. Ratti was on good terms with Fascist and Nazi leaders. He struck the deal with Mussolini in 1929 which saw the creation of the Vatican state. He signed the Concordat with Hitler in 1933 by which Hitler granted the Catholic church the right to run its own schools in Nazi Germany. Ratti praised Hitler as a staunch defender of European civilisation against the advance of communism.

    Ratti died in 1939. His successor, Pacelli, went to Madrid that same year to congratulate Franco after the latter had slaughtered his way to power in Spain with Hitler's help (bombing Guernica).

    Perhaps we should see Ratzinger's actions with regard to Holocaust denial in a wider context.

  • Comment number 13.

    I can understand the Jewish population being annoyed by this man. He must be a Nazi hiding behind the uniform of the Roman Catholic Church. His ex-communication should be permanent. It is people like him that cause so much unrest in the modern world

  • Comment number 14.

    How ironic, the BBC hosting a discussion on whether Bishop Williamson is anti-semitic!! I wonder if any Palestinians in Gaza will post a comment on the subject. I digress. Ratzinger welcomes back these four barmy bishops and their 'alleged' 600 000 followers because he is one of them. He is on record as saying that the catholic church must grow smaller in order to "purify" itself. He cares not a jot about the much larger number of catholics he has alienated and who are leaving the church, appalled and embarrassed by this man's 'Naziology.' In seminary, we referred to, the then Cardinal Ratzinger, as E.T. We smiled as people quizzed us, "He doesnt look like E.T. at all, Mother Teresa looks more like E.T." they argued. They missed the point. E.T. was a being from another planet who knew very little about life on earth!!
    I never thought I would ever say this but its true, The President of the United States of America is behaving more like a Pope than the Pope is. Go figure.

  • Comment number 15.

    It was an unfortunate incident but the BBC could have been more balanced in its reporting if it had read this from the superior of the Bishops who have been allowed back in:

    Statement of His Excellency Bernard Fellay, Superior of the Fraternity of St. Pius X

    We have become aware of an interview released by Bishop Richard Williamson, a member of our Fraternity of St. Pius X, to Swedish television. In this interview, he expressed himself on historical questions, and in particular on the question of the genocide against the Jews carried out by the Nazis.

    It’s clear that a Catholic bishop cannot speak with ecclesiastical authority except on questions that regard faith and morals. Our Fraternity does not claim any authority on other matters. Its mission is the propagation and restoration of authentic Catholic doctrine, expressed in the dogmas of the faith. It’s for this reason that we are known, accepted and respected in the entire world.

    It’s with great sadness that we recognize the extent to which the violation of this mandate has done damage to our mission. The affirmations of Bishop Williamson do not reflect in any sense the position of our Fraternity. For this reason I have prohibited him, pending any new orders, from taking any public positions on political or historical questions.

    We ask the forgiveness of the Supreme Pontiff, and of all people of good will, for the dramatic consequences of this act. Because we recognize how ill-advised these declarations were, we can only look with sadness at the way in which they have directly struck our Fraternity, discrediting its mission.

    This is something we cannot accept, and we declare that we will continue to preach Catholic doctrine and to administer the sacraments of grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

  • Comment number 16.

    santoeusebio if that letter from Bishop Fellay is genuine, look carefully at it. The bishop makes not effort challenge holocaust-denial, and he does that even accept that there WAS a genocide against the Jews (only a 'question' about a genocide). The Bishop is clear that he's worried about how all this will affect his fraternity's relationship with Rome. He's only, according to this letter (if it is genuine), seeking to address the issue of relations with the Vatican, not relations with the Jews. That is both surprising and deeply concerning.


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