"If in 1,800 years we clergy have failed to destroy the Church, do you really think that you'll be able to do it?"—Cardinal Ercole Consalvi to Napoleon Bonaparte, after the general had threatened to crush the Roman Catholic Church
We Catholics can use some more of Cardinal Consalvi’s combination of world-weary wit, humility and historical perspective around the Vatican these days—especially in light of the firestorm surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s removal of the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier.
I’m sure the Vatican wasn’t bargaining for that revelation when it rescinded the 1988 excommunication of Williamson and three other bishops ordained by Archbishop Marcel Lefebrve, who was expelled from the Church after refusing to accept Vatican II’s embrace of the non-Latin Mass and ecumenism.
Much of the reaction to Benedict’s move has been predictably hostile. (For just two reactions, taken at random, see this post from US News and World Report blogger Bonnie Erbe and atheist/contrarian-at-large Christopher Hitchens.)
But, no matter how overdrawn or even hysterical many of these conclusions may be about the Church’s or Benedict’s current stance toward anti-Semitism (for a discussion of why revoking excommunication does not involve “embracing” Williamson, see Fr. Thomas Reese’s cogent analysis), the pope and the entire hierarchy need to do some serious soul-searching about why this outreach to more traditionalist elements in the Church backfired so badly. In the final analysis, this wound was almost entirely self-inflicted.
I don’t mind the Church taking its sweet time in moving on an issue. But when it does move, it better get it right the first time and not scramble, the way it has, in the most embarrassing fashion, this past week.
Why didn’t more people at the Curia see this coming? More to the point, why didn’t someone notice the paper trail of comments by Archbishop Williamson?
I can see that the Vatican might have felt blindsided by Williamson’s latest ludicrous Holocaust comment, that “the historical evidence is strongly against -- is hugely against -- 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler." That interview on Swedish TV appeared, most inopportunely, on the day he and the three other Society of St. Pius X saw their excommunication removed.
But Williamson made similar comments dating back to the 1990s—one of many remarks that can only be regarded as evidence of psychological derangement. (Want more? How about his belief that the 9/11 attacks were inside jobs? Or that women should not wear pants or attend universities?)
How could these comments not have been noticed?
I’ve been puzzling this out the last several days, particularly in light of something that almost any Catholic can testify to here in the U.S.: the minute someone does something even slightly nontraditional or unorthodox (and I’m not talking here about, say, ordaining women priests, but even something like performing a song not regarded as part of the church’s hymnal)—somehow, somewhere, somebody is going to call the nearest archbishop’s office to complain.
Maybe it’s something in the water in Rome, with that la dolce vita lifestyle. It’s not like the U.S., where everything is wanted on the double and there are reporters from CNN, all the major networks, and every newspaper, not to mention 200 bloggers from every working print or broadcast journalist, knocking on the door of an archdiocesan spokesman the second there’s a problem.
In contrast, think of Pope John XXIII’s reported wisecrack to a reporter who inquired how many people worked at the Vatican: “About half,” he answered.
That same unhurried pace, that “We’re the Eternal City, don’t you know that?” vibe probably lay behind the Vatican’s languid response to the sexual-abuse scandal that rocked the Church in America a half dozen years ago.
I’m not one of those people who think that the Church should change its mind instantly or that it even must abide by whatever most of its members think at any one time. (Would you want interpretations of the Gospels based on what pollsters like Dick Morris think is advisable?)
There is a real danger to the Church shifting like a weathervane, a possibility imagined, to stunning effect, in Brian Moore’s 1972 novel Catholics and the excellent television adaptation of it the next year starring Trevor Howard, Martin Sheen and Cyril Cusack. Moore had broken away from the Churcyh of his youth. Yet in the alternative future he imagined, after “Vatican IV,” the Church has not only embraced the Mass said in the vernacular, but also rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation (here, understood to be symbolic) and become more of a social-revolutionary organization that one bent on the saving of souls.
And yet, you have to ask whether the Vatican’s extremely deliberative M.O. has not left Pope Benedict in the same position as Cardinal Wolsey’s in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII—i.e., lamenting that he has been left “naked to mine enemies.”
For reasons of organizational, national and personal history, this pope has no margin for error for either the larger issue of Vatican-Jewish relations or the particular issue of the Holocaust:
* The longstanding anti-Semitism passed down, well into the 20th century, to many members of the Church;
* The heavy responsibility of Germany—the pope’s native country—for the Holocaust; and
* Benedict’s membership in the Hitler Youth as a teenager.
It does not matter that Benedict and his family, by most reliable accounts, were anti-Nazi; that membership in the Hitler Youth was mandatory; that Benedict was drafted into the German armed forces against his will, when he was enrolled in a seminary; and that he deserted from the German Army the first chance he had. He will get no pass from large elements of the left, even if some of them (notably John Irving) gave one to novelist Gunter Grass for his patent dishonesty in hiding his SS membership for six decades after the war.
This latest controversy has led to a hitherto-unimagined finger-pointing about who was responsible for not alerting Benedict to Williamson’s long and bizarre history.
Even if you agree, though, that Benedict could have been prepared better for this, you’re left to ask why he keeps getting bogged down in brouhahas like this or the one involving Islam three years ago. He comes across as someone far more comfortable in the groves of academe than as the leader of a worldwide, ancient organization constantly under the microscope.
Consalvi’s statement at the top of this post is a reminder that the Church has been through difficulties as bad—or worse—than the current one. But it’s also a reminder that the highest reaches of the Church have greater opportunity to scandalize than any of its members.
Williamson—and, unfortunately, through his cluelessness, Benedict—have bewildered, embarrassed, and horrified many Catholics who had hoped to turn the page on the darkest chapter in the Church’s history: the anti-Semitism embodied in the deicide charges against the Jews. Why is the hierarchy quicker to find out about renegade ordinations of women priests than they are about something right under its nose: a real church renegade like Williamson who rejects Vatican II’s belated but welcome denunciation of anti-Semitism?