Pope Lifts Excommunication of Anti-Semitic Bishop


On Friday, Pope Benedict XVI announced that the Catholic Church would reintegrate four bishops that the church had excommunicated in 1988 because they were ordained by Archbishop Michel Lefebvre, the founder of a breakaway Traditionalist Catholic sect, Society of St. Pius X. Jewish groups around the world have protested the reinstatement of Richard Williamson, a Briton who denies the historical truth of the Holocaust. Liberal Catholics in the US are also waking up to the fact that Williamson apparently denies that terrorists flew planes into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. It’s one of the many anti-Semitic conspiracy theories to which Williamson subscribes. For a comprehensive run-down on Williamson’s anti-Semitism, see Professor Rebecca Lesses’ blog, which has a translation an article from the German newspaper Der Spiegel on some of the scary things that Williamson has said, including suggesting that conservative Catholics arm to fight other Catholics.

Though Williamson is the most colorfully, scarily anti-Semitic (and also anti-gay and apparently just generally prone to saying wildly offensive things) of these four bishops, it’s not surprising that followers of Archbishop Lefebvre hold extreme right-wing positions. The Catholic Church is not a monolithic body, any more than Judaism is a monolithic body. Even within a single country, leaders in the Church can take left, right or centrist positions. Lefebvre supported the Vichy collaboration with the Nazis, the right-wing neo-fascist politician Jean-Marie Le Pen and right-wing dictatorships in other countries as well. His Society of St. Pius X has long been a source of anti-Semitic rhetoric.

It’s difficult for me as a Jew to figure out why this Pope, who is the first to visit a US synagogue and only the second to visit a synagogue at all, would make such a decision. One would think that he would be eager to distance himself from his past, apparently forced, membership in the Hitler Youth. My guess is that he decided that it was more important to have unity within the Church, and possibly to have support for other traditionalist positions on gender and sexuality, than it was to maintain the positive relations with the Jewish community that he and his predecessor had so carefully fostered.

One Catholic blogger points out that though the bishops’ excommunication was reversed, the Pope has not reinstated them to “exercise their ministry,” and also has not said that the original excommunication was wrong. Still, it looks to those of us outside the Church like the Pope is throwing his relationships with Jews under a bus in order to promote Church unity.

I don’t regard this position as reflecting anything about the Catholic leaders here in the United States who have reached out to the Jewish community, nor indeed does it have anything to do with centrist Catholic clergy in other countries. I’m going to continue to forge alliances and build friendships with the devout Catholics in my life who have consistently reached out to me as a Jew.

15 thoughts on “Pope Lifts Excommunication of Anti-Semitic Bishop”

  • I still don’t understand the issues that the Jewish community is having with this. It is not news that SSPX rejects Vatican II and believes that the Jews are responsible for the death of Jesus. To me it IS news that websites for an organization with 600,000 to 1 million followers are taking DOWN antisemitic content. All over the world. I think we can all agree that this is not spontaneous. The ONLY reason this is happening is that these people REALLY want to be in Communion with Rome. More than they want to hate Jews. Why are we not saying “Yay, Pope!!”?

    These people will need to accept Vatican II, and the Nostra Aetate before they are accepted into Communion. All over the world, leaders of this organization will have to permanently take down antisemitic websites, stop teaching this to their congregations, and in their schools. How is that bad?

    Of course many of these people will still hate Jews in their hearts. So what? We are Jews, we judge people by their ACTIONS. Antisemitic websites aren’t going up, they are coming down.

    Furthermore, SSPX isn’t killing anyone, nor advocating killing anyone at the moment.

    We have REAL enemies out there. In Venezuela, the JCC was attacked TWICE, probably with government assistance. Chavez is a real enemy. Hamas has the death of all the Jews in the world, in writing, in it’s CHARTER. Ahmadinejad has said publically that Israel should disappear from history. Why are we wasting resources on the Catholic church?

  • One of the key positions of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his group, as well as many traditionalist Roman Catholic groups, is that Roman Catholicism must return to its religious orthodoxy, step away from what they consider the “failed” experiment of Vatican II, and resurrect the devotional spirituality that largely disappeared from Roman Catholic parishes a decade or so after that Synod, when its suggestions were put into practice.

    Another position, less well-known by Jews today, but correctly enunciated by another respondent above, is that the Vatican II Synod, called in the early 60’s to modernize and enunciate more clearly what the Roman Catholic Church practiced and believed, wiped the Roman Catholic slate clean in regard to pre-Vatican Catholicism’s negative attitude towards Jews and put Judaism on an equal footing with the Latin Church.

    It’s important to note that this change in attitude has not occured in most Protestant denominations, nor in the Orthodox Catholic communities, nor in many Eastern Rite Catholic communities, despite the fact that Eastern Rite Catholics are in communion with the Roman Pontiff. In addition, traditionalist Catholics have also largely ignored the new attitude towards the Jewish faith, as part of their stance towards Vatican II’s suggestions and their desire for the Roman Catholic Church to return to Pre-Vatican practice and belief.

    The Pope, when he was still a Cardinal, was a key supporter of the efforts of traditionalist Roman Catholics, who placed their hopes upon him to effect changes in the Church towards minimizing the demonization of orthodoxy, which had begun occuring after the Vatican II Synod, and towards allowing pre-Vatican liturgies (i.e. the Latin Tridentine Mass) and devotions to be practiced again without interference by the Bishops.

    It came as no surprise to me, then, that one of the first things the Pope effected in his Papacy was the lifting of the sanctions against the bishops ordained by Marcel LeFebvre, and against the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX). This is entirely in line with his previous pronouncements on the subject and in line with his strong stance in support of the return of the Roman Catholic Church to pre-Vatican II practice. I fully expect that he’ll later return the faculties to conduct Mass and celebrate the Sacraments to the SSPX bishops, and by extension, all SSPX priests, at a later date.

    Having dialogued with traditionalist Roman Catholic organizations personally, it also came as no surprise that one of the bishops, Bishop Williamson was vocal in his condemnation of the Jews and of the Holocaust. Although the other bishops weren’t vocal about these subjects, the SSPX and similar groups have retained the negative pre-Vatican Roman Catholic teachings about the Jews. Even though the other bishops have been silent on this, if they did vocalize the same inflamatory feelings, it would come as no surprise to me.

  • OK Ariaane,

    I’m not Catholic, but I do read. SSPX is still not in full communion. Some of the preists say that they will not accept Vatican II no matter what. Until they accept Vatican II they are not in full communion. The following quote is from Wikipedia, but you can find the information on Catholic websites too. I am no scholar in Canonical law, but I know that Vactican II is still in force. When the Pope expresses a hope that “full communion” will follow, I assume that there is not full communion now. I am not telling the Pope what to do, I am just trying to understand what he says.

    Lifting of the excommunication (Wikipedia)

    By a decree of 21 January 2009 (Protocol Number 126/2009), which was issued in response to a renewed request that Bishop Fellay made on behalf of all four bishops whom Lefebvre had consecrated on 30 June 1988, the Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, by the power granted to him by Pope Benedict XVI, remitted the excommunication that they had thereby incurred, and expressed the hope “that this step will be followed by the prompt attainment of full communion with the Church by the entire Fraternity of St. Pius X, thus demonstrating true faithfulness and true recognition of the magisterium and authority of Pope with the sign of visible unity”.[14] The decree was made public on 24 January 2009.

    The canonical situation of the four bishops thus became the same as that of the other clergy of the Society, who are suspended a divinis.[15]

    Also the pope has said:

    1] The Holy See lifted the excommunication in January 2009,[2] but declared that “in order to be admitted to episcopal functions within the Church, (he) will have to take his distance, in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion, from his position on the Shoah.”[3]

    So no performing Mass until he renounces his views of the Holocaust. Not because I say so, because the Holy See says so.

    I am not trying to offend anyone. I am trying to understand how the changes this Pope is making affects Catholic/Jewish relations. My understanding of this excommunication is that nothing is really changed in Vatican policy. I could be wrong, in subtle ways, the Pope may be moving toward a more traditional less cooperative policy. I still don’t think that lifting this particular excommunication of these four bishops changes much. I also am not sure why you are offended.

  • Phaco, as you openly admit- you don’t know much about the Catholic Church and her doctrine- so please don’t opine on matters you are ignorant about.

    As much as I dislike Williamson, being a black female Catholic myself, there is no evidence to show that Williamson is not in communion with Rome. He has NOT denied ANY doctrine, but has simply expressed disgusting opinions on world history (Catholic priests are entitled to do this, but ought to think about the scandal they can cause by doing so). Doing this does not render one excommunicated and you certainly have no right to dictate to Rome on how to manage her Bishops.

    And yes- you are misinformed. Greatly misinformed.

  • OK, now that you understand that by “reversal of 20 years of policy” I mean the lifting of the excommunication which took place in 1988, you should also take a closer look at the rest of my original post. First of all I don’t think it’s unreasonable to be concerned about the reversal of excommunication in order to reintegrate this traditionalist group, whose whole raison d’etre was to deplore Vatican II, and I linked to the source that prompted my concern about that issue. You can say that concern is misplaced, but I don’t think it’s completely unfounded.
    On the matter of R. Levin and R. Lookstein: Rabbi Haskel Lookstein was censured by other Orthodox Jewish leaders for appearing in an interfaith context at the National Cathedral during the presidential inauguration festivities. (Not by Catholics, Episcopalians or any other denomination of Christian.) I feel frustrated that Rav Levin has, in the article you cite, taken other Jews to task for not liking to see anti-Semitic church figures reintegrated into the Church. Why shouldn’t we feel that way?
    Apparently Levin has sympathy with the Pope’s desire to privilege the right over the left in internal religious matters. Well, fine, but I don’t necessarily have to like that line of thinking. I don’t privilege the right over the left, the Orthodox over other movements (or the right wing of Orthodoxy over the left!) in Jewish internal religious matters. It’s not a legitimate argument, to me.
    Starting a little bit before I was born and during the entire course of my lifetime, the Roman Catholic Church and many other Christian churches have reached out to Jews and worked to overcome the impact of centuries of anti-Jewish theological positions. These were changes, too, and I can’t think that change is bad.
    I hope we don’t seem to be anti-Catholic on this site! That would be very bad, since we know that most of the Jews who marry non-Jews in the United States, marry Catholics.

  • I don’t know much about Catholic doctrine.

    My understanding is that Williamson is a loon. He hates communists, freemasons, Jews, women who wear pants or go to school, and Julie Andrews in no particular order.

    Excommunication or no, Williamson is not in Communion with the Catholic church. He can not serve as a bishop or a priest. He can not perform Mass.

    The Pope has made clear that Williamson will never be in Communion until he renounces his Holocaust denier views.

    Everyone in the church is embarrassed by Williamson and every superior he has has told him to shut up. He has lost his rectory. He has been asked to apologize. More than anything I am sure the Pope wishes that Williamson did not exist.

    The Pope is trying to bring a fringe group back into the mainstream, he can’t undo any of the excommunications unless he undoes them all. Williamson wasn’t excommunicated for antisemitism, he was excommunicated because he was made a bishop by the wrong guy. Everybody else who was made a bishop by that guy is also being…umm…Unexcommunicated.

    Williamson is scary, I have seen no evidence that the Pope is antisemitic, or that he is changing policy in any drastic way. Maybe I am just misinformed.

  • Sorry, I checked the 1988 date. This refers to the excommunication of bishops consecrated by Archbishop LeFebvre – I didn’t remember the date. I now understand that you were referring to this reversal not to the reforms since Vatican II. Good. But please still read my comments – thinking about this it may be because the Church is so different from other faiths in this regard. We have the Cathechism of the Catholic Church, the Bible and the Magisterium and this contains our teachings. One cannot disagree with these and be a Catholic in good standing. This is different from other faiths that allow much more dissent. So I understand why you would think that because SSPX was invited back their beliefs would be valid. Not the case. They conflict with the Church in some cases and in others they do not. In the cases in which they conflict they will be censored and have been publically refuted in this specific case, very clearly. But they do have some other good points. If the Pope does not have authority over them he cannot correct them. So I am confident this is a good thing. He will correct them. Remember, he lived in Germany during Nazism and he hates anti-Semitism. Best regards,

  • Hi Ruth,
    Rabbi Yehuda Levin is the Rabbi and founder of Congregation Mevakshei Hashem (Those Who Seek the Lord) Synagogue in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. He is also spokesman for the Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the U.S, the Rabbinical Alliance of America, and The Union of Orthodox Rabbis of the US & Canada.

    A student of Rabbi Avigdor Miller, he has received praise by some Orthodox rabbis for defending tradition. He’s also a member of the advisory committee of the organization Jews Against Anti-Christian Defamation. This is all I know about him.

    Wow, sorry you are so closed to hearing about the internal workings of the Catholic Church. The Catholic Church is pretty much the ONLY Christian church that does not have elements of anti-Semitism and teaches that, as Pope Benedict XVI, has stated, “It is evident that we come from the roots of Israel and that their (the Jewish) Bible is our Bible and that Judaism is not just one of many religions but is the foundation, the root of our faith.” Catholics are taught to respect Jews as their elder brothers and that God has chosen the Jewish people specially. As a Catholic who converted from Protestantism, I can tell you with authority that most Protestants even though they don’t admit it, DO NOT teach this in their church schools. Most Protestants teach that Jewish people should be converted. Catholic priests SPECIFICALLY teach us that we are not to fool around with that type of thing, that God has a plan for the Jewish people. So I would not be afraid of this reintegration. The SSPX is a minority – the Pope and the others will keep them in line if any of them starts any anti-Semitic stuff.

    Agreed, Williamson is a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite, but I wouldn’t worry about the whole SSPX movement is not entirely “far to the right of the rest of the Church Which is why they were excommunicated, 20 years ago–and that was a policy that was reversed.” To fully understand this, one needs to get deeply into the history of the Catholic Church, which understandably most Jewish people have not done.

    Sorry, I don’t know which policy you refer to, from 1988. I understand why this person scares you – he would scare me too if I were Jewish :). But I don’t agree that “making things right with the Jewish community isn’t as important to the Pope as bringing in these right-wingers”. I think Pope Benedict’s actions have shown that he wants to have a close and respectful relationship with the Jewish people.

    Since you do not “care one way or the other whether you have well-integrated right and left in the Catholic Church” perhaps you do not care that what you call “not left wing” people are openly disobeying the teachings of the Catholic Church, which is not like some Jewish denominations I have learned about (please correct me if I am wrong) that allow more leeway with what can be accepted and what cannot (i.e, don’t have a central authority). Since the Church has so many members all over the world, it needs order and an organization to ensure its teachings are not perverted. If its teachings are perverted, especially core teachings, it will cease to exist. There is a lot of rebellion going on in the US – it’s OK if people like Nancy Pelosi want to disagree with the Church but she CANNOT claim to represent it when Rome has specifically told her she does not. Logically, the Church must look to ensure her survival as priority before her relations with other groups but I don’t think this is the Pope’s intention. The strategy is more that the Church can influence these people more if they are reintegrated. Don’t worry – they will squash any anti-Semitic tendencies.

    Regarding, “Further, if Rabbi Haskel Lookstein isn’t supposed to appear in an interfaith service in the National Cathedral in Washington, where does this Hasidic rabbi get off speaking ex cathedra (so to speak) about the internal workings of the Catholic Church?” Wow, more hostility. This is my take. The National Cathedral in Washington is Episcopalian – the Catholic Church DOES NOT agree with Episcopal doctrines. I’m sorry, I don’t know Rabbi Lookstein, but it would appear to me that this is an example of Protestants excluding Jews. Another good example of that is Obama excluding BOTH Catholics and Jews at his ceremonies and including controversial Episcopalians. Let’s try to stick together against common enemies.

    Regarding “How left-wing does a Jewish person have to be to be dismayed when the Catholic Church reinstates a Holocaust denier?” you are misinterpreting this. I am not saying being left-wing has to do with this. It has to do with disobeying the rules of the Catholic Church.

    I hope this helps. I have noticed there is a bit of anti-Catholic bias on this site which is discouraging since it is supposed to be for interfaith couples and in my experience Catholics are more accepting of Jews than Protestants and even most of the rabbis I spoke to when I married my Reform Jewish husband. The Catholic Church has no restrictions against intermarriage, either by a rabbi or by a priest. We found most rabbis less open. So please try to understand that the official teaching of the Church is not anti-semitic. If there are some antisemites this is probably due to the fact that when you are dealing with billions of members it’s a statistical probability. Just as it’s a statistical probability that you will have people disobeying the Church regarding abortion, etc. But in neither case does that make them correct.

  • I’ve never heard of Rabbi Yehudah Levin before today–I saw the article you quote this morning. I agree with Levin about at least one thing, as I said in my post, that Pope Benedict has a history of interfaith dialogue with Jews, of visiting synagogues, including a synagogue in Germany, and of supporting the previous Pope in his outreach to Jews.

    But this guy Williamson is a Holocaust denier and an anti-Semite, and the SSPX movement seems to be far to the right of the rest of the Church. Which is why they were excommunicated, 20 years ago–and that was a policy that was reversed. Eh? That was the policy I meant, the one from 1988, not the one from Vatican II onward. I’m disappointed that making things right with the Jewish community isn’t as important to the Pope as bringing in these right-wingers–not because I care one way or the other whether you have well-integrated right and left in the Catholic Church, but because these guys SCARE me as a Jew.

    Further, if Rabbi Haskel Lookstein isn’t supposed to appear in an interfaith service in the National Cathedral in Washington, where does this Hasidic rabbi get off speaking ex cathedra (so to speak) about the internal workings of the Catholic Church? How left-wing does a Jewish person have to be to be dismayed when the Catholic Church reinstates a Holocaust denier?

  • Hello Ruth,
    With all due respect, he is not reversing 20 years of Church policy. He was instrumental in Pope John Paul II’s policy making.
    Please read this article quoting Rabbi Yehuda Levin in which he supports Pope Benedict’s move to reverse the excommunication.
    Left Wing of the Catholic Church Destroying the Faith Says Orthodox Rabbi
    By Hilary White, Rome correspondent
    ROME, February 11, 2009 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The dissident, leftist movement in the Catholic Church over the last forty years has severely undermined the teaching of the Catholic Church on the moral teachings on life and family, a prominent US Orthodox rabbi told LifeSiteNews.com. Rabbi Yehuda Levin, the head of a group of 800 Orthodox rabbis in the US and Canada, also dismissed the accusations that the Holy See had not sufficiently distanced itself from the comments made by Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) on the Holocaust.

    “I support this move” to reconcile the traditionalist faction in the Church, he said, “because I understand the big picture, which is that the Catholic Church has a problem. There is a strong left wing of the Church that is doing immeasurable harm to the faith.”

    Rabbi Levin said that he understands “perfectly” why the reconciliation is vital to the fight against abortion and the homosexualist movement.

    “I understand that it is very important to fill the pews of the Catholic Church not with cultural Catholics and left-wingers who are helping to destroy the Catholic Church and corrupt the values of the Catholic Church.” This corruption, he said, “has a trickle-down effect to every single religious community in the world.”

    “What’s the Pope doing? He’s trying to bring the traditionalists back in because they have a lot of very important things to contribute the commonweal of Catholicism.

    “Now, if in the process, he inadvertently includes someone who is prominent in the traditionalist movement who happens to say very strange things about the Holocaust, is that a reason to throw out the baby with the bathwater and start to condemn Pope Benedict? Absolutely not.”

    During a visit to Rome at the end of January, Rabbi Levin told LifeSiteNews.com that he believes the media furore over the lifting of the excommunications of the four bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X is a red herring. He called “ridiculous” the accusations that in doing so Pope Benedict VXI or the Catholic Church are anti-Semitic and described as “very strong” the statements distancing the Holy See and the Pope from Williamson’s comments.

    Rabbi Levin was in Rome holding meetings with high level Vatican officials to propose what he called a “new stream of thinking” for the Church’s inter-religious dialogue, one based on commonly held moral teachings, particularly on the right to life and the sanctity of natural marriage.

    “The most important issue,” he said, is the work the Church is doing “to save babies from abortion, and save children’s minds, and young people’s minds, helping them to know right and wrong on the life and family issues.”

    “That’s where ecumenism and inter-religious dialogue has to go.”

    Although numbers are difficult to determine, it is estimated that the Society of St. Pius X has over a million followers worldwide. The traditionalist movement in the Catholic Church is noted for doctrinal orthodoxy and enthusiasm not only for old-fashioned devotional practices, but for the Church’s moral teachings and opposition to post-modern secularist sexual mores. Liberals in the Church, particularly in Europe, have bitterly opposed all overtures to the SSPX and other traditionalists, particularly the Pope’s recent permission to revive the traditional Latin Mass.

    The Vatican announced in early January that, as part of ongoing efforts to reconcile the breakaway group, the 1988 decree of excommunication against the Society had been rescinded. Later that month, a Swedish television station aired an interview, recorded in November 2008, in which Bishop Richard Williamson, one of the four leaders of the Society, said that he did not believe that six million Jews were killed in the Nazi death camps during World War II.

    At that time, the media erupted with protests and accusations that the Catholic Church, and especially Pope Benedict XVI, are anti-Semitic.

    Rabbi Levin particularly defended Pope Benedict, saying he is the genius behind the moves of the late Pope John Paul II to reconcile the Church with the Jewish community.

    “Anyone who understands and follows Vatican history knows that in the last three decades, one of the moral and intellectual underpinnings of the papacy of Pope John Paul II, was Cardinal Ratzinger.

    “And therefore, a lot of the things that Pope John Paul did vis-à-vis the Holocaust, he [Benedict] might have done himself, whether it was visiting Auschwitz or visiting and speaking in the synagogues or asking forgiveness. A lot of this had direct input from Cardinal Ratzinger. Whoever doesn’t understand this doesn’t realise that this man, Pope Benedict XVI, has a decades-long track record of anti-Nazism and sympathy for the Jews.”

    Read related LifeSiteNews.com coverage:

    Rabbi Speaks on Pope Benedict Controversy: Leftist Catholics Using Jews to Attack the Pope

  • Hi Lisa,
    Williamson gave his Holocaust-denial interview with Swedish television last year, according to the article in Der Spiegel that Professor Lesses quotes on her blog. (I’ve linked it, above.) This was not the first anti-Semitic thing that Williamson said. Of couse we all realize that the Pope wants to reinclude this faction for internal church reasons that have nothing to do with whether he personally or the church as a body support anti-Semitism. I think that’s actually the problem–mending fences with Jews as a people is not important enough to cause this Pope to pause before reversing 20 years of church policy.

  • Hello, Please note that the Pope’s reversal of the excommunication occurred BEFORE the anti-semitic remarks were made and please note that the Catholic Church has issued press releases making it abundantly clear that the Church and the Pope do NOT agree with antisemitism. The Archbishop’s order has also been instructed to NOT promote this type of ideology. My understanding is that the Pope lifted the excommunication to promote unity with Catholics who prefer traditional practices such as the mass in Latin, which the Pope also reinstated as an optional way of celebrating the mass.
    If you have any questions about this I would recommend ewtn.com, specifically the World Over Live news program. 🙂

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