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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.
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