BY MARK GREAVES
POPE BENEDICr XVI’s decision to lift the excommunications of the four Lefebvrist bishops has provoked a severe backlash from Jewish groups.
The Vatican announcement came only days after one of the bishops, Bishop Richard Williamson, denied the Holocaust on Swedish television.
Rabbis, Jewish groups and Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See expressed dismay that Benedict XVI was bringing Bishop Williamson back into the Church.
Catholic bishops welcomed the lifting of the excommuni cations but strongly condemned Bishop Williamson’s comments on the Holocaust. The English and Welsh bishops said they were “totally unacceptable” while Vatican Cardinal Walter Kasper described them as “stupid”.
British Rabbi Jonathan Romain said the Pope’s decision threatened to put 45 years of harmonious CatholicJewish relations in jeopardy. Those years, he said, had brought “a level of warmth and harmony that no one would have dreamt possible this time last century”, adding: “The thought that this genuine progress might be reversed is desperately worrying.” The Pope’s refusal to condemn Bishop Williamson’s views on the Holocaust, he said, was either “gross insensitivity” or “a policy statement heralding a return to religious arrogance in which dialogue is replaced by deafness”.
Mordechai Lewy, Israel’s ambassador to the Holy See, said: “The eagerness to bring a Holocaust denier back into the Church will cast a shadow on relations between Jews and the Catholic Church.” Rabbi David Rosen, head of inter-religious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, accused the Pope of abandoning John Paul II’s policy of rejecting anti-Semitism. “The late Pope John Paul II called anti-Semitism a sin against God and man,” he said. “The denial of the overwhelmingly detailed documentation of the Shoah is anti-Semitism at its most blatant.
“In welcoming an open Holocaust denier into the Catholic Church without any recantation on his part, the Vatican has made a mockery of John Paul II’s impressive repudiation and condemnation of anti-Semitism.” The Pope’s decision to lift the excommunications has polarised opinion inside the Church.
Some Catholics have expressed joy at the prospect of thousands of estranged faithful becoming reconciled with Rome. But others say they are horrified that someone as anti-Semitic as Bishop Williamson has been allowed back into the Church.
Bishops across Europe have cautiously praised the move, saying they hoped it would lead to full reconciliation with the SSPX.
A spokesman for the bishops of England and Wales said they “acknowledged” the lifting of the excommunications, adding: “In harmony with Pope Benedict XVI, the Bishops of England and Wales hope that this act will consolidate reciprocal relations of trust and intensify and stabilise the relations of the Fraternity of SSPX and the Holy See.” In France, where the SSPX has a strong presence, Cardinal André Vingt-Trois said he was delighted. He said: “This is an opportunity, a door open to allow Christians to find the fullness of communion with the Church, as long as they want or they accept it. It is a gesture of mercy and a gesture of openness to strengthen the unity of the Church.” The Priestly Fraternity of St Peter (FSSP), a traditionalist group that broke with the SSPX to stay in communion with the Church, issued a statement expressing “profound gratitude”. A spokesman said: “It sees in this magnanimous gesture a call to unity for all Catholics in order to spread in the world, faced with all the contradictions of our day, the reign of Christ.” Fr Tim Finigan, a leading Catholic blogger, also said he was delighted. “I have met some very good people from the SSPX and it is a great joy to know that the principal obstruction to their full jurisdictional normality in the Church has now been removed,” he said. “It is a typically ‘Benedictine’ move to have the announcement made during the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity.” However Catherine Pepinster, editor of the Tablet, said she was “deeply depressed” by the Pope’s decision.
She said: “Excommunication has always been the severest censure of a Catholic. If the Pope is now stating that excommunication has been rescinded, it suggests that the bishops have been forgiven. “Yet forgiveness surely requires penitence and there is no evidence of penitence on the part of the bishops. If that is the case, could another explanation for this move be that Pope Benedict considers John Paul II was mistaken when he condemned Archbishop Lefebvre’s ordination of bishops and said that it was a schismatic act?
“Not only do the bishops appear to lack any penitence but they appear to reject the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. And of course rejecting Vatican II means rejecting Nostra Aetate, not so surprising if you remember one of the four makes the most scandalous comments, denying the Holocaust.
“That the Pope has rehabilitated such a group on the anniversary of the announcement of the Council is deeply depressing and deeply disturbing. One wonders yet again – as after the notorious Regensburg speech and after restoration of the Latin Mass – whether Pope Benedicts acts alone and against the advice of his collaborators.” John Wilkins, editor of the Tablet when the SSPX bishops were excommunicated in 1988, said he found Pope Benedict’s action puzzling. “These Lefebvrist bishops behave and teach as though Vatican II had never happened. In the name of ‘true tradition’, they spurn the Council’s liturgical reforms and its declarations on collegiality, ecumenism, respect for the Jews and world religions, and religious freedom.
“No conditions have been imposed on them in return for the lifting of the excommunications. What are Catholics meant to think? That all this does not matter?”