When the Vatican lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist Catholic bishops Jan. 21, it’s entirely possible Rome was unaware that one of those bishops, an Englishman named Richard Williamson, had just given an interview to Swedish television in which he denied that the Nazis had used gas chambers and asserted that no more than 200,000 to 300,000 Jews had died during the Second World War.
In retrospect, however, it would be disingenuous for anyone to feign surprise.
A troubled history with Judaism has long been part of the Catholic traditionalist movement associated with the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre — beginning with Lefebvre himself, who spoke approvingly of both the World War II-era Vichy Regime in France and the far-right National Front, and who identified the contemporary enemies of the faith as “Jews, Communists and Freemasons” in an Aug. 31, 1985, letter to Pope John Paul II.
Reacting to the furor over Williamson, the Vatican has stressed that lifting the excommunication is not an endorsement of his views on the Holocaust, and has repeated its firm commitment to Catholic-Jewish dialogue and to combating anti-Semitism. The pope’s outreach to traditionalists should instead be seen, spokespersons said, as an “act of peace” intended to end the only formal schism in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Canonical experts also point out that, technically speaking, Holocaust denial is not heresy. It’s a denial of historical truth, not a truth of the faith, and hence repudiating it is not inconsistent — at least from a strictly logical point of view — with the Jan. 21 decree from the Congregation for Bishops ending the excommunication of the four Lefebvrite prelates.
That’s a fine distinction, however, likely to be lost on much of the world, especially given that Williamson’s comments hardly came out of the blue.
A long history
The historical association between some strains of traditionalist Catholicism and anti-Semitism run deep, intertwined with royalist reaction to the French Revolution in the 18th century and, later, the Boulanger and Dreyfus Affairs in France (1886-1889 and 1894-1899). In populist European conservatism, the defense of Christian tradition has often been linked to a suspicion of “contamination” — originally by Jews, and more recently, by Europe’s rising Muslim presence.
Observers of the traditionalist landscape caution people not to paint with too broad a brush, as if every Catholic attracted to the older Latin Mass or to traditional views on doctrinal matters is somehow tainted by anti-Semitism. Similarly, experts also warn that critics of Catholic traditionalism can sometimes be quick to label as “anti-Semitic” attitudes that may be controversial theologically or politically, but that don’t in themselves reflect real prejudice.
For example, traditionalists often uphold a robust missionary theology, insisting that the church cannot renounce its duty to evangelize any group, including Jews. Similarly, traditionalists often challenge Vatican II’s teaching on religious freedom, church-state separation, and interreligious dialogue. Neither position, observers say, necessarily conceals latent anti-Semitism.
For its part, the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, the body founded by Lefebvre, issued a 2007 statement asserting that “a Catholic cannot be anti-Semitic without destroying the origin and essence of his own faith.” Nonetheless, there’s also a track record in some traditionalist and Lefebvrite circles of open hostility toward Jews and Judaism that is anything but latent.
As noted above, Lefebvre himself wrote to John Paul II in 1985, three years before his decision to ordain four bishops in defiance of the pope’s authority, to argue that Vatican II’s “Declaration on Religious Liberty” had produced a series of poisonous consequences, including “all the reforms carried out over 20 years within the church to please heretics, schismatics, false religions and declared enemies of the church, such as the Jews, the Communists and the Freemasons.”
This sense of antagonism was lifelong. In 1990, one year before his death, Lefebvre gave an interview to the journal of the National Front in France, suggesting that Catholic opposition to a residence of Carmelite nuns at the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp was being instigated by Jews.
Lefebvre’s followers often share this outlook. In 1997, one of the four bishops ordained by Lefebvre in 1988, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, said, “The church for its part has at all times forbidden and condemned the killing of Jews, even when ‘their grave defects rendered them odious to the nations among which they were established.’ ... All this makes us think that the Jews are the most active artisans for the coming of Antichrist.”
Nor has their record been confined simply to making statements. In 1989, Paul Touvier, a fugitive charged with ordering the execution of seven Jews in 1944, was arrested in a priory of the Fraternity of St. Pius X in Nice, France. The fraternity stated at the time that Touvier had been granted asylum as “an act of charity to a homeless man.” When Touvier died in 1996, a parish church operated by the fraternity offered a requiem Mass in his honor.
In just the past year, controversy arose in Germany when a priest of the fraternity asserted that Jews were “co-responsible” for the death of Christ. Also in 2008, an Italian priest of the fraternity celebrated a Latin Mass in honor of the 63rd anniversary of the death of fascist leader Benito Mussolini.
Reaching a crescendo
By all accounts, this strain reaches a crescendo in Williamson, whose views were a matter of public record well before his most recent comments to Swedish television.
In 1989, for example, police in Canada briefly considered filing charges against Williamson under that country’s hate speech laws after he gave an address in Quebec charging that Jews were responsible for “changes and corruption” in the Catholic church, that “not one Jew” perished in Nazi gas chambers, and that the Holocaust was a myth created so that the West would “approve the state of Israel.”
Williamson also praised the writings of Ernst Zundel, a German-born Canadian immigrant whose works include Did Six Million Really Die? and The Hitler We Loved and Why, both considered mainstays of Holocaust denial literature.
In 1991, Williamson issued a letter from Winona, Minn., where he served as rector of a Lefebvrite seminary, stating, “Until [Jews] rediscover their true Messianic vocation, they may be expected to continue fanatically agitating, in accordance with their false messianic vocation of Jewish world dominion, to prepare the Antichrist’s throne in Jerusalem.”
In 2000, Williamson went on record suggesting that the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” supposedly a plot for Jewish global domination regarded by historians as an anti-Semitic hoax created in Tsarist Russia, is authentic. “God put into men’s hands the Protocols of the Sages of Sion … if men want to know the truth, but few do,” Williamson said.
Nor have Williamson’s comments flown under the Catholic radar. A 2008 piece in England’s Catholic Herald documented his anti-Semitic record and included a judgment from Shimon Samuels, director of international relations at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, to the effect that Williamson is “the Borat of the schismatic Catholic far-right.”
Samuels said at the time that Williamson is “a clown, but a dangerous clown.”
In that 2008 Catholic Herald piece, Williamson denied being an anti-Semite, but said that he opposes “adversaries of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“If Jews are adversaries of Our Lord Jesus Christ — obviously not all of them, but those that are — then I don’t like them,” he said. “My definition of anti-Semitism is to be against every single Jew purely because he’s a Jew. That’s not at all my case. I once had a Jewish rabbi come and speak to seminarians. Does that sound to you like anti-Semitism?”
To be sure, Williamson’s controversial views are not confined to Jews. He has also suggested that the 9/11 bombings were not the result of airplanes hijacked by terrorists but rather “demolition charges,” has criticized the film “The Sound of Music” for a lack of respect for authority, and has expressed sympathy for what he described as the “remotely Catholic sense” of the Unabomber for the dangers of technology.
Spokespersons for the Fraternity of St. Pius X and other traditionalist Catholic groups have generally said that Williamson’s views do not represent the corporate position of the traditionalist movement. Reacting to the most recent comments, Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior of the fraternity, said that Williamson had expressed a “personal opinion.”
Vatican watchers have likewise stressed that Benedict XVI’s motives in reaching out to traditionalists, including Williamson, are certainly not to canonize his positions on Judaism or any other subject, but rather to promote unity in the church. Over the centuries, popes have always abhorred schism because of the article of Catholic theology that any legitimately ordained bishop can ordain other bishops — and thus, if it is not arrested, a schism can become self-replicating and produce a parallel church.
Early returns, however, suggest that in the court of broader public opinion, disentangling the pope’s logic from the taint of association with anti-Semitism will be a tough sell. The chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, sounded despondent on Monday about where things will go from here.
“I don’t know what kind of resolution there can be at this point,” Di Segni said.
[John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent.]
Meanwhile, in other related developments, earlier stories, and web links:
Looking for comments?
We've suspended comments on NCRonline.org for a while. If you missed that announcement, learn more about our decision here.