Losing Touch A German Pope Disgraces the Catholic Church


Part 2: A Pontiff of Slip-Ups and Blunders

The Vatican also admitted that Pope Benedict XVI had been unaware of Williamson's views on the Holocaust when he revoked his excommunication. It is an admission that may ultimately defuse the present dispute. But it will do little to assuage Catholic fears that Pope Benedict XVI has a tenuous grasp on reality.

On April 25, 2005, when the man who was once Joseph Ratzinger greeted German pilgrims as Pope Benedict XVI for the first time, he confessed: "I said to the Lord, with deep conviction: Do not do this to me!"

His quick prayer was not heard, and there was enormous enthusiasm for the new pope at first, at least in Germany. Wir Sind Papst! (We Are Pope!), the tabloid Bild trumpeted in celebration of the career of the Bavarian theology professor, who, in his previous job as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for several years, had kept watch over the purity of the Church's teachings. But now there is growing skepticism over this pope's ability to discharge his office. Some of the sheep in his fold already fear that this erudite spiritual leader will go down in church history as a wrong choice, as a pontiff of slip-ups and blunders.

The pope, for his part, seems not the least bit concerned about the rapid vanishing of public enthusiasm. Ratzinger has always been suspicious of the adoration of the masses. He had deep misgivings about the pilgrimages young people made to hear his predecessor, John Paul II.

Falling Numbers

This may explain why he seems untroubled by the continuous decline in the numbers of pilgrims appearing on St. Peter's Square. Last year, 2.2 million people attended his Wednesday audiences, one million fewer than two years earlier. The anticipated recent awakening of his church has failed to materialize, which is another reason why there is so much disappointment over the pope's most recent decision.

Chronicling the Church's Blunders
November 2008
During an interview in Germany with a Swedish TV station, Bishop Richard Williamson denies that Jews were gassed during the Third Reich. "I believe there were no gas chambers," he says. He also says that only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews died in German concentration camps instead of the commonly accepted number of 6 million.
January 19, 2009
DER SPIEGEL reports on Williamson's TV interview.
January 21
The interview is aired on Jan. 21, two days after the SPIEGEL report. That same day, Pope Benedict XVI signs a decree lifting the excommunication of four bishops associated with the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). Holocaust denier Williamson is one of those pardoned.
January 22
On Thursday, the Italian daily Il Giornale reports on the decree.
January 23
On Friday, the Catholic news agency KNA reports that the public prosecutor's office in the German city of Regensburg is suing Bishop Williamson for breaking German law regarding Holocaust denial. That same day, the report is aired on Vatican Radio and posted on its Web site.
January 24
On Saturday, the pope officially announces that he plans to accept four bishops from SSPX back into the Catholic Church. Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi celebrates the decision as "an important step toward a complete unification" of the Catholic Church.
January 26
The debate heats up. Vice President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany Dieter Graumann calls Benedict's decision an "incomprehensible act of provocation." Germany's Conference of Bishops distances itself from Williamson. Vice President of Germany's Central Committee of Catholics Heinz-Wilhelm Brockmann defends the pope's actions as "an attempt to unify the Church."
January 28
During his Wednesday audience at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI denounces Holocaust denial. He offers reassurance to Jews that they have his "full and indisputable solidarity."
January 29
Vatican spokesperson Federico Lombardi explains that whoever denies the Holocaust is "denying Christian beliefs." He adds: "And that is an even more serious error when committed priests and bishops."
January 29
Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos claims to have known nothing of Williamson's controversial TV interview when the decree was released. Hoyos was the one to lead discussions with SSPX on lifting the excommunication. The Central Council of Jews in Germany breaks off dialogue with the Catholic Church.
January 30
The pope promotes the ultraconservative priest Gerhard Wagner to become an auxiliary bishop in Linz. Bishop Richard Williamson apologizes to the pope for causing "inconveniences and problems."
January 31
In an interview with SPIEGEL, Israeli Minister for Religious Affairs Yitzhak Cohen threatens that Israel may break off diplomatic relations with the Vatican.
February 1
Renowned Belgian professor of theology and ethics Jean-Pierre Wils publicly announces that he had left the Catholic Church.
February 2
SPXX demands more power in the Vatican. Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais tells Italy's newspaper, La Stampa that he and his followers will not be satisfied with simply being brought back into the Church: "We will not change our position but will rather change Rome."
February 3
Chancellor Angela Merkel demands that the pope clarify his position and tell the SSPX with no uncertainty that Holocaust denial cannot be accepted. "I do not believe that sufficient clarification has been made," she says.
February 4
The Vatican demands that Williamson, "in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion," distance himself from Holocaust denial before he can be fully readmitted to the Catholic Church. The Vatican also admits that it was unaware of Williamson's view when it decided to revoke his excommunication.
February 5
Chancellor Merkel welcomes the pope's demand for Williamson to recant his Holocaust denial. Other German politicians remain critical and say more needs to be done.
Last week, Radio Vatican received a constant stream of furious e-mails. Some were read on the air. One listener wrote: "Shame on the Vatican, which supposedly knew nothing about the statements of Bishop Williamson. Pope John Paul II would have thrown out the people at the Vatican responsible for this."

Another wrote: "I am unspeakably furious with Mr. Ratzinger. The ground is being prepared for new pogroms here." A third listener of the radio station, which is broadcast internationally, even called upon the Vatican to convert the Holocaust denier and bishop "with a mandatory pilgrimage to Auschwitz." Yet another yearned for the days of Ratzinger's predecessor: "With the rehabilitation of the openly anti-Semitic Lefebvre priest, Benedict ridicules the legacy of his predecessor, who fought tirelessly for reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism."

Many in the pope's immediate surroundings are also dismayed about the new debate over anti-Semitism. Last week even the loyal Osservatore Romano sharply criticized the pope's handling of the matter. The paper wrote that it regretted that the repeal of the excommunication of the four St. Pius bishops was simply handled "according to the wrong script" at the Vatican.

How could this have happened?

Benedict decided to issue the decree lifting the excommunications without consulting with the relevant offices of the Curia. Vatican sources say that the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity was not consulted. "It was the pope's decision," German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the chairman of the council, explained. Kasper, a former companion of the pope now somewhat saddened by his friend, has since submitted his letter of resignation.

According to a member of the bishop's congregation charged with the matter, the decree, which was intended to reconcile the traditionalists with their church, was to be issued on the 50th anniversary of the decision to convene a second Vatican Council by reformer Pope John XXIII. That would have been on Jan. 25 -- perfect for a historically-minded pope like Benedict XVI.

The pope, though, was apparently unaware of the fact that Jan. 27 was the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, and, as the Vatican has now admitted, he did not know that one of the rehabilitated bishops was a notorious Holocaust denier. And none of his close associates seemed to feel a need to enlighten him.

Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, signed the decree on Jan. 21, a Wednesday. But just a short time later, he apparently realized what he had done.

The papers were already filled with Williamson's views at the time. The smart thing to do would have been to hold off with publication of the decree. Italia Oggi, a business newspaper, cited witnesses who claimed to have listened in on a fit of rage by Cardinal Re. "What a bungler!" the witnesses say the cardinal shouted, as he sat in a bus on a Sunday morning, on his way to mass at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls. He was not referring to the Holy Father, but to one of his fellow cardinals, Columbian Darío Castrillón Hoyos, who had urged him to sign the decree.

In the wake of the slip-up, however, there was no efficient crisis management, not even in the Vatican Press Office. While Bishop Williamson's comments on the Holocaust were broadcast across the world, the press releases from the Holy See initially addressed the awarding of honorary citizenship to the pope by the German town of Mariazell and the communion of the Patriarch of Antioch.

Sloppy Work

It was not until mid-week that Vatican officials realized that a disaster had occurred. Aides quickly posted a few videos on YouTube, showing the pope's speech at Auschwitz, his visits to synagogues and amiable meetings with Jewish dignitaries. The YouTube site had received all of 1,900 clicks by Friday.

Did the Vatican even know about Williamson? "Here is the problem," Father Eberhard von Gemmingen, the head of Vatican Radio's German service, said in a commentary last week: "What exactly is meant by the term 'the Vatican?' The Vatican is large. It has many offices. Some offices that deal with politics were certainly familiar with his anti-Semitic statements. But perhaps these offices were not informed early enough that his excommunication was being revoked."

The second department of the Secretariat of State, which handles foreign relations, should also have concerned itself with the decree. "There must have been individuals there who knew Bishop Williamson. Tarcisio Bertone, as Cardinal Secretary of State, hovers above all agencies, and above him is the pope."

In other words, the explanations seem to indicate, it was all the result of sloppy work in the Roman Curia bureaucracy. If only it were that simple.

The slip-up involving the St. Pius bishops could not have turned into a scandal but for two, closely-related problems associated with this pontificate.

The first is the growing isolation of Benedict XVI. And the second is his trepidation when it comes to interacting with the modern world. It is a deeply conservative fundamental attitude, which repeatedly leads to "ecumenism to the right," as Johann Baptist Metz, a theologian and professor of fundamental theology, said recently in criticism of the pope.

The pope, says one member of the Curia, has surrounded himself with a team of yes-men, devoid of any critical voices. The team even shields the 81-year-old pontiff from unfavorable reports in the media. "As a rule," says the official, "he is only presented with excerpts from the international press. And in many cases, his staff members say: No, no, we cannot show him that article."

Unlike his predecessor Angelo Sodano, Cardinal Secretary of State Bertone is considered relatively apolitical. Benedict appointed the cardinal because he had shown himself to be "prudent in pastoral care," and because he was familiar with Bertone from their days serving together on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.


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