Losing Touch: A German Pope Disgraces the Catholic Church

By SPIEGEL Staff

Many knew that Richard Williamson was a notorious Holocaust denier. Pope Benedict XVI, who brought him back into the Catholic fold two weeks ago, did not. Many are now wondering whether the pope has lost touch with the world outside the Vatican walls.

Via Urbana is an alleyway of prostitutes and craftsmen, not far from the city's main train station and yet, like everything in Rome, so close to heaven. The words Regina angelorum ora pro nobis… ring out from the ground floor of No. 85 Via Urbana, a shop furnished with crystal chandeliers and damask wallpaper.

A group of devout Catholics meets here every Thursday, at 6:30 p.m. Its members consider themselves the keepers of eternal truth, and they feel flattered when berated for being more papal than the pope. Indeed, that is precisely what the ultra-religious members of the SSPX strive to be.

SSPX, which sounds some new piece of computer software, is in fact an acronym for the "Fraternitas Sacerdotalis Sancti Pii X," or the Society of Saint Pius X. It is home to the traditionalist followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

These nine members of the SSPX, devotees of the old mass celebrated in Latin, are sitting or kneeling here, in their chapel of St. Catherine of Sienna. They include two matrons wearing little hats, three apostolic-looking teenagers and a girl wearing a veil. The priest stands with his back to the congregation.

There could be no greater contrast than between this archaic service in a 540-square-foot shop and the massive St. Peter's Basilica across the River Tiber. And yet last week, one of these guardians of a lost form of Catholicism drew the Vatican into a crisis that has seriously damaged relations between Catholics and Jews, and has even caused fractures within the Christian community itself. Indeed, it will be a while before its repercussions can be fully assessed.

Notorious Holocaust Denier

The decision by Pope Benedict XVI to reinstate the bishops of this brotherhood of St. Pius, who were excommunicated in 1988, has been the source of astonishment, disillusionment and outrage both inside and outside the Vatican. It has also triggered a deep sense of despair over the future relationship among religions. The fact that it was merely a matter of housekeeping within the church -- the ultra-conservatives who were restored to the pope's good graces had been made bishops in unsanctioned consecrations by Lefebvre in 1988 -- was irrelevant. What triggered the scandal, as SPIEGEL reported two weeks ago, was the fact that one of the priests brought back into the fold, Bishop Richard Williamson, is a notorious Holocaust denier.

During a visit to Germany only two weeks ago, the British cleric told Swedish television: "Not a single Jew died in a gas chamber." The 68-year-old Cambridge graduate then proceeded to talk about technically unsuitable chimney heights and poorly sealed doors at Auschwitz. When asked about his anti-Semitism, Williamson replied: "Anti-Semitism can only be bad if it is against the truth. But if something is true, it can't be bad. I am not interested in the word anti-Semitism."

And this obstinate priest, of all people, is to be reinstated into the church, according to the will of the pope?

With a single, perhaps imprudent gesture, Benedict XVI has reignited old fears among Jews the world over, fears that the Catholic Church has in fact never really shed its old anti-Semitism. Benedict has called into question the efforts of his predecessor, John Paul II, who was the first pope to apologize for the crimes of his church. And he has raised a concern among his supporters that the German pope could in fact be a pope of the Restoration, a man who is taking his church, which had cautiously stepped into the modern world, back into the ivory tower of theological dogma.

And then there is the question that has the entire world worried: How can it be that a German pope, of all people, is pardoning a Holocaust denier? Did the pope underestimate the impact of his gesture? Did Benedict XVI have a plan, or was his decision based on the occasionally obscure theological logic of the Vatican's clerical bureaucrats? Does the pope, a man of books throughout his life, still understand the world outside his palace walls?

'How Can a Liar Be Pardoned'

The decision has sparked outrage among Jews worldwide. The Israeli Chief Rabbinate promptly cut off its interfaith dialogue with the Vatican. Israeli Minister of Religious Affairs Yitzhak Cohen, referring to Israel's diplomatic relations with the Vatican, recommended "completely cutting off connections to a body in which Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites are members." A stunned Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, a survivor of the Buchenwald concentration camp and Israel's former Chief Rabbi, asked: "How can such a liar be granted the protection and pardon of the leader of the Catholic Church?"

SSPX around the world.
DER SPIEGEL

SSPX around the world.

It is a question that many Catholics are asking themselves, especially in the pope's native Germany. "People here are simply dismayed," says Klaus Mertes, a Jesuit priest and rector of the Maria Regina Martyrium Church, a commemorative church for the victims of the Nazi era in Berlin's Charlottenburg neighborhood. This sense of outrage, he says, is reason enough to speak out on the incident. "There is outrage over Bishop Williamson, on the one hand, as well as over the decision coming from Rome. It may be that the reasons have not been communicated yet. But what, for heaven's sake, could those reasons be?"

Bishop Gerhard Müller of Regensburg, a traditionalist himself, criticized the pope for having "extended both hands to a marginal group" and banned Bishop Williamson, who "invented stories idiotically and scandalously," from all churches and facilities in his diocese.

In the northern city of Münster, where Joseph Ratzinger was once a theology professor, almost the entire Catholic faculty signed a sharply worded letter of protest and criticized the shift in the Vatican. Ferdinand Schuhmacher, the city's official representative of the Catholic Church, apologized publicly to the chairman of the local Christian-Jewish alliance, Sharon Fehr, for the pope's behavior: "No matter how hard I try, I cannot understand the pope's action."

Some German Catholics have already made their way to their local registry offices to officially leave the church. The mood among many is reflected in the succinct words of Helmut Reinhard, a 62-year-old Munich Catholic: "I've had it!"

Damaged Jewish-Catholic Relations

Fifteen members of his family were lost in Auschwitz-Birkenau. "They were all gypsies," he says, "and all Catholics." His cousin Markus Reinhard, 50, lives in Cologne. Last Tuesday, on Germany's Holocaust Remembrance Day, he, his wife and his four sisters left the Catholic Church.

Many others in the religious community began to vent their anger on the Internet early last week. The religious forums on Web sites like "myKath.de" have been inundated with comments. "As of last Saturday, who even takes excommunication seriously anymore?" asks one contributor to the forum. Another outraged Catholic writes: "Williamson is committing a crime in Germany (denial of the Holocaust), while his flock looks the other way and the pope rewards him by making him a bishop in the Catholic Church. What happens if Williamson sets off a bomb in a synagogue? Will the pope appoint him as a cardinal then?"

Even Heiner Geissler, a former general secretary of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), regrets "that the pope is sealing himself off from women, people of other faiths, divorced people and homosexuals."

Just four years after the first German pope of the modern era took office, the relationship between two major world religions is shattered. The process of reconciliation between Catholics and Jews may have been damaged for years.

Of course, Benedict has done what he could to control the damage. In his Wednesday audience last week, he addressed the subject directly: "In these days, as we commemorate the Shoah, I remember the images of my repeated visits to Auschwitz (…) While I once again express, from the bottom of my heart, my full and indisputable solidarity with our brothers, the bearer of the first covenant, I hope that the memory of the Shoah moves humanity to reflect on the unpredictable power of evil when it conquers the human heart."

Despite the clarity of these words, the pope read them with barely perceptible conviction. And they did little to defuse the conflict. German Chancellor Angela Merkel dismissed the comments on Tuesday, saying that she expects more. "I do not believe sufficient clarification has been made," she said.

Indeed, until this week the pope seemed not to have recognized the scope of worldwide outrage. Now, though, the volume of protest seems to have reached a volume that has even managed to penetrate the Vatican's inner sanctum. On Wednesday, almost two weeks after the controversy began, the Vatican finally issued a statement demanding that Williamson, "in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion," distance himself from his statements denying the Holocaust before he can be fully readmitted to the Church.

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