Pope on the Defensive: The Intractable Brothers from SSPX

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The Vatican is upping the pressure, public prosecutors are continuing to investigate and criticism keeps rolling in -- but the Society of Saint Pius X refuses to give in. Even worse, the Catholic Church is running out of levers to force it to comply.

The lawyer was careful to sound serene. The brothers belonging to the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), says Maximilian Krah, want to live a form of Catholicism that recognizes the superiority of papal authority. "I don't recognize the brotherhood that I know in the current media coverage," he complains. And Richard Williamson? He isn't a typical SSPX member, Krah says. Really. He's not.

The scandal surrounding Bishop Richard Williamson's Holocaust denial refuses to go away.
REUTERS

The scandal surrounding Bishop Richard Williamson's Holocaust denial refuses to go away.

Williamson, though, has recently become the best known member of SSPX. He is a notorious Holocaust denier and one of the four bishops whose excommunications were recently lifted by Pope Benedict XVI. Krah represents Williamson and the rest of his SSPX brothers in Germany. The message Krah is intent on communicating these days is the one that Williamson himself should be sending: conciliatory, moderate and understanding. Indeed, given the Vatican's Wednesday call for Williamson to distance himself from his statements doubting the existence of the Holocaust, one would think that the ultraconservative SSPX would likewise be tempering its tone.

But it's not.

Take Father Franz Schmidberger, a member of SSPX headquarters in Germany. He went on German radio on Thursday to censure German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her critical comments about the pope's handling of the scandal and about the need to clearly condemn Holocaust denial. "She doesn't understand, after all, she's not Catholic," he said. Then he turned his attention to the Prophet Muhammad. He had "sexual contact with an eight or nine year old girl," Schmidberger said according to a statement released in advance of the interview's broadcast. "In today's terminology, we would certainly call that child molestation. But I don't want to belabor the point, I haven't specifically studied the issue."

His position on the Prophet's biography is one that is highly controversial -- and one that certainly isn't new. One year ago, a right-wing populist politician in Austria got in trouble for giving voice to the same viewpoint. And it certainly isn't the kind of stance that will further dialogue among religions. That, though, is clearly not a concern of Schmidberger's. Indeed, he also made his feelings about Judaism clear. "Christ explicitly sent his apostles into the world to convert all peoples, including the Jews, to him," he says.

In the interview, Schmidberger distanced himself from Williamson's statements regarding the Holocaust, but he did say that Holocaust deniers could certainly remain part of the Catholic Church. "As long as he remains faithful to the Catholic dogmata, of course," he said. And what about the pope's decision to lift the excommunications of the four SSPX brothers? "It was absolutely necessary, because faith has become extremely diluted and we are living in a neo-heathenish society."

Prohibited from Performing Liturgical Rites

Still, as much as SSPX members like Schmidberger talk about submitting to papal authority, it has become clear just how little they do so. On Thursday, this disobedience once again became clear. The Cologne daily Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger reported that Bernhard Fellay, the Swiss bishop who is also the superior general of the Society of Saint Pius X, inducted so-called "minor orders" -- as the lower ranks of Catholic clergy are called -- last Sunday.

Fellay is another of the four bishops whose excommunications were recently lifted. However, the quartet remains suspended as bishops -- which means they are still prohibited by the Vatican from performing liturgical rites or administering the Sacraments.

It is, church jurist Peter Krämer told the newspaper, "an act of deliberate disobedience of the pope." It also touches on the central question now facing both the Vatican and the SSPX: Can the affair be brought under control by the pope's demand that Williamson retract his denial of the Holocaust?

Chancellor Merkel, whose comments earlier in the week placed Pope Benedict XVI under enormous pressure, signalled on Thursday that she was satisfied with his demand of Williamson. She said "it made it clear that a denial of the Holocaust can never be made without consequences." Some, though, think the pope still needs to do more.

German Green Party leader Claudia Roth is one of them. She told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Thursday that it has to be made crystal clear "that Williamson, who has repeatedly denied the Holocaust, and the anti-democratic, reactionary SSPX cannot be part of the Catholic Church." The Central Council of Jews in Germany have also demanded that the Vatican turn its back on the SSPX.

Showdown within the SSPX

The affair promises to continue. Holocaust denial is forbidden by law in Germany and on Jan. 23, public prosecutors in Bavaria opened an investigation into Williamson for incitement. Should he be found guilty, he could face a fine or even a jail term. Krah is defending him and he is basing his defense on the conditions under which the now-notorious interview -- in which Williamson told a Swedish television station that he did not believe any Jews were killed in Nazi gas chambers -- was conducted. "If you give an interview in English to a Swedish television station, you can't automatically assume that it will be broadcast in Germany," Krah told SPIEGEL ONLINE. Krah also says that the two journalists who conducted the interview said there were no plans to broadcast the interview in Germany. The journalists -- Göran Svensson and Ali Fegan -- disagree. "There was no agreement with Williamson regarding when and where the interview would be broadcast," they say.

Krah has filed a petition with a Nuremberg court to force the Swedish television station SVT to take the interview off of its Web page. A decision is expected within a few days, Krah says.

He adds that his client "did not act with intent, meaning that from a legal point of view he cannot be prosecuted" -- even if, Krah says, the assessment of Williamson's comments is clear. The defense attorney says that even Williamson doesn't deny the tenor of his comments. In the petition filed in Nuremberg, Krah says, Williamson admitted to "trivializing the extent of the murder of the Jews."

According to those familiar with Williamson's position inside SSPX, he has been pressured from within as well. He was apparently told to tone down his anti-Semitic statements or risk being demoted. SPIEGEL ONLINE was told that shortly after Williamson's interview was broadcast, there was something of a showdown within SSPX.

Such an internal conflict, however, has yet to be publicly confirmed. On the contrary. Just minutes before the interview was to be broadcast on Jan. 21, Superior General Fellay sent a fax to the television station saying, "it is shameful to take an interview about religious issues and cut it so that the emphasis is on controversial questions that defame the activities of our religious community."

It is exactly sentences such as these that generate doubt as to whether the SSPX really understands the full ramifications of the problem. And they also raise the question as to what levers remain to the Vatican should Williamson and the rest of SSPX remain intractable.

Were Williamson to refuse to retract his denial of the Holocaust, then he would not be reinstated as a bishop -- that was the threat issued by the Vatican. But it is a hollow threat. When Williamson lost the right to act as a bishop, Holocaust denial played no role whatsoever. A connection does not exist.

The Catholic theologian Hans Küng says that a renewed excommunication might be an appropriate lever. "That would be a clear position," he told the German television channel N24. But Williamson cannot be excommunicated solely for his position on the Holocaust, explains Monica Herghelegiu, a professor for Catholic Church jurisprudence at the University of Tübingen. "The denial of historical fact does not provide legal grounds for excommunication," she says. According to the Code of Canon Law, the ecclesiastical law of the Catholic Church, infractions such as abortion, a violation of the Seal of Confession -- the absolute confidentiality of all things said in confession -- or any violation of the unity of the church may be punished.

What Next?

It is the latter infraction which resulted in the excommunication of the four SSPX members in 1988. The quartet was ordained without the pope's approval -- essentially ignoring papal primacy. Benedict XVI lifted their excommunication after the four submitted a letter assuring the Vatican that they now "firmly believed in the papal primacy."

Legally, the Vatican handled the case correctly and protected itself, Catholic law expert Herghelegiu told SPIEGEL ONLINE -- although, she added, the results are a "political catastrophe." Pope Benedict XVI is an "81-year-old, brilliant dogmatist from deep Bavaria" who is locked into his way of thinking, according to Herghelegiu.

The expert saw only one possibility for excommunicating the four members of the Society of St. Pius X anew: The fact that the group refuses to acknowledge the Second Vatican Council in which the church expresses support for freedom of religion.

The Vatican's call for Williamson to revoke his statements is weak: "Recognition of the Society of Pius X depends upon the group's recognition of the Second Vatican Council." But there is no discussion of excommunication -- despite the fact that challenging Vatican II is heresy according to the Code of Canon Law, says expert Herghelegiu. "This would be a new case."

This is where the congregation of bishops comes into play. In order to reverse their suspension to act as bishops, Williamson and his cohorts must appear before the central Roman authorities. The congregation can set conditions -- "and one of them must be recognition of Vatican II," says Herghelegiu. "If the four men fail to do so, they must be excommunicated a second time."

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