In the churches and chapels of the Society of Saint Pius X, the incense burners at the holy masses have been swung with even greater vigor since the weekend in joy over the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to lift the excommunication of their founding father, Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and the bishops he ordained, among them Archbishop Richard Williamson.
Germany's far right is equally pleased with the decision and is hailing Williamson as a hero -- because he has denied the Holocaust. He told Swedish television in an interview broadcast last Wednesday: "I believe there were no gas chambers." He claimed that only 300,000 Jews perished in the Nazi concentration camps, instead of the 6 million figure that is widely accepted by historians.
"A bishop is saying what he believes," said one far-right supporter in the Internet blog German Wehrmacht which featured the transcript of the interview along with a video clip of it. "One must distance oneself from the content of the video if one wants to avoid any kind of trouble," the author goes on to warn, in reference to the fact that denying the Holocaust is a crime in Germany. Nevertheless, he adds, "thoughts are free."
Another far-right site, Störtebeker-Network, also celebrates the Society of Saint Pius X. Williamson, says an editorial posed on the site, has shown "how one should position oneself as a true Christian these days against general materialistic decay and decadence, by holding on to the original values of one's faith."
A "Reconciliation Gift" for Germans
One commentator writes: "His Excellency Williamson: after David Irving there's a further Briton who has given us Germans a big reconciliation gift."
The closing of ranks between the German pope and the right fringe of his church is threatening to turn into the biggest mistake of his term.
The head of the Society of Saint Pius, Bernard Fellay, knows why Benedict XVI announced the lifting of the excommunication of Williamson and other brethren of the society: "1,703,000 rosaries were said to Our Dear Lady to bring about the end of this disgrace," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Meanwhile the head of the German arm of the Society of Saint Pius, Pastor Franz Schmidberger, is attempting damage control in the wake of Williamson's comments on the Holocaust. "It's clear that the comments Bishop Williamson is reported to have made don't mirror the stance of the Society of Saint Pius X and only the author himself is responsible," he declared in a statement.
Williamson himself has made no further comment and is believed to be in Argentina. If he were to travel to Germany he would very soon have to contend with the Regensburg public prosecutor's office, which has opened an enquiry into his remarks, which constitute an illegal offense in Germany.
"Complicit in the Murder of Christ"
Schmidberger's argument that the Society of Saint Pius isn't anti-Semitic despite the comments of its senior bishop Williamson isn't especially convincing given that Schmidberger merely states: "Our Lord Jesus Christ in his human nature is Jewish, his sacred mother is Jewish, all the apostles are Jewish. For that reason no upstanding Christian can be anti-Semitic."
The Central Council of Jews in Germany begs to differ. It had pointed out what it said was an anti-Semitic passage in a letter written by Schmidberger and his brethren before Christmas. The letter was sent to all bishops of the 27 Catholic dioceses in Germany, and none of the Roman Catholic bishops protested against it.
In the letter, Schmidberger stated: "We look on with sorrow as Pope John Paul II and now Pope Benedict XVI go into a Jewish synagogue." Another passage reads: "The Jews of our days (are) not only our older brothers in faith as the pope claimed during his visit to the synagogue in Rome in 1986; rather they are complicit in the murder of Christ as long as they do not distance themselves from the guilt of their forefathers by acknowledging the divinity of Christ and through baptism."
Schmidberger now says: "The statement that today's Jews bear the guilt of their fathers" only refers to "those Jews who welcome the killing of Jesus Christ."
Is that enough to placate the Central Council of Jews? Its vice president Dieter Graumann told SPIEGEL ONLINE on Monday: "It's not just that one passage. The whole letter breathes the spirit of pure anti-Semitism."
None of Germany's bishops got in touch with Jewish leaders in response to the controversy, said Graumann. So far only the bishops of Aachen and Hamburg have said the Catholic Church doesn't have anything to do with the Society of Saint Pius because its bishops had been excommunicated.
Now that the pope has lifted that excommunication, Germany's Catholic bishops won't be able to avoid the issue so easily in the future. Graumann had demanded that the Catholic Church distance itself more forcefully from this peripheral group on its right wing. Instead, the German pope has rehabilitated it.
The German Bishops' Conference this week tried to defuse the row. Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff, the chairman of the conference's commission on relations with the Jewish faith, said the church "utterly disagreed" with Williamson's Holocaust denial.
Graumann is appalled by the lifting of the excommunication. "By rehabilitating the Pius Brothers the Vatican is importing all the old anti-Semitism back into the church after one thought it had got over that stance long ago. The danger is obvious. If neo-Nazis are cheering the Pius Brothers, then the Catholic Church must surely ask itself whether it's done something wrong," he said.