Losing Touch A German Pope Disgraces the Catholic Church


Part 5: Benedict Bearing the Cross

The ultra-conservative group's representative in Germany is Father Franz Schmidberger, the District Superior of the SSPX in Stuttgart. After some hesitation, Schmidberger distanced himself from the statements of his fellow SSPX member Williamson. "The downplaying of the murders of Jews by the Nazi regime, and its atrocities, are unacceptable to us. I wish to apologize for this behavior and distance myself from all statements of this nature."

But shortly before Christmas, Schmidberger and his fellow SSPX members wrote to German bishops to remind them of the supposed Jewish original sin: "With the crucifixion of Christ, the curtain of the temple was torn and the old alliance destroyed. But this does not just mean that the Jews of today are not our older brothers in faith. Rather, they are complicit in deicide, as long as they do not distance themselves from the culpability of their forefathers by acknowledging the divinity of Christ and the baptism."

This age-old atavistic way of thinking, which defines Jews as being spattered with guilt, has been part of the church once again since Benedict's decree. This, in fact, is what happened on Jan. 24, 2009, and it cannot be reversed with any declarations or visits to synagogues.

Dieter Graumann, the vice-president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, calls it a "fiasco, an absolute disaster." A German, of all people, says Graumann, set the Christian-Jewish dialogue back by decades. "That's what makes it so bitter," says Graumann, "so sad, and so incomprehensible."

'Obliteration of 50 Years of Church History'

Oded Wiener, who, as Director General of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, is responsible for interfaith dialogue, says that there have been dramatic telephone conversations between Jerusalem and Rome, as part of an effort to salvage what can be salvaged. But there is a sense of deep disappointment. Elia Enrico Richetti, Venice's chief rabbi, initially terminated cooperation with the Catholic Church, because the pope lacked "the most basic respect" for the Jews. Richetti sees the pope's actions as the "obliteration of 50 years of church history."

Dialogue with the Jews was a central concern for Benedict's predecessor, John Paul II. He had experienced the murdering of Jews as a young man in Poland, and as pope he condemned anti-Semitism as a "sin against God and man." For John Paul, the Jews were "our older brothers."

Before Joseph Ratzinger was elected pope, Rabbi Walter Homolka spoke with him about the Christian-Jewish dialogue. "He was in favor of it," Homolka recalls, "but he didn't seem to feel very passionate about it." Homolka, who is in charge of training rabbis in Germany, no longer believes in an easing of tensions between Jews and the Catholic Church, as long as Benedict XVI is its leader. "We are waiting for the next pope," he says.

How the Jews will cope with this serious affront by the Vatican depends not only on the leadership in Rome, but also on the faithful around the world. Central Jewish Council Vice-president Graumann wants to see "Catholics stand up and show that they will not let down the Jews."

What next?

Jerusalem resident David Rosen is the chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultations. He was in the audience when Benedict gave a moving speech at the Auschwitz memorial, in which he said: "In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence -- a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here… It is a duty before the truth and the just due of all who suffered here, a duty before God, for me to come here as the successor of Pope John Paul II and as a son of the German people."

No Permanent Damage?

The newly clear, though appallingly after-the-fact condemnation of anti-Semitism by Pope Benedict XVI gives Rosen hope that permanent damage has not been inflicted on the process of reconciliation between Jews and Christians.

Nevertheless, Rabbi Rosen has canceled an annual meeting with representatives of the Vatican scheduled for early March. "The church must now determine," says the influential rabbi, "whether the brothers of St. Pius share the teachings on anti-Semitism," such as John Paul II's characterization of anti-Semitism as "a sin against God and man."

Experts on Catholic Church law also believe that the schism will only end completely if the traditionalists clearly recognize the authority of the pope and the resolutions of the Second Vatican Council. If not, says Peter Krämer, an expert on canon law from the western German city of Trier, "the suspension from office would remain in effect." This is the conclusion he draws from Benedict's remarks on Wednesday.

"I hope," the pope said, "my gesture is followed by the hoped-for commitment on their part to take the further steps necessary to realize full communion with the church, thus witnessing true fidelity, and true recognition of the magisterium and the authority of the pope and of the Second Vatican Council."

There is at least one person who has so far shown no intention of recognizing anything at all.

Bishop Williamson is sitting in his Seminary of Our Lady Co-Redemptrix in La Reja, a confident neo-Baroque building 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Journalists are turned away. They are told that this is a vacation period and that the bishop does not wish to see anyone. But on the weekend, he referred to his comments on the Holocaust as "imprudent" and said that he regretted having caused "unnecessary concerns" for Benedict. But there was little remorse in his words.

Working in the Lord's Vineyard

Shortly before officials at the SSPX headquarters in Switzerland ordered Williamson not to speak to the press, he wrote a letter to his loyal supporters. Its tone was triumphant: "In my opinion this latter Decree is a great step forward for the Church without being a betrayal on the part of the SSPX … And let us thank and pray for Benedict XVI and all his collaborators who helped to push through this Decree, despite, for instance, a media uproar orchestrated and timed to prevent it."

His words are clear. And the traditionalists are right in one respect: They have reason to celebrate. They have successfully completed another step back into the Unam et Sanctam, and have done so without making any concessions whatsoever.

Joseph Ratzinger, the learned theology professor, apparently never wanted this office. The Holy Spirit elevated him to the Holy See, he said after the conclave, referring to himself as "a simple and humble worker in the Lord's vineyard."

But his work in the vineyard has since turned into the way of the cross.

Despite all efforts to engage in dialogue with China, the churches of the East, and Islam, this pope has repeatedly stumbled on the issue of the Holocaust, as if he were condemned to do so. The affair over the rehabilitation of the traditionalists is another station of the cross for Benedict.

Benedict XVI will likely be the last pope to have consciously experienced the nightmare of the Nazi era. Perhaps it is no accident, but an irony of history, that Joseph Ratzinger, a former member of the Hitler Youth from the Bavarian town of Marktl am Inn, must repeatedly shoulder the burden of this history -- whether he wants to or not.

By Stefan Berg, Christoph Schult, Alexander Smoltczyk, Michael Sontheimer and Peter Wensierski

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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