Controversy, that unwanted yet familiar bedfellow of the Catholic Church, is once again rapping on the door of St Peter’s, beckoned back in recent weeks by the odd political manoeuvrings of the Bishop of Rome.
Having provoked Muslim anger with his 2006 lecture at the University of Regensburg, his Holiness has now incited the ire of both Jewish groups and much of his German homeland by offering reconciliation to four excommunicated bishops, one of whom is an outspoken denier of the of the holocaust.
There is no doubt that the Holy See has lurched rightwards under the stewardship of Herr Ratzinger, but this latest move – a mistake, according to the Vatican officials – does little for papal credibility, especially in a world increasingly wary of religion and its institutions.
Richard Williamson, the British-born figure at the centre of the controversy and a member of the ultra traditionalist Society of St. Pius X, was excommunicated in 1988 along with three other members of the sect.
The St Pius X society was founded in 1970 as an opposition to the Second Vatican Council; with the subsequent excommunications – all four were deemed to have been illicitly consecrated – entrenching the rift. In an effort to narrow the schism, those banished (including Williamson) were last week offered a return to the fold.
Unbeknown to the pope (if red-faced Vatican officials are to be believed), Williamson had recently appeared on Swedish TV claiming that only two to three hundred thousand Jews were murdered (rather than six million) during then holocaust. He also rejected the existence of Nazi gas chambers.
The backlash was swift and predictable, leading the Vatican to issue a statement insisting that any readmission was subject to Williamson publically recanting his remarks. A week hence and the headlines have moved; the Catholic edifice, despite having a few bricks chipped off, remains intact.
Yet several questions persist. Did the pope or his aides not think Williamson’s rehabilitation would be a controversial step and, more significantly, does the move to reconcile prelates on the hard right amount to a political realignment of the papacy under Ratzinger’s auspices?
Firstly, the interview in Sweden is not the first time Williamson has aired such contentious views; you only have to type his name into a search engine to see he’s got form. As such, offering him a return to episcopal function smacks of either a cavalier attitude or an incredible oversight. Either way, it’s a mess.
Secondly, though ecumenism has never been a Vatican watchword, particularly when it comes to Judaism, inter-faith progress has been made following the doctrinal shifts of 1960s. Indeed, one of the central tenants of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) was to remove ancient dogma that held Jews responsibility for the death of Christ.
Following Williamson’s outbursts, the Society of St Pius X quickly distanced itself from “all forms of racism and anti-Semitism,” while the Bishop offered an apology for his remarks.
But what exactly is the Society rallying against? According to its website, St Pius X is dedicated to “upholding traditional papal teaching, in opposition to the neo-modernist errors.”
The website also states that “it cannot be described as anti-Semitic to pray for their (Jews) conversion to the true Faith… or to question some of their political objectives.”
An important historical tenet for the traditionalists is their steadfast belief that the Catholic Church is the one and only “true” Christian church, with notions of religious liberty, Christian or otherwise, an affront to long-established convention. They also hold dear a literalist, inerrant view of the Bible, much the same as fundamentalist Muslims hold sacrosanct the literal translation of the Koran.
Yet it is this type of dogma that has led Islam, as well extremist groups from other religions, into direct conflict with modernity. Indeed, religious liberty (including freedom from religion) is viewed by many as a universal human right. Sentiments to the contrary remain discordant not only with liberal Catholics, but mainstream progressive thinking around the globe.
Although it would be wrong to equate Williamson’s views directly with that of the Society of St Pius X, there is no doubting that they both hold opinions far outside the mainstream. The Society’s raison d’être is the repeal of the Second Vatican Council, a retrograde step for the Catholic Church that, at present, looks wholly unlikely.
What should be a concern to both members and non-members of the faith is Pope Benedict’s courting of the catholic far-right, especially at a time when religious extremism is on the march.
It is worth mentioning that, in his youth (before promotion to the role of God’s representative on earth), Ratzinger worked on the Second Vatican Council as a theological consultant. Yet he remains a conservative, more aligned with traditional Catholic teaching than many of his predecessors.
Just how deep Ratzinger’s traditionalist sympathies run is unknown, though by offering an olive branch to those on the margins of his flock he may have offered a worrying glimpse.