Controversy at the Vatican: The Fuller Story

[The following piece contains a long consideration of beliefs of other religions. Some of our readers are uncomfortable with such material. They are hereby warned to skip to the next post. The piece is an expansion of one that I coauthored and appeared on the Washington Post and Newsweek blogs last week. All new material is solely my own.]

“Insanity is hereditary. I got it from my children.” So read an old bumper sticker. If insanity can be hereditary, then errors and blunders can perhaps be contagious. We seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of gaffes, and they started at the Vatican.

Days after the deed was done, no one seems to have come up with a plausible explanation for why the Pope decided to make himself a lightning rod for criticism. A week ago Saturday, he revoked the 1988 excommunication of four individuals who had contravened the authority of the Vatican by being consecrated as bishops by maverick French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Lefebvre had acted completely outside the jurisdiction of the Church. One of the four, Richard Williamson, had distinguished himself a short while earlier by claiming that there was no Holocaust; that a much smaller number than six million Jews perished and nary a one in a gas chamber. The Pope went ahead and reached out to him nonetheless, cozying up to a confirmed revisionist and Holocaust denier.

Why did the Pope do it? Pope Benedict has made Church unity a key area of his concern. Lefebvre started an organization of RadTrads – radical traditionalist Catholics – called Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). Today, their ranks have swelled to the tens of thousands, especially in areas in which Catholic enthusiasm is waning. The Pope would like to see these people return to the ranks of the Church. Lifting the ban of excommunication was both an olive branch, and a first step to a negotiated return of SSPX to the authority of Rome. It was aimed far more at the laypeople of the organization than at the four bishops themselves. It is likely that he believes that if they are brought into the orbit of the Church, that many can be weaned away from some of the more bizarre teachings of the RadTrads.

Why did he seem to do it, however, in the worst possible manner? Will Durant, that master of pithily summing up whole civilizations in an economy of words, taught, “To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy.” Certainly the other half is knowing when to say, and when not to say, the things that must be said. The Vatican move towards reconciliation with traditionalist Catholics is understandable in a vacuum, but politics, like nature, abhors vacuums. The reaction of the world community was entirely foreseeable. The move could not have come at a worse time. He appeared to be going soft on antisemites in the midst of a global tidal wave of anti-Semitism, led by both Islamist and far-left anti-war groups, in which Jewish synagogues and places of business have been attacked, and demonstrators openly carry signs – “Jews to the ovens!” “Upgrade to Holocaust 2.0” – that reflect what millions believe, but were reluctant before a few weeks ago to shout out openly. There is also something terribly ironic in making the announcement in the days approaching both the fiftieth anniversary of the Convocation of Vatican II, and January 27th, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, which is the day marked throughout Europe as Holocaust Memorial Day. How could the Pope not have seen the protests coming?

Condemnation of the move was swift, from government officials to media figures to religious leaders. The criticism was wall to wall in the Jewish community. This included the major Jewish organizations [full disclosure: including the one I serve], Elie Weisel, figures associated for decades with fruitful dialogue with the Church – all of them termed the Pope’s action a major affront to Jews, a seeming repudiation of the historic bridges to Jews erected by the Second Vatican Council and concretized by the late Pope John Paul II.

The Pope, however, was not the only one to have blundered. Mistakes were made all around.

Most outsiders got all the specifics wrong. The Pope did not “reinstate” the four as bishops. All he did was lift the excommunication ban placed upon them for having become unlicensed bishops without the consent of the Vatican. In the eyes of the Vatican, they are still not bishops licensed to act as bishops; just what they are remains to be worked out. The Vatican therefore did not embrace them as legitimate spokespeople for the Church, nor did it say that they were not going to hell for their sins. They were just no longer on an express lane there for the one particular sin of being illicitly consecrated as bishops.

Some apologists for the Vatican used this to minimize the severity of the Pope’s action. They, too, are wrong. It is impossible to dissociate the high-profile statements of Williamson and others from the particular breach for which they were excused. The Vatican has a longer history of careful diplomacy than virtually any government on the face of the earth. It understands that it cannot act on principle alone, but must consider the consequences of its deeds, and the way in which they are perceived by others. (This is, after all, its explanation for the silence of Pope Pius XII (not the Pius of SSPX) during the Holocaust. His apologists argue that speaking out more forcefully against Hitler would have endangered the lives of millions of Catholics. Pragmatically, they say, he could do more for Jews surreptitiously than by openly declaring what was on his mind. Historians are still locked in mortal combat regarding whether the wartime Pope was treacherously mute, or whether he was a great hero who saved a large number of Jews.) The Pope was seen as cozying up to some horrid stuff, of trying to find room for it under the Vatican umbrella, even if it meant overlooking the Jews. The protests, therefore, were entirely appropriate.

Almost everyone got the extent of the problems wrong. Williamson drew most of the fire, but that provided cover for all the other bad guys. Williamson’s primitive hatred of Jews is a symptom of much greater illness with SSPX itself. The issue is not one bad apple, but a whole orchard. True ideologues in their hatred, their group’s website still conveyed its sentiments a week ago. Jews, it tells us, are directly responsible for the crucifixion. Jews are cursed with the “blindness to the things of G-d and eternity.” As a people, they stand “in entire opposition with the Catholic Church.” “Christendom and Jewry are designed inevitably to meet everywhere without reconciliation or mixing.” Jews “should neither be eliminated from among us, nor given equality of rights.” SSPX bookstores sell the anti-Semitic screeds- The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and Henry Ford’s The International Jew. But Jews, we are told in an essay by SSPX icon Fr. Denis Fahey, should not worry. He explains why he is not an anti-Semite. Antisemites hate Jews, which he does not. He hates the Jewish naturalism, which is the plot of Jews (who have secretly abandoned God for the last two millennia) to take over the world. Williamson should not be seen as a problem for SSPX. SSPX itself is the problem.

By last Wednesday, the Pope reacted to the fireworks regarding Williamson with a forceful statement about the Holocaust. (The director of SSPX himself ordered Williamson reined in.) It was a positive step. The office of the two Israeli Chief Rabbis, which had earlier cut off talks with the Vatican in protest, reacted appropriately and swiftly with measured encouragement. If Williamson were the chief issue, the Pope would be well on his way to a resolution of the problem. Since the Pope’s goal is to bring back the group and its followers to the embrace of the Church, it will be much more difficult to rehabilitate an organization with strong leanings that are completely at odds with Church teaching.

Not everyone was pleased with Jews criticizing the Pope. Some saw this is as arrogant meddling with their religion. Ordinarily, there might be something to their objection. Traditional Jews are especially loath to tell others how to practice their faith. We who take faith seriously know that outsiders cannot tell believers what they should or should not believe. Matters of the spirit are not bargaining chips.

Those who voiced their disquiet about Jews speaking about the Pope, though, were also in error, because Jews were hardly alone in their criticism. There were agonized cries (not perfunctory protests) from within the Catholic world. Jews are most familiar with Vatican II because of the document Nostra Aetate, which banished the notion of Jewish collective guilt for the sin of deicide, affirmed that anti-Semitism is not just offensive but a sin, and left some still largely ill-defined room for the validity of Judaism, at least for Jews. It ultimately paved the way for recognition of the State of Israel. But Vatican II addressed many other issues in Church practice and thought. Just as there are Catholics who despised the rulings of Vatican II, seeing them as a break from legitimate tradition, there are those for whom Vatican II’s findings represented the success of the Church in negotiating the challenges of modernity while preserving the treasured past. Its spirit is the Catholicism they have practiced and preached for a lifetime. They would see any back-pedaling on Vatican II as the beginning of a slide into a medieval abyss of obscurantism. They have protested loudly and vigorously.

“Such gibberish is unacceptable,” said German Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations, referring to Williamson’s Holocaust denial. Bishops in France, Germany, England, Canada, the United States and elsewhere issued strongly worded statements against the Pope’s action. A group of German theologians was particularly harsh in arguing that there was no place within the Church for the baggage that SSPX brought with it.

Within this reaction lies a good deal of silver lining in a very dark cloud. The extent of Jewish protest points to the confidence Jews have in the essential good will of the Church of Rome, and that this state of affairs will not be reversed.

Several reasons motivate religious groups once hostile to Jews to mend their ways. Some feel guilt for complicity or worse in the horrors visited upon Jews for two millennia in the name of their faith. Others have new-found regard for the Jewish community, and wish to live with it in respect and tolerance.

These two reasons have changed the attitudes of major Christian denominations towards Jews, and we (especially in the traditional Jewish community, where the past is not quickly forgotten, and where we appreciate shifts of attitude to Jews as part of G-d’s handiwork) are grateful. Both of these reasons, however, are problematic and changeable. Guilt fades with time. Too many people within those denominations today feel that they have paid their dues to the Jews, and it is now time to move on. The respect argument relies on relationships that are far from uniform. They are often related to demographics. Protestant denominations that are strong in areas where Jews do not reside are the most hostile to Israel today.

The bottom line is that when good feelings towards Jews depend on guilt or a small number of degrees of separation, the future becomes impossible to predict.

A third reason for friendship towards Jews is more inviting, and far more enduring: the realization that Judaism bestowed spiritual gifts upon the world that it still eagerly consumes. Jews and Judaism can be appreciated because all the negative stereotypes about them are realized to be wrong. This reason is based on what is assumed to be true, not on what is pragmatic. Truth can also be subverted, but it is harder to do so. Since Vatican II, two generations of Catholics have grown up with different facts about Jews, different truths, than many of their forebears.

The Pope’s actions remain troubling and uncomprehended. (The DaVinci Code may have promoted Opus Dei to a position of sinister mystery it does not deserve; the real Church is far more inscrutable.) They should not erase the reality of what happened in the Catholic Church four decades ago. Vatican II erased the charge of collective guilt; it proclaimed that anti-Semitism was a sin; it acknowledged a covenant between G-d and the people of Israel. The huge chorus of sincere voices within that Church that has risen to the defense of these teachings is no small consolation. Jewish criticism of the Pope would have had to be more muted had we not depended without reservation on a huge reservoir of support from the Catholic world. We are troubled by what is happening around us, but at the same time subconsciously acknowledge that, by G-d’s mercy, Vatican II blunted much of the hatred of centuries, and in many, many cases, turned foes into dear friends.

We hope that Pope Benedict – himself one of the important contributors to Vatican II – will find the insight to achieve his goals without harming this legacy. He can do so by making it clear to both SSPX and the world that hatred of Jews in the name of the Church will not be acceptable, and must be left at the door before people can feel fully reintegrated. There will be no compromise, and no turning a blind eye to what millions of other Catholics will not accept.

A statement by US bishops, citing Nostra Aetate itself, put it succinctly: “G-d holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues…Anything reminiscent of the teaching of contempt, including the charge of deicide, is unacceptable from the standpoint of Catholic teaching today.”

[Postscript – Within the last few days, statements have emerged from the Vatican that have said everything that should allay the genuine fears of the Jewish community. We should consider the matter closed. At least two of my sources – both in Rome – have plausibly explained the events as owing to a breakdown of the usually well thought-through diplomacy of the Vatican. This has occurred because of the shift in personnel at the Vatican Secretariat that came with the election of the new Pope. The Vatican has hopefully learned its lessons; the lesson for the Jewish community is that the effects of Vatican II on attitudes towards Jews and Judaism are long-lasting and reliable.]

We hope that this statement will turn out to be an accurate reflection of the future actions of the Vatican.

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16 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    If Benedict XVI wanted to bring SSPX into disrepute among lay Catholics, he could have hardly have chosen a more effective method than sparking off these protests. At the same time, by appearing re-conciliatory, he makes it easy for the SSPX laity to abandon the organization and become Catholics again.

  2. Chaim Fisher says:

    I don’t care if it’s long. This article is succinct, beautifully researched and very important.

    Benedict does seem to be part of the whole move to the right that the world is experiencing in all areas of belief. Our BT movement must be the cause of it, but it’s undeniable.

    The amazing thing would be for the Catholics to move back to the right but to take back with them the meforash acceptance of the Jews that came out of Vatican II. Then their whole treck would have been ‘worthwhile.’

    Now not to disappoint all the bloggers who like to disagree with me here, I just want to add that we also need continually to pound on the idea that Islam indeed has a longer and better history of respect for and coexistence with the Jews than the Catholics do, regardless of all the quotes you can find to the contrary. Islam’s historical acceptance of us is a drum we must sound continually, loud and clear, instead of constantly beating the war drums of how much we hate them and how both of us wish each other were dead etc. etc.–besides all the politics and battles with the situation on the ground that we can and must fight…

  3. L. Oberstein says:

    In our own Jewish community, there are those who cre deeply about how it will look to the gentiles and those who are focused only on being 100% correct. Without personally opining, this is exactly what Rabbi Haskell Lookstein said in his explanation of why he participated in a prayer service with gentiles in front of Obama. He derides the RCA for being such a stickler for Jewish norms without taking into account how it would have looked if everyone but the Orthodox Jews participated. His whole defense has nothing to do with halacha,but with how it would look. His “heter” came fromJoe Lieberman.After the fact, Rabbi Broyde gave him a source to permit it retroactively. The Catholic Church has its own “universe” and the present Pope is a theologian, not a PR man. He wants to bring back the lost sheep and strengthen his flock. I honestly believe that Holocaust Denial by this Bishop was not on his radar screen when he made this decision. However, his advisors should have alerted him. Mypoint is that it happens in our hierarchy too.

  4. Ori says:

    Chaim Fisher: Islam’s historical acceptance of us is a drum we must sound continually, loud and clear,

    Ori: Why and to what end? To convince Muslims their religion really is tolerant? Either they already think that, or the fact that a few heretics tell it to them will be irrelevant. To remind Catholics of the sins of their ancestors? Why – the people who committed them are dead anyway.

  5. Nathan Elberg says:

    Chaim, face forward, not backwards in terms of deciding friends and enemies. And if you look carefully backwards, to the history of Islamic-Jewish relations, you will find plenty of murder, oppression, forced conversion, and other forms of violence. Of course if you choose to ignore all the facts to the contrary (including the words and actions of their “prophet,”), then you can believe that there is historical Islamic acceptance of Jews.

  6. Baruch Pelta says:

    Rabbi Oberstein:

    What you say about R’ Lookstein is not true. You write that “His whole defense has nothing to do with halacha,but with how it would look. His ‘heter’ came fromJoe Lieberman.” But that’s not true. He said he felt it was permitted and he talked to people who felt it was permitted based on halachic sources. Joe Lieberman had nothing to do with it. Even if he did talk to Rabbi Broyde afterwords as to before the service (although I am skeptical of how you came to possess that information), he had other sources and he said he talked to people beforehand.

    One need not agree with Rabbi Lookstein to realize that your characterization of his defense is false.

    (paranthetically, I wonder how many times rabbis who write/say falsehoods like this and are then corrected, then proceed to apologize to the rabbanim they talked about before Yom Kippur. For example, those who misrepresent that speech Rabbi Lamm gave by spewing that “RABBI LAMM CALLED THE GEDOLIM CAVEMEN!!!” When corrected, do they proceed to call Rabbi Lamm? I don’t know Rabbi Oberstein personally so I’m not talking about what he does, but I’m saying in general…maybe this is one of those things slowing the redemption.)

  7. L. Oberstein says:

    To Baruch Pelta: In answer to your question. I was sent the entire textg of Rabbi Lookstein’s sermon the following Shabbat in his shul and he is the source of my information. My point was that in our religion also we have those who are totaly focussed inward and those who value what the outside will think. There was a Christian minister who was kicked out of his church because he participated in a joint prayer service after 9/11 in Yankee Stadium. His group felt he “recognized” other faiths by being on the same platform.
    In teh area of inter-faith dialogue,there are those for whom dialogue equals recognition and those who feel that dialogue will prevent misunderstanding and show we have a valid point of view. For the orthodox,this issue was settled by Rabbi Soloveitchik long ago who was against it. The Pope didn’t actually deal with the specifics of this one priest who is a denier, he was inerested in preventing a scism.What is the price of unity? The Jews also deal with this question. Do we sit on a Board of Rabbis with gay rabbis? How far can one go ? I will let the great ones make those decisions.

  8. Ori says:

    Imagine that Raffi the Reform Rabbi were to give a speech saying abortion(1) should be legal, and at the option of the pregnant woman. Then, at some subsequent point, Ovadiah the Orthodox Rabbi were to invite Raffi to spend a Shabbat with him, study Torah together, and so on.

    How would you react if the Pope were to tell Rabbi Ovadiah he did wrong? Is there any reason hold a Pope to a higher standard?

    (1) Catholics believe that life begins at conception and abortion is murder. Therefore, for them this isn’t the same as denying the holocaust – it’s more similar to advocating the killing of more Jews in 1942, which the holocaust was ongoing. Much worse.

  9. Charlie Hall says:

    Dear Rabbi Oberstein,

    Rov Soloveitchik did not settle the issue of interfaith dialogue. It is clear that his opinion was never accepted in Israel, for rabbis continue to meet with leading Christian clergy.

    For example, there is a continuing dialogue between the Chief Rabbis of Israel and the Anglican Communion:

    And a continuing dialogue with the Vatican:

    And of course even in America there are Orthodox rabbis who openly support Christian Zionists, which does not mean Christians who support Israel but rather Christians who hold a specific end-times theology that is a matter of current theological controversy within Christianity.

  10. Baruch Pelta says:

    Rabbi Oberstein:

    I have not seen Rabbi Lookstein’s sermon, but what I have seen is the letter he sent out to members of the RCA. In that letter, which is certainly part of his “whole defense,” he attempted to provide a halachic justification for his participation. Again, one need not agree with Rabbi Lookstein’s justification to see you misrepresented his defense. As for my own view of what he did, I choose to withhold judgement on this particular issue.

    You write that for the Orthodox the issue of interfaith dialogue was settled by the Rav “who was against it.” This obfuscates the Rav’s true position; I realize that Rabbi Lookstein also made this mistake, but it is a mistake indeed. The Rav was against interfaith theological dialogue, but social dialogue is a horse of a different color. I would advise you to read Dr. David Berger’s response to Dr. Eugene Korn from the 2003 Boston College seminar entitled “Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik on Interreligious Dialogue: Forty Years Later” as well as Dr. Lawrence Kaplan’s “Revisionism and the Rav.” The Rav would certainly disagree with the implications of your statement that “dialogue equals recognition.”

    You ask if “we sit on a Board of Rabbis with gay rabbis.” I don’t see the difference between sitting on a Board of Rabbis with different types of heterodox rabbis, whether they be gay or not. The fact is that the Rav and Rabbi Eliezer Silver refused to sign the ban on participating in interdenominational organizations such as the Synagogue Council of America and the New York Board of Rabbis; the RCA itself stayed in the SCA where there were not a few heterodox rabbis.

  11. Todd V says:

    Very balanced and informed article from your perspective. Just so readers of this forum know, one of the Vatican statements in recent days is that Williamson must publically recant.

    My favorite quote in your article:
    “The DaVinci Code may have promoted Opus Dei to a position of sinister mystery it does not deserve; the real Church is far more inscrutable.”

    LOL! but so often true. For more on that from a Catholic insider see

    Todd V

  12. mycroft says:

    “The Rav was against interfaith theological dialogue, but social dialogue is a horse of a different color. I would advise you to read Dr. David Berger’s response to Dr. Eugene Korn from the 2003 Boston College seminar entitled “Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik on Interreligious Dialogue: Forty Years Later” as well as Dr. Lawrence Kaplan’s “Revisionism and the Rav.” The Rav would certainly disagree with the implications of your statement that “dialogue equals recognition.”

    Agreed-see how the Rav himself gave the speech at a Catholic Seminary in Boston that essentially was published later as The Lonely man of Faith . Of course, there are interesting details like that the Talmud quotes that underlie his ideas were not spoken at the lecture but rather in footnotes to the article. Life and halacha is a lot more complex than simple slogans.

  13. dr. bill says:

    Mycroft, it is actually much more than a speech. I believe the mental health project that was the reason the rav ztl went to speak at the catholic seminary, had jewish as well as catholic and protestant funding. Like some of the religious / philosophical works of rishonim, it has a universal charachter.

    despite this, the rav opposed watching a funeral in a catholic church on television. how he might of judged the current circumstance will, like most things be debated. one thing i feel more sure about: he would have never approved the RCA’s public condemnation.

  14. mycroft says:

    “The DaVinci Code may have promoted Opus Dei to a position of sinister mystery ”

    An interesting tidbit is that the property adjacent to the major headquarters of OPus Dei is the Stern College major building. Opus Dei has invited Judaic teachers from YU to speak at their building which appears to be a residence and office building.

    ” rav opposed watching a funeral in a catholic church on television”
    Very diplomatic language-some claim that the Rav prohibited watching JFKs funeral to his shiur. An obvious question JFK was killed on a Friday he was buried after a mass on Monday. Certainly the 60s had other assassinations and there was no shnuah that it was assur to watch the funerals on TV. I have contacted some who were close to the Rav from the shiur in 63-64 and none had heard of this story independently-of course I haven’t heard does not mean that it doesn’t exist.It is possible the Rav had said some words to the effect it is better not to watch-especially it is no secret that he did not like JFK at al. Sadly, since the Rav is no longer here we will never know exactly what the Rav said or what his intention was with those words.

    ” how he might of judged the current circumstance will, like most things be debated.”
    Agreed-though IMHO it is probable if not beyond reasonable doubt that he wouldn’t have approved of doing the actions involved but certainly I have no doubt that the following is true

    ” one thing i feel more sure about: he would have never approved the RCA’s public condemnation.”

  15. mycroft says:

    “The fact is that the Rav and Rabbi Eliezer Silver refused to sign the ban on participating in interdenominational organizations such as the Synagogue Council of America and the New York Board of Rabbis; the RCA itself stayed in the SCA where there were not a few heterodox rabbis.”

    R E Silver was against the SCA but refused to sign the ban because RYBS was in favor of the SCA and as he put it to R A Kotler your students are not particiipating in the SCA so the purpose of the ban was to attack RYBS students who were following their Rebbe and thus R E Silver refused to sign the ban.
    The SCA was made up of lay and Rabbinic groups thus the OU and the RCA were members-as were the equivalent lay and Rabbinic groups of the Reform and Conservative movements. The SCA ran by consent-thus any organization-including its lay components could VETO any action of the SCA. BTW-the Rav was not in favor of belonging to the NY Board of Rabbis-thus you had many of his talmidim who were active in the SCA but did not belong to the NY Board of Rabbis.

  16. Baruch Pelta says:

    R E Silver was against the SCA
    What’s your source on that?
    In any event, R’ Silver told R’ Rackman not to pay any attention to the ban.

    BTW-the Rav was not in favor of belonging to the NY Board of Rabbis
    What’s your source on that? Most treatments I’ve seen haven’t really pinpointed to the Rav’s actual position, but simply noted that he refused to sign the ban.

    (For some reason the above seems to come off sarcastic; I’m really just curious as to what your sources are and I’m not trying to prove your assertions false.)

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