Fiasco over Holocaust-denier raises questions over quality of papal advice


The Lefebvrist affair suggests Pope Benedict is isolated from wise counsel, writes Paddy Agnewin Rome

OVER THE past week, for the umpteenth time in recent days, or so it seems, Pope Benedict XVI issued yet another unequivocal condemnation of the Holocaust.

At a meeting with members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, the Pope recalled his own 2006 visit to Auschwitz: “As I walked through the entrance to the place of horror, the scene of such untold suffering, I meditated on the countless number of prisoners, so many of them Jews, who had trodden that same path into captivity at Auschwitz and in all other prison camps.

“How can we begin to grasp the enormity of what took place in those infamous prisons? The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah was a crime against God and humanity.

“This should be clear to everyone. It is beyond question that any denial or minimisation of this terrible crime is intolerable and altogether unacceptable.”

Such a crystal-clear expression of solidarity with Jews and such a total rejection of Holocaust denial were, of course, prompted by the worldwide “scandal” provoked by the pope last month choosing to lift the excommunications of four “Lefebvrist” bishops, one of whom was a well-known Holocaust denier. With that decision, Benedict walked himself into an “unholy” mess.Most observers would argue that no person of good faith could ever have doubted Benedict’s position on the Shoah, so why has he had to profess his “solidarity” with Jews so vehemently in recent weeks?

The first answer is British-born Richard Williamson, an Anglican convert who later joined the Society of St Pius X, founded in 1970 by traditionalist French bishop Marcel Lefebvre. One of the four bishops “re-integrated” into the Catholic Church last month, he would seem to be a “bizarre” figure, in that he not only denies the Holocaust but also believes that the 9/11 Twin Towers attacks were not carried out by hijacked jets but rather were the result of “demolition charges”.

The lifting of the “Lefebvrist” excommunication prompts two fundamental questions. Firstly, in the interests of what sort of Church unity was it necessary to show clemency to a minority group (at most 150,000 followers in the 1.1 billion-strong church) which, as the National Catholic Reporter put it last week, has “consistently denounced the Second Vatican Council” while its followers “have repeatedly condemned all popes since Pius XII“?

Secondly, how come Benedict has allowed himself become so isolated that he could make such a huge mistake over Bishop Williamson? Remember, this particular Holocaust-denier has been “at it” for more than 20 years now, on radio, TV and print.

No one expects Benedict to know every detail about every priest in the church, but he does have some very astute and well-informed advisers, so what happened to their advice?

The eminent, dissident Catholic theologian, Hans Kung, a one-time close colleague of Pope Benedict, has his own theories as to just how the Benedict pontificate has managed, first to jeopardise relations with Islam (remember Regensburg, 2006) and now with Judaism: “He [the pope] is so shielded and cut off from the real world that he has no idea how disastrously his actions are received,” says Kung.

Some Vatican insiders confirm this theory, pointing out that Benedict relies almost exclusively on the advice of his trusted secretary of state, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, his former deputy at the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and a man with little or no “politico-diplomatic” experience.

This might explain just how the German Cardinal Walter Kasper, the man who heads the Commission for Relations with the Jews, was left entirely “out of the loop” on the Lefebvre issue. (On the day before the Vatican confirmed the lifting of the excommunications, Kasper had told diplomats that it would not happen).

It might also explain how a recent Vatican meeting ended up in a shouting match between Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re and the Benedict stalwart, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos, the man entrusted with negotiations between the Holy See and the Lefebvrites.

Many Vatican observers suggest that 81-year-old Benedict has been paying the price for his loyalty to trusted collaborators. Where new faces, people with greater diplomatic experience, not to say “political savvy”, are required, Benedict has tended to choose “loyalty” rather than “competence”.

When Pope Benedict was elected in 2005, many commentators argued that his pontificate would prove to be a backward-looking, apolitical, “hunker-down and ignore it” sort of time. What else could you expect from the Vatican’s long-time doctrinal watchdog, the man who hounded liberation theologians such as Leonardo Boff out of the church?

Writing last week, Kung seems to suggest that this is exactly what has happened: “The mood in the church is oppressive, reforms are paralysed, and the church is in crisis. Benedict is unteachable in matters of birth control and abortion, arrogant and without transparency and restrictive of freedom and human rights.

“The Pope is reorienting himself backwards, inspired by the ideal of the medieval Church, looking toward the Council of 1870, not the one of 1965.”

Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit illuminates cardinals’ choice during a papal conclave. Could it be, to use a famous expression once coined by former Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti, that the Holy Spirit “took a sabbatical” during the 2005 conclave?