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Papal Myopia?

This past week, the Chief Rabbinate decided to cut off diplomatic relations with the Vatican over the recent decision of Pope Benedict XVI to welcome back to the Church the long discredited Bishop Richard Williamson of Britain, and three other breakaway bishops who were excommunicated by John Paul II in 1988. The bishops had been ordained without Vatican permission by the renegade French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

The Vatican decree referred to the need to overcome the “scandal of divisiveness” and seek reconciliation and “full communion” with Lefebvre’s order, the ultra-conservative Society or Fraternity of St Pius X.

Bishop Williamson, who has said that the Vatican is controlled by Satan and that the Jews are bent on world domination, reiterated in a broadcast last week on Swedish television that the historical evidence was “hugely against six million having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler. I believe there were no gas chambers.”

Jewish leaders in Italy like Renzo Gattegna, the head of the Union of Jewish Communities in Italy, said the rehabilitation of Bishop Williamson was “terrible not only for Jewish people but for the whole of humanity”. He said that Italian Jews would refuse to take part in joint prayers with Christians on Tuesday marking Holocaust Day, known in Italy as “The Day of Memory.”

Bishop Williamson is well known for denying that millions of Jews died in Nazi gas chambers; in addition, he has also endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic forgery used since the late 19th century to fuel anti-Jewish violence—a perennial best-seller in the Arab world.

This is all the more amazing especially when considering how incidents of anti-Semitic violence in Europe reached post-Holocaust record highs over the past month. Jewish children have been violently attacked in France, barred from schools in Denmark, and harassed in England, Sweden, Switzerland, Holland and Germany just for being Jews.

As one of the most important moral leaders of our age, the Pope’s decision to welcome such a dubious figure is sad as it is perplexing. While I do not think the Pope purposely intended to discard over sixty years of positive Catholic and Jewish interfaith relations, the Pope’s decision unfortunately apparently relied upon researchers within the Vatican that should have known better. Let us see how the events unfold.

Postscript: February 11, 2009

All is well that ends well. Pope Benedict XVI, met with Jewish leaders in an effort to mend fences after lifting the excommunication of a schismatic bishop who has publicly denied the scale of the Holocaust, said Thursday that the Roman Catholic Church was “profoundly and irrevocably committed to rejecting anti-Semitism.” He also condemned Holocaust denial as “intolerable and altogether unacceptable,” and said it should “be clear to everyone,” especially to clergy members, that the Holocaust was “a crime against God and humanity.”

This is a very important statement that reflects the greatness of the Vatican; lesser men would not have gone the extra distance to make shalom. Let us pray that Pope Benedict XVI has a safe and successful trip to the Holy Land in May.