The Pope and Bishop Williamson

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Here’s a posting from the Telegraph in the UK. It’s very interesting:

Benedict and the SSPX: the backlash begins

Posted By: Damian Thompson at Jan 24, 2009

The media backlash has begun. “Pope rehabilitates Holocaust denier” is the headline on the Reuters story by veteran Rome correspondent Philip Pullella. “Pope Benedict rehabilitated Saturday a traditionalist bishop who denies the Holocaust, despite warnings from Jewish leaders that it would seriously harm Catholic-Jewish relations and foment anti-Semitism.”

And this, from Andrew Sullivan: “This vile anti-Semite and Holocaust-denier has just been allowed back into the Catholic Church … I am truly, deeply ashamed of my church for this action and hope this provokes such an outcry it is reversed.”

Well, Benedict can hardly be surprised. I think those would have been my reactions until about 24 hours ago, when – after reading several careful analyses of the situation – I finally understood why the Pope has lifted these excommunications despite the fact that Williamson is a poisonous fruitcake. Williamson will, I suspect, soon disappear into a sect of his own making (perhaps one where he occupies his own “See of Peter”); it would be a shame if one man derailed the process of reconciliation between the SSPX and the Church – a process that, as Fr Z points out, has a long way to go. The SSPX has not been legitimised, he reminds us:

The bishops of the SSPX are validly consecrated bishops, but the fact remains that they were illicitly consecrated. That hasn’t changed. They are still not reconciled with the Bishop of Rome. They are still suspended a divinis. They still have no permission to exercise ministry in the Church. They may not licitly ordain. They have no authority to establish parishes, etc.

But will the public understand these niceties? And, even if it did, would it make any difference?

Three thoughts. First, the release of the Williamson interview on the internet in the week before the excommunications were lifted is not coincidental. There was a plot, if you like – though the plotters were probably motivated by genuine horror that this man was about to be rehabilitated by the Pope, however reluctantly.

Second, the failure of the SSPX to condemn Williamson for his views is scandalous. The Catholic Herald ran a front-page story about his Holocaust denialism last year, yet Bishop Bernard Fellay and the Society’s British representatives said nothing. Why?

Third, the Pope should have said more to explain his thinking. He could have pointed out, in plain language, that since Williamson was not excommunicated for his opinions – Holocaust denial is not an excommunicable offence – they were not technically a barrier to the lifting of the decree. And he could also have expressed his repugnance at those views.

Should the excommunications have been lifted? Yes. I don’t think Williamson should be allowed to block the eventual reconciliation of the SSPX with the Holy See, something he does not want to happen. (He’s an ex-Protestant and still manifests a distinctly Protestant attitude towards the Petrine office.)

Is the SSPX ready to rejoin the Catholic Church? No. It still manifests the most appalling arrogance and immaturity. Fellay’s hauty manner really gets up my nose: you’d think he was the Pope. Has Rome handled this matter skilfully? Not really. Some of those media headlines were preventible. And the media verdict does matter: apart from anything else, it plays a huge role in moulding the reception of papal initiatives within the Church.

So, despite supporting the lifting of the excommunications, I can understand why many Catholics feel outraged. Just so long as they have some outrage left to spare for someone else in the headlines this week: a man who yesterday signed a law preparing the ground for the killing of countless unborn babies.


  1. An interesting and thoughtful post, Friar Rick. However, I think we can be pretty sure that these guys are on the way back in and then the problems will really start.

    Williamson is not an isolated fruitcake within the SSPX and many of their supporters in contintental Europe are well known for their far-right views. Even if you lay aside the political agenda of many supporters of the SSPX you are left with the fact that the raison d’etre of the group is a fundamental rejection of Vatican II.

    I pray the Lord will see us safely through the rough waters ahead.

  2. I think that too much hay is being made over this Bishop Williamson. There are many sinners in the church. Having them back is a first step towards reconcilliation. I’m told that when one becomes Catholic they don’t need to know or understand all the vastness of the faith. They may learn that over time. God may work through this reconcilliation to bring a change of heart that could only be brought about within the fold of the true church.

    I find Martin’s comments a tad harsh and are lack charity. Even if they are true they are detraction. I ask Friar Rick that if you are serious about moderating readers comments that you not allow such detraction. Even when it involves a Bishop that you may like. – And since the excommunication has been lifted, he is a true Bishop.

  3. Left-right talk is inadequate, and has very little to do with reality.

    We can speak of the idiosyncratic though, and many who cleave to the SSPX have issues, which aren’t to be confused with “right” or “far right” positions on *anything*. There are some pretty idiosyncratic and downright heretical leftists in the Church too, who claim to cleave to the Council, but which give the late John XXIII reason to turn in his marble grave. Craziness in the Church is not reserved for those who are critical of novelty and change in general…and who have convictions about the past and present that don’t jive well with the tendencies of modern Catholicism.

    That said, the censures of their excommunications have been remitted, not because they are wonderful people…But because they are committed making a difference in the Church under the wings of the Holy Father. They are now in a place where they are open for the generous workings of the Holy Spirit and the maternal care of Mary, a mother to us and them. Rather than spit on the group and mutter to ourselves out of disdain, why not pray for these poor. We are poor too, are we not? Surely we’ve fought and contested something good and holy in our experience as Catholics, and have had to come to terms with our failings and stupidities. Shouldn’t we be eager to help them at this very great moment in time?

  4. James Belmont – I am a little confused by your reprimand. You do not say my comments about Richard Williamson are untrue but that I am guilty of detraction.

    Even if you are correct, detraction is not necessarily a negative action. It is about establishing a realistic rather than an illusory picture. I certainly think establishing a truthful picture is warranted in this case where people need to treat this man and his organisation with some caution.


  5. I’d say with *extreme* caution. Williamson should be re-excommunicated on the spot. He’s in deep trouble with the unbearable words he said. Really unbearable.

  6. I would agree with Tony’s comments. There is enough negativity being bantered about. Yes approach with caution. The group does have its issues. But better to bring them back into the church with love, kindness and charity. Let the work of the Holy Spirt play itself out. Can the Holy Spirit not work here or is that only for Post Vatican II crowds? We need to pray, why not offer some constructive ideas on how we may help? Why not start a Novena?

  7. Unfortunately, one cannot be excommunicated simply because he says crazy things about history, or uses nasal snuff, or pees on people’s houses. He ought to be reprimanded, yes – but excommunication is for other things. Moreover, he did not deny the Holocaust, though the media is having a fun time with what he did call in to question (gas chambers and the total number of Jewish people killed by them), which he said was an informed opinion.

    I’m not a fan of the Bishop, even if he is British (I like Brits a lot). But he deserves a fair hearing.

    On the flip side though, a recent interview with +Fellay, however, is very telling. He seems focused on having full unity more than ever.

    And this is good: There’s a whole generation of SSPX attendees who have never known unity with Rome.

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