What price Catholic unity?

Pope Benedict XVI’s embrace of four excommunicated bishops makes some locals—Catholic and Jewish—uneasy

The Rev. Michael Kiernan of the Sacramento Roman Catholic Diocese hopes that comments by a recently reinstated bishop don’t harm relations between Catholics and Jews.

The Rev. Michael Kiernan of the Sacramento Roman Catholic Diocese hopes that comments by a recently reinstated bishop don’t harm relations between Catholics and Jews.

Photo By Anne Stokes

Pope Benedict XVI recently welcomed four prodigal sons back into the fold. But how much will killing the fatted calf cost the Church?

The Holy See apparently didn’t foresee the fallout from the pope’s January 24 announcement to rehabilitate four excommunicated bishops, one a Holocaust denier. After a worldwide outpouring of outrage, the Vatican did an about-face last week and is demanding the bishop recant his statements before the black sheep is allowed back to the family table.

Bishop Richard Williamson, a British-born member of an ultraconservative faction of the Church, said in an interview for Swedish TV that “there was not one Jew killed by the gas chambers.” He also denied Adolf Hitler had a deliberate policy of exterminating Jews.

As the clip from the interview looped on YouTube, the Vatican drew fire from Jewish groups and German officials for inviting the bishop back. The pope risked alienating liberals in the church by lifting the excommunications, but with the added Holocaust denial, some local Catholics are wagging their heads in confusion and sadness. Some conservative Catholics are optimistic, but Sacramento area Jews are hurt and mad.

“If one believes in the value and dignity of human rights, it’s wrong at all levels to support anyone who denies the Holocaust, or who doesn’t believe Hitler didn’t intend to exterminate Jews,” said Rabbi Robert Dresser, chairman of the Sacramento-Davis Jewish Community Relations Council.

The Rev. Michael Kiernan of the Sacramento Catholic Diocese called the comments an “insult to Jews,” and hopes Williamson’s comments don’t damage hard-fought Catholic-Jewish relations in the greater Sacramento area.

“This particular man is making a ridiculous statement, and we’re all embarrassed and disappointed,” Kiernan said, noting that Catholics and Jews have worked toward warmer relations in the past 50 years. “Every effort will be made to undo any hurt. Jews are our brothers in faith. Jesus was a Jew.”

Like most family fights, the history behind the schism and awkward patch-up is messy. In the 1960s, the Vatican moved to make Catholicism more modern and open, including allowing Mass to be said in languages other than Latin. French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and his followers disagreed with the changes, and founded the Society of St. Pius X. In 1988, he promoted four society members to bishops against papal orders, including Williamson, prompting Pope John Paul II to excommunicate them all.

The SSPX branch, grown to 486 priests and thousands of parishioners worldwide, has had a rocky relationship with the Vatican, and many have speculated whether the Vatican feels compelled to restore its members to the Church before the faction becomes too strong.

At St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Carmichael, administrator Roger Michna is elated by the pope’s decision to reinstate the bishops. St. Michael’s is an SSPX chapel.

“We are very pleased with the outcome of the Holy Father’s decision,” Michna said. He said the church has about 400 parishioners attending two Sunday masses conducted in Latin by an SSPX priest from Los Gatos. Michna said he is not concerned about Williamson’s Holocaust denials.

“No, no, we think everything’s going smoothly,” Michna said. When asked if the pope’s move means a more conservative return to pre-Second Vatican Council reforms, Michna said he couldn’t comment.

The Rev. Matthew McNeely, a priest at St. Stephen’s in Carmichael, called the pope’s action “a great step forward” toward healing the schism. McNeely sees the pope’s decision as “beautiful and merciful,” and wants the bishops and their followers to be brought back into full communion of the church.

Rabbi Reuven Taff of Mosaic Law synagogue in Sacramento found the Pope’s action “shocking.”

“Williamson, to this day, continues to slander 6 million Jews whose lives were lost in the Holocaust,” Taff said, worrying aloud what will happen when no living Holocaust survivors remain. “It’s good to hear local Catholics are repudiating [Williamson’s] bigoted and racist views.”