Notes from Underground


The Bishop Williamson fracas
From Holy Mother to Big Brother



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I am a Catholic. I was officially received into the Church on the night before Easter, 2006, and that event followed several years of my being what could be called "Catholic-minded."

If there was one big thing that prevented me from taking that step for a while, it wasn't any of the usual bugaboos that often vex converts from Protestantism. I had no problem with the Church's Marian doctrine, or with the notion of praying to the saints, or with the presence of statues and icons, or with the dogma of transubstantiation (which declares that Christ is literally present in the wine and wafers offered during holy communion), or with any other uniquely Catholic traditions or rituals. In fact, I always very much liked those aspects of the Catholic faith. Call it a mere preference or inclination if you want, but I actually thought all those things were wonderful. I still do.

What made me hesitate in moving Rome-ward was, in fact, something quite different: it was a sense that the Church just wasn't what it used to be, that since the Second Vatican Council ("Vatican II") it had demolished much of what made it great and replaced it with things that just didn't measure up. The new hymns were dippy, mauldin '70s-era pop ballads. The Mass in the vernacular (the "novus ordo") was at times unbearably cheesy. Much, if not most, of the dignity and mystery of the old Tridentine Rite had been sapped away, all for the sake of seeming friendlier and folksier. For example, the congregation was asked to hold hands as they said the Our Father, and to greet one another and wish each other "peace" at a certain point in the service. I could have done without those innovations, to say the least. I still could do without them.

But at times I wondered whether something more significant had departed besides proper aesthetics. It seemed that maybe Vatican II wasn't just a good idea that had been badly misinterpreted (the explanation one usually hears from conservative Catholics), but was in itself a bad idea. I wondered why the Church had felt the need, in the midst of some of its greatest growth, to alter itself to keep step with the times.

Granted, none of the major doctrines of the faith were changed with Vatican II. Everything the Church believes, and compels her churchmen to believe, is identical to the beliefs of pre-Vatican II days. Still, an undeniable change in emphasis occurred that was not trivial. Vatican II signaled an effort to find "common ground" with people of other faiths. With Vatican II, the Church signaled that it wished to "reach out" to the world. When an institution takes such a unilaterally conciliatory stand, one has to wonder just what's going on, and fear for the future. Unilateral conciliation, after all, is almost inevitably a by-product of decline.

And, of course, there was a punitive side to Vatican II. As "nice" and genial as the Church tried to be in the wake of the Council, it soon became clear that it would brook no dissent on the part of its own traditionalists. The Tridentine Rite, in which the Mass was said in Latin facing the altar, was not just de-emphasized, it was eliminated. That was no less than a liturgical revolution, in effect leaving those who preferred the old way without a home.

I found that transformation so objectionable, and so cruel in its effects on the liturgically traditional faction of the Church, that I sympathized with the Society of Saint Pius X, an order formed by staunch conservative Archbishop Lefebvre of France that entered into formal schism in 1988 after Lefebvre consecrated four bishops without the consent of Pope John Paul II.

In recent years, the Church has taken steps to bring the SSPX back into the fold. John Paul II allowed the Latin Mass to be celebrated if approved by a local bishop, and Benedict XVI went even further, declaring that parishes have a right to hold the Latin Mass if they wish, regardless of what the local bishop thinks. Last month, Benedict lifted the excommunications of the four schismatic bishops and invited the SSPX to come home.

Sad to say, in the midst of that progress the Church has become mired in a PR nightmare. It has been discovered that one of the four SSPX bishops, Richard Williamson, has some unorthodox ideas about the Jewish Holocaust and has openly stated his doubt that the Nazis used homicidal gas chambers to murder millions of Jews during World War II. Benedict himself was apparently unaware of Bishop Williamson's opinions and was never briefed about them. Since finding out, however, the pope has switched gears and abruptly taken a hard-line stance: Williamson must retract his unacceptable historical opinions and must adopt more acceptable ones if he wishes to be a bishop of good standing in the Church.

At this point in my account, allow me to digress for a moment and return to my own story. I am a believer in the official account of the Holocaust. That is to say, I hold that the National Socialist Party had genocidal designs on European Jewry. I accept that millions were wiped out in homicidal gas chambers and that their bodies were cremated. I don't know it for a fact, in the same way that I don't know any supposed historical event to be factual; after all, I wasn't there. However, I accept that most credible historians say that the evidence overwhelmingly points to the occurrence of the atrocity.

That said, I see no reason to think the absolute worst of anyone who dissents from the official story on the Holocaust or any other historical event. Many Holocaust deniers (or "revisionists" if you prefer) are probably kooks and crackpots, and no doubt a great many are bristling anti-Semites. But many are simply eccentrics or independent thinkers who see things differently, without, in so doing, holding malice in their heart toward anyone. I see no reason to despise such people, and I am genuinely puzzled by the assertion that their theories make them complicit in some great evil. Saying that mass murder didn't take place, or didn't take place in such great numbers, is quite different from saying that mass murder, or even individual murder, is ever — pardon the term — kosher.

With all of that in mind, I am quite disappointed in the pope's decision to force Bishop Williamson to recant or be deposed as bishop. There is something about it that strikes me as quite disgusting, in fact. It is true that throughout history, popes have often used their position of power and imposed harsh sentences to bring some recalcitrant king or other to heel. But those actions at least ostensibly involved some doctrinal matter. The historicity of the Shoah during World War II is not a doctrine of the Church. It seems outrageous to force a man to publicly renounce his previous stance on a matter that is ultimately not relevant to the Catholic faith. The move stinks of public relations, of political correctness, of intellectual Stalinism. It also reeks of cruelty. It's as though this grown man is being forced to appear with a "D" for "Denier" stitched onto his chest as punishment for having a point of view outside the bounds of what is decreed to be acceptable belief. It's unseemly.

And of course one can't help but remark the audacity of double standards. Last year, when the U.S. Congress moved to recognize the Turkish slaughter of millions of Armenians as a genocide, neocons squawked about the imprudence of alienating the Turkish state, a supposed ally in the "war on terror." One imagines that if Bishop Williamson held that millions of Armenians weren't murdered by the Turks or that Walter Duranty was right and millions of Ukrainians weren't purposely starved by the U.S.S.R. during the 1930s, the controversy wouldn't be nearly so pitched. One can't escape wondering why the enshrinement of some atrocities is so much of a priority over that of others. Why are there laws in many European countries making denial of the Jewish Holocaust a crime, while no other, similar genocides receive any such legal privileges?

Though I am a Catholic, and a great admirer of the current pope, and though I mourn the tragedy of the Shoah (which I take to be historical fact), I am sick about the treatment Bishop Williamson has received, not only from Benedict XVI, but also from his fellow SSPX bishops and clergy, whose desire for reunion with Rome apparently trumps their ability to stand up for their fellow churchman's honor. Bishop Fellay, head of the SSPX, has responded to the outcry by firing Williamson as prior of a seminary post he has held for years and has denounced him as an all-around reprobate. Given that Fellay has probably known for years where Williamson stood on the Holocaust, such condemnatory remarks ring hollow at best.

It is one thing to distinguish one's own beliefs from those of someone you strongly disagree with; it is another to treat that person as if he is beneath contempt for holding different beliefs. It is quite another again to cave to political pressure, and denounce, isolate, and humiliate that person when the mob screams for his head. Though they cast shame on Bishop Williamson, it is in fact Benedict XVI, the Church Magisterium, and the SSPX hierarchy who ought to be ashamed of themselves in this whole sad affair. While engaged in a worthwhile endeavor of reuniting the Church with its traditional wing, they have tarnished and corrupted themselves terribly in the process. They now want Bishop Williamson to love not God but Big Brother.

February 19, 2009

© 2009 WTM Enterprises. All rights reserved.

Mr. Nowicki's personal blog is Dyspeptic Myopic, at www.andynowicki.blogspot.com.

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