In January, Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of four bishops of a small ultratraditionalist group that broke from the Catholic Church over the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. The pope’s action might have passed largely unnoticed had not one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, questioned the historicity of the Holocaust in a previously taped television interview that was broadcast the very day his excommunication was lifted.
Williamson’s outrageous comments set off alarm bells among Jews and Catholics alike. Jews wondered whether the lifting of Williamson’s excommunication suggested that anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial would be seen as acceptable positions for those within the Catholic Church. Both Jews and Catholics questioned why the Vatican apparently had not thoroughly investigated Williamson, an unrepentant Holocaust denier and open anti-Semite, prior to the lifting of his excommunication.
Subsequent statements by the Vatican and the pope reiterated the Catholic Church’s deep respect and esteem for the Jewish people, while sharply rebuking Williamson and other Holocaust deniers. In a mid-February meeting with American Jewish leaders at the Vatican, Pope Benedict said that denying or minimizing the Holocaust “is intolerable and altogether unacceptable.” He added, “This terrible chapter in our history must never be forgotten.”
Also reassuring to Catholics and Jews was the Vatican’s declaration that the Society of St. Pius X, the group to which Williamson belongs, must fully recognize the Second Vatican Council and the legitimacy of all the popes from Pope John XXIII to Benedict XVI before it can rejoin the Catholic Church. The Vatican also singled out Williamson, saying that before he can be reconciled with the Catholic Church, he must distance himself in an “absolutely unequivocal and public way” from his positions regarding the Holocaust.
Williamson’s recent “apologies” fall far short of satisfying the letter or the spirit of the Vatican’s directives. Yet while Williamson seems unwilling or unable to reject his odious positions, many religious and civic leaders have used his situation to acknowledge the Holocaust and to affirm its unique and terrible place in history.
In the Los Angeles Archdiocese, Williamson is hereby banned from entering any Catholic church, school or other facility until he and his group comply fully and unequivocally with the Vatican’s directives regarding the Holocaust. Later this year, I, Cardinal Mahony, will visit Israel and pay my respects to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust at the Yad Vashem Memorial in Jerusalem.
We are heartened by the many other religious and civic leaders around the world who have also rejected Williamson’s views. In particular, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Argentine Minister of the Interior Florencio Randazzo, whose country recently expelled Williamson, not to mention nearly 50 Catholic members of the U.S. Congress who wrote to the Vatican to express their concerns.
Holocaust deniers like Williamson will find no sympathetic ear or place of refuge in the Catholic Church, of which he is not — and may never become — a member. In rejecting the Second Vatican Council, the Society of St. Pius X and Williamson also reject Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), one of the most remarkable documents to come out of the Second Vatican Council. Published in 1965, the document changed forever the Catholic Church’s fundamental understanding of other religions, including Jews and Judaism.
In Nostra Aetate, the church explicitly rejects the charge of deicide against the Jews and affirms the kinship between the Catholic and Jewish faiths. “The church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.”
Let us remember that the American Jewish Committee worked closely with the Vatican at the time of the council toward the creation of Nostra Aetate. The horror of the Holocaust, which took place a mere 20 years before, certainly was fresh in the minds of Catholic leaders as they composed the document.
Admittedly, the past two months have been difficult for Jews and Catholics. However, we can take heart that Catholic-Jewish relations in Southern California remain strong. Our commitment to this relationship is exemplified in the many initiatives that bring us together, like the annual InterSem Retreat for seminarians from various denominations, model seders that teach Catholic school students about this important Jewish ritual and the Catholic-Jewish Educational Enrichment Program, which educates our children and future leaders in each other’s traditions.
For our part, as Catholic and Jewish leaders in Los Angeles, we recognize that only by working together with renewed vigilance will we be able to keep anti-Semitism at bay and prevent its reassertion as a legitimate expression.
Cardinal Roger Mahony is archbishop of Los Angeles. Rabbi Gary Greenebaum is U.S. director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and Seth Brysk is Los Angeles AJC executive director.