The Bonehead Bishop
Late last year, while most of us were obsessing about Barack Obama and the collapsing housing market, tens of thousands of traditional Catholics around the world were spending hours at prayer. Over the course of a month, in fact, they tallied up 1.7 million “rosaries”—those 55 little glass beads on a string, each of which represent a “Hail Mary” or an “Our Father.”
It was a tsunami of supplication--a lobbying effort to shake up the Vatican in Rome. What these old-school Catholics wanted was for Pope Benedict XVI to lift, after 20 years, the excommunication order on a group of slightly wacky fundamentalist bishops who call themselves the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX)
Somebody Up There must have been listening because, earlier this year, the Pope did exactly that: moved by prayer, or politics, or perversity, Benedict lifted the yoke of excommunication from the breakaway clergymen, the first important step in welcoming them back into the Roman Catholic Church.
Now normally this wouldn’t be a big deal. Schisms come and schisms go, and the quarrels of bishops don’t count for too much in the modern world. But there was a wild card in this story, and his name was Richard Williamson, and his loose tongue set off an international storm that seriously scuffed the image of the 1.1 billion-member Catholic Church.
Before I go on, a disclosure. I’m a (lapsed) Catholic, and this story has its roots in my hometown of Sherbrooke, Quebec. There, as a youngster, I was an altar boy, and I could recite the service of the Mass in the perfectly-enunciated Latin. Like my mother and sister, and a billion other Catholics, I obediently worshipped in a language that I couldn’t understand, but that was okay. It was ritual, it was holy, it was our version of talking in tongues.
Then, in the mid-60s, Vatican II came along and changed everything. That church council launched a whole series of reforms; most notably, the Mass would henceforth be said not in Latin, but in the language of the faithful. What that ushered in, then, was an English Mass, a French Mass, a Spanish Mass, and so on. It was a break with two millennia of tradition. (The Council also got rid of fish Fridays—the silliest tradition of them all.)
No big deal, you’d think. God understands all languages. But wrong. It was a very big deal for the traditionalists. They said No. They saw a vernacular Mass as the ugly face of modernity. It took the “mystery” out of the Mass and out of the priesthood: “Dominus vobiscum” carries a lot more holy bang that “The Lord be with you.” So the holdouts for traditional organized themselves into groups like the SSPX, and they continued to celebrate the mass in Latin. Over time the Vatican grew vexed at this challenge to its authority, and excommunicated them. (Excommunication means exclusion from the sacraments of the church. It’s a kind of exile, a holy blacklist.)
A year later, on April 5, 1989, the story really heated up. That’s when one of the excommunicated bishops, Richard Williamson-- dour, humorless, a Brit who wears his arrogance like a badge--visited the local SSPX church in Sherbrooke. Williamson was on an Eastern Canada tour to beat the drum of traditional values. There was a small congregation in attendance at Our Lady of Lourdes Church, maybe 20 or 30 people. They were there expecting the usual polemic against modernism. Instead, Williamson dropped a bombshell.
“There was not one Jew killed in a gas chamber,” the bishop declared. “It is all lies, lies, lies.”
“The Jews created the Holocaust so we would prostrate ourselves on our knees before them and approve of their new state of Israel.”
A local reporter in the audience, Rossana Coriandoli, was stunned. She’d heard that Williamson was going to say something controversial, but this was over the top. “It was very creepy,” she recollected recently, 20 years later. She didn't remember much else, except that when she looked around at the congregation “no one seemed outraged.”
Sherbrooke has a tiny Jewish population, but when one of them, Dr. Alan Fein, read Williamson’s comments in the paper the next day, he was furious. He felt the bishop was promoting anti-Semitic hate, and should have been deported. “So I called the RCMP and the anti-defamation league,” he told the local newspaper at the time.
The RCMP looked into it, but decided there was not enough evidence to prosecute Williamson for hate propaganda. They couldn’t find a tape recording of his remarks.
The next day the bishop moved on to Montreal where he decried rock and roll music, drugs, nuns “behaving like dancing girls,” and other evils of modernity. Probably aware of Montreal’s sizeable and influential Jewish community, however, Williamson had nothing further to say about the Nazi death camps.
Fast forward 20 years. It’s January, 2009, and Pope Benedict decides the time is right to invite the traditionalists of the SSPX back into the fold. So in the name of Church unity, the Vatican “re-communicates” four SSPX bishops, including Richard Williamson. But the Vatican, incredibly, fails to do a routine background check. (Or else, it doesn’t care.)
The result is a head-on collision with the Internet Age. An Israeli news agency Googles the words “Bishop Richard Williamson” and up pop the quotes from his “lies, lies, lies” Sherbooke sermon in 1989. There’s also an interview with Swedish TV last November in which he repeats his no-gas-chamber nonsense, and says that only 300,000 Jews were killed, not six million. There are headlines of outrage all over the world: What was the Church thinking when it invited this Neanderthal back in from the cold?
Relations between the Vatican and Jews have never been very good. This made things much worse. Vatican officials pleaded that they were unaware of Williamson’s Holocaust heresy. The bishop is told to recant his most outrageous remarks--to wear the figurative hair shirt--or risk spending the rest of his life in that wilderness occupied by defrocked and disgraced clergymen. (Meanwhile, the notorious Swedish interview already has more than 100,000 hits on YouTube, at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k6C9BuXe2RM)
Is the Williamson affair a blip, an honest oversight by the Vatican, or is there a discernible pattern here? You be the judge: Two weeks ago, Pope Benedict promoted an Austrian bishop, Gerhard Maria Wagner, who believes that homosexuality is curable, and that Hurricane Katrina was sent by God to clean out the “spiritual pollution” of New Orleans. Anyone who’s visited the poor black neighborhoods that were submerged by Katrina knows how offensive this comment is. On Feb. 15, after another firestorm of controversy, Wagner had the good sense to resign.
Although I no longer practice the faith, I’ve never lost my fascination with the way the world’s oldest institution manages its affairs. One of its tactics, in moments of stress, is Earnest Denial. I contacted the Catholic archdiocese in Sherbrooke to get their take on the Williamson scandal. Sorry, they said, nobody remembered a thing about the bishop's 1989 visit. I called the local chapter of the SSPX and they mumbled “no comment.” They directed me to the order’s Superior-General in Ontario, but he was “unavailable due to travel.” It’s almost as if everybody was hoping this little incident would fall between the cracks of history.
Here in BC, the SSPX has only a few hundred followers, with churches in Langley and in Nanaimo. When I asked the regional prior, Fr. Loren Gerspacher, about the Williamson affair, his voice dropped to a whisper, he said the bishop was a “very respected” member of the society, but he was not at liberty to say anything more.
I had other questions, like, why would the Roman Catholic Church invite a bigoted Holocaust-denying misogynist back into the fold, and excommunicate people like the American Catholic activist, Father Roy Bourgeois, who advocates for the ordination of women into the priesthood? The answer, I fear, is obvious: Williamson’s thinking is more aligned to the mindset of the old boys in Rome with the funny hats, than is the thinking of an activist priest who believes in the equality of women. A strain of anti-Semitism, prompted by the false conviction that the Jews killed Jesus, has never been far from the heart of traditional right-wing Catholic orthodoxy.
It is so, and always has been thus. The Williamson affair was triggered by simple-minded historical revisionism, but it’s really about the age-old struggle within Christianity of yesterday versus today, pope-ocracy versus democracy, the mediaeval versus the modern. And to the discredit of the Catholic Church, the medieval rarely goes without a fight.
Postscript: Following the controversy, Williamson was sacked from the directorship of the Le Reja seminary in Argentina by the head of the Latin American chapter of the SSPX. Days later, the Argentinian government ordered him to leave the country, or face expulsion. The suggestion was that he had not been forthright about his “true motives” for being in the country.