Lots is going on in Europe these days, and not all of it is a pleasure. Here’s the full version.

Last week (the week before last actually already), Pope Benedict XVI revoked the excommunication of four priests that are part of the Pius Brotherhood (the decree in Italian). I’ve seen a lot written about it, but the only piece I’ve found so far that did (or could?) actually put matters into context was on Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung‘s site.

I’d like to stress that my reporting on matters and my attempt at understanding them does not mean I agree with their conclusions. My opinion will be stated at the end of this post.

In 1970, Marcel Lefebvre, archbishop of Dakar, founded the reactionary Pius Brotherhood in response to the changes the Second Vatican Council was to bring about in the Catholic Church, most noticeably liturgy. His open resistance to what had been defined in the council’s constitution Sacrosanctum Concilium among other things made Pope Pius VI suspend Lebfevre’s position as a bishop in 1976.

Now, it’s vital that you understand that in Catholicism, a person becomes priest respectively bishop through ordination, which is considered a sacrament. Sacraments (baptism, communion / eucharist, confirmation, marriage, ordination, anointing of the sick, confession) cannot be undone, so once you’re baptized, you’re Christian (that view is shared by all Christian denominations), so, unlike among Protestants, a bishop or a priest cannot get “fired” from their status but removed from their position or have their position suspended.

Josef Ratzinger, then already a highly respected young professor of dogmatics, was the advisor on questions of dogmatics of the progressive Cardinal Frings (Cologne) to Vaticanum II. In contrast to what many pieces I’ve seen written suggest by simply assuming that he secretly opposed the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council, Ratzinger was active (and influential) in the making of the declarations. People that were his students around that time told me that, despite being labelled conservative now, his interpretations were refreshing and progressive then, just that his scholarly approach made him base everything on the scriptures as opposed to a spiritually tinted gut feeling that is not uncommon these days among secular Europeans.

In 1988, Lefebvre ordained four of the priests in his brotherhood as bishops without Papal consent; this violation of constitutionalised ecclestical hierarchy resulted in him and the priests getting excommunicated by Pope John Paul II. Among those priests was the now notorious Richard Williamson, who had stated in an interview for Swedish TV held in German that he did not believe that Jews were killed in the gas-chambers and that only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews had been murdered. So, while he had not denied the Holocaust in its entirety, he had diminished it. Either qualifies as a criminal offence in Germany, so now his case has become a matter of investigation for German public prosecutors. The Vatican immediately expressed its outrage over and disapproval of those statements. Pope Benedict XVI explicitly codemned all kinds of Holocaust denial and diminishing.

So what about that revokation of that excommunication anyway?

I’ve been trying to get a few inside sources, but all we can tell for now is highly speculative. Benedict’s motivation definitely has not been, as many blog posts insinuate, sympathy with Holocaust deniers. Such suggestions are frankly rather insulting and display a great deal of ignorance towards Benedict’s history of Christian – Jewish dialogue already under his predecessor.
The FAZ piece linked to above suggests he wanted to fix broken hierarchies within the Church, but that, too, is rather speculative.
An early commentary suggested that Benedict had acted up to the one of the highest of Christian ideals, mercy. Christianity, if you go all the way, requires you to have mercy with everybody even if you disagree with them or don’t have forgiveness for them. This, while also speculative, appears to be the most convincing explanation to me as it reflects Benedict’s “track record” of sticking to Christian teaching even if it doesn’t earn him the popular vote. And I think that all those Orthodox Jews that state that Judaism shouldn’t adapt to “feel good” popularism can relate to that way of thinking. It appears that Benedict is trying to prevent a larger rift, a schism between Orthodox and “feel good” reformatory forces within the Church by pointing out the core values of Christianity. And in a “feel good”, “religion is a social club”, and “I need a church for a nice wedding location” society, this is a smack into the face of many that are brought to see their complacency as hypocrisy, religiously speaking.

The revocation of the excommunication is tied to certain conditions, e.g. the priests acknowledging the role of the Pope and the consensus of Vaticanum II. Alas, I haven’t found many news sources pointing this out. So much for journalistic honesty.

At this point, we cannot even claim that Benedict knew about Williamson’s statements, afterall a pope is not omniscient and is not believed to be omniscient.

Will we ever know more? Yes, we will. Not necessarily during my lifetime or yours, but any documents – private, inofficial, and official – will go into the Vatican archives (they’re not secret, they’re just called such as in “secretary”; any scholar with references may access them – of course they cannot have any tourist flipping through the old parchments). The archivists are still working on organizing much older documents, so public release might still take a while.

The public outcry over Benedict’s decision was a loud one. The German Episcopal Council expressed their disapproval, the Israeli rabbinate respectively the minister for religious matters, Yizchak Cohen, threatened to severe ties with the Vatican, and Charlotte Knobloch, head of the German Jewish Council, declared the dialogue between the council and the Church was off. Johannes Gerster, president of the German-Israeli-Society and head of the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation in Israel, lamented the Vatican’s lack of sensitivity, but stated he did not expect this issue to have any lasting effects on Israeli-Vatican relationships. The chief rabbi of Italy though expressed his contentment about the Pope’s statement of clarification condemning Holocaust denial.

Now, Charlotte Knobloch refused to partake in the German Federal Parliament’s session on Holocaust Remembrance Day. She’d disapproved of the survivors being placed in the visitors’ ranks and felt they hadn’t been given due respect. The news bits concerning this included confusing pieces of information, but as far as I could see, the parliament’s protocol does not admit non-members of parliament or the government as speakers, so it had just never been a matter of consideration. Anyhow, Knobloch and the chair of parliament have since been communicating and from what I hear, they reconciled.

Also, there’s been some criticism of the Pope’s recent choice of a conservative bishop for the Austrian diocesis of Linz. Wagner, the bishop to be, had made a few controversial statements in the past that – I’d have to feign surprise here – are pretty much in line with what you get to read by many Orthodox rabbis on the respective subjects. Cheap polemics is not in place here unless one cares to debate those issues with Orthodox Judaism as well.

Now, for my opinion: I can understand why Benedict XVI may have revoked those priests’ excommunication. It’s an inner-ecclesiastical matter that goes in line with his faith. I do see the insensitivity of the decision. I do, however, also see that many journalists, pseudo-journalists and wannabe-social analysts sprang to the occasion and declared their views without even trying to understand what was going on, shifting the focus onto a different issue. Rightfully, there was criticism of the Vatican’s decision based on spotlighting that issue. Still, it was not the Vatican’s motivation to rehabilitate a Holocaust denier. To claim so is not just an incorrect piece of information; it’s downright dishonest. Criticism is in place. Dishonesty is not. What this whole issue has also shown me is that Judaism urgently needs scholars again educated in other religions that do find a public platform without getting accused of being closet heretics or potential proselytizers. We used to have those scholars in Sholem Ben-Chorin and Pinchas Lapide. A lot of misunderstandings can be avoided through mutual understanding. Understanding does not inevitably mean agreement.
The Vatican’s insensitivity has definitely been a great source of embarrassment, but so has been the lack of knowledge that became apparent in many opinion pieces on the matter.

Judaism and Catholicism (rather: mainstream Christianity in general) share a lot of values and norms that define our Western societies to a large extent. We both are facing changes in society’s norms and values, and we’d be better off facing them together. Not as an undistinguishable mishmash, but each in their own right and identity, but with open dialogue and serious attempts at mutual understanding. This will not inevitably lead to mixed dancing.

Now, that we’ve both greatly embarrassed ourselves, can we go and get drunk together? I promise not to ask Benedict for a dance.

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