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The Vatican’s debacle

Michael Walsh
16 February 2009

For Pope Benedict XVI it has been a disaster. On 21 January 2009, the very day a decree was signed revoking the excommunication of four bishops, Swedish television broadcast an interview it had recorded in November 2008 with one of them, Richard Williamson. In the course of it, Williamson - an Englishman residing in Argentina - denied that six million Jews had died during the second world war; and that any of those who had been put to death by the Nazis (he admitted there were some) had met their end in the gas-chambers.

Michael Walsh is a writer and broadcaster. He was librarian at Heythrop College from 1972 to 2001. Among his books are The Secret World of Opus Dei (HarperCollins, 2004) and The Conclave: A Sometimes Secret and Occasionally Bloody History (Canterbury Press, 2003)

Also by Michael Walsh in openDemocracy:

"Cutting the Vatican down to size" (5 April 2005)

"From Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Benedict XVI" (20 April 2005)

"The Regensburg address: reason amid certainty" (20 September 2006)

"The Pope and the Patriarch" (4 December 2006)

"Pope Benedict XV1: forward to the past" (14 September 2007) There was a worldwide outcry at the lifting of the excommunication that had been declared on 1 July 1988. The Israeli government protested. True, it is always eager to find an excuse to delay the final settlement of the accord between Israel and the Holy See (over, for example, the ownership of land by the church); and disenchantment at the Vatican's perceived favouritism towards the Palestinians in Gaza compounds longer-standing tensions. The bias in the case of Gaza is probably there, notwithstanding Vatican claims of neutrality in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, the Vatican does not forget (even if others very often do) that there are hundreds of thousands of middle-eastern Catholics.

Many diverse Jewish groups complained - as did others, not least the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. One German newspaper remarked that the German pope, who had at his election been a source of pride, had become an embarrassment. But perhaps the most extraordinary intervention came from within the Vatican itself. Cardinal Walter Kasper, the German prelate who is responsible for the church's relations both with non-Catholics and with Jews, accused the Vatican's bureaucracy of a failure in joined-up government. If anyone should have been informed about the removal of the excommunication before it took place, if anyone should have been consulted, it was Kasper. And he was left out of the loop.

Outside, inside

The roots of the excommunication of 1 July 1988 lay in the Second Vatican Council in the first half of the 1960s. This had been convened by Pope John XXIII to modernise the church (aggiornamento was the favoured term - a heady mixture, as it turned out, of what under Mikhail Gorbachev would be called perestroika and glasnost), and it passed decrees on a wide range of issues. The decree on religious freedom was among the more contentious, but it was agreed nonetheless, along with a decree on the church's relations with non-Christian religions and with other Christian denominations. One of the most vociferous opponents of these was Marcel Lefebvre, a retired missionary archbishop of Dakar. It was as if, he said, the French revolution had at last overtaken the church.

In the end, Lefebvre rejected Vatican II wholesale - not just the decrees but some of the consequences, in particular the abandonment of the traditional rite of mass, and the translation of a new, and simpler, rite into the vernacular. This last, which perhaps touched practising Catholics most closely, was the most problematic of the changes. Those who accepted the line of Lefebvre - effectively a total repudiation of the council - were gathered by him into the Society of St Pius X, which had a training college (seminary) at Ecône in Switzerland.

Lefebvre was forbidden to ordain priests, but did so. More importantly, on 30 June 1988 he ordained four of his priests as bishops, one of them being Richard Williamson. In the convoluted theology of the Catholic church this action conveyed to the newly consecrated the power of bishops, but it was an illegal act: the ordinations of these bishops was valid, but illicit. A schismatic church had been established. By the very act of the ordination, all those involved incurred excommunication.

That, until the end of January 2009, was how matters remained. There had, however, been protracted negotiations which led to the removal of the excommunication. Many saw that itself as an outrage. The Society of St Pius X still would not accept the rulings of Vatican II, so why should they be received back into the fold? The Vatican itself was quick to insist that they hadn't been, but many find it difficult to understand why not, and how there can be a middle ground between being excommunicated and in communion.

Bishops in France, where the impact of traditionalist movements had perhaps been greatest, were the most outraged. The decision moreover left many questions unanswered: are traditionalist parishes to be on a par with those which have remained in communion? What does it say about the mindset of Vatican bureaucracy if it is prepared to tolerate people within the church who reject the decisions of a council of the church? The pope has hurried to say that they must do so, but coming from someone who in 2007 permitted wider celebration of the traditional liturgy, it is unclear what that means in practice.Among openDemocracy's articles on the politics of the Catholic church:

Neal Ascherson, "Pope John Paul II and democracy" (1 April 2005)

Austen Ivereigh, "Through the Vatican white smoke" (4 April 2005)

Timothy Radcliffe, "The Catholic church and democracy" (12 April 2005)

Andrew Brown, "Cardinal Chernenko?" (20 April 2005)

Faisal Devji, "Between Pope and Prophet" (26 September 2006)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "Benedict XVI in Brazil: raising the Catholic flag" (9 May 2007)

These, however, are matters internal to the Catholic church. Most attention has been focused on the apparent reconciliation of a holocaust-denier. The German chancellor seems to have indicated that the ban should be re-imposed. Popes do not change their minds, at least not publicly, and in any case the Vatican might feel that it is none of her business. Angela Merkel might have taken a different approach if Benedict had demanded that Hans Küng, the Swiss radical clergyman whose views are at odds with those of his former colleague Joseph Ratzinger, be expelled from Germany for denying papal infallibility (see "From Joseph Ratzinger to Pope Bendeict XVI", 20 April 2005). In any case, is a religious penalty the proper means of showing one's disapproval of Williamson's understanding of history? The answer to that may depend on whether or not one thinks holocaust-denying should be (as it is in Germany) a criminal offence.

Out of touch

Whatever the rights and wrongs, the whole affair has for the Vatican been an enormous public-relations own-goal. The Vatican has said it did not know of Richard Williamson's views. But that simply displays a lack of competence. His views, shared to a greater or lesser extent by other members of the Society of St Pius X, are both well known and unpleasant; the distinguished Italian commentator on church affairs, Sandro Magister, has remarked that they could have been found by a quick search on the web. 

Magister blames the pope's chief-of-staff, Tarcisio Bertone, for the chaos which apparently reigns within the Vatican administration. Bertone, as cardinal secretary of state, is at the same time prime minister and head of the civil service. This may be a manageable combination in principle - but, Magister points out, Bertone is rarely at his desk, preferring instead an extensive round of foreign travel, dinners, inaugurations, and conferences.

When senior politicians and civil servants elsewhere are thought to be over-indulging in such respects, there is at least a chance of public accountability via electoral blowback and media exposure. But the Vatican does not have a free press, and the Catholic church - as traditionalists are quick to declare - is not a democracy. Moreover, the vast majority of civil servants round the world go home to their spouses and children, and encounter the exigencies of everyday living. For most, if not quite all, Vatican functionaries that is not an option: even the troops of its miniscule army are required to be celibate.

Despite its enthusiastic embrace of new technologies of communication, the excommunication debacle has revealed the Vatican administration dangerously out of touch with the world around it. Under Benedict XVI that is unlikely to change.

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