Controversy raises questions about how Pope Benedict rules

15 Feb 2009
15 Feb 2009 Facebook Twitter Email Print

Chicago Tribune / Detroit Free Press, USA

By Christine Spolar

MUNICH — The naming of a German as the infallible father of the Catholic Church was seen nearly four years ago as a remarkable moment in papal history. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger offered a poignant coda to 20th Century memory. A son of Bavaria who grew up under Nazism and recognized the pain of the Holocaust was suddenly transformed into Pope Benedict XVI, the world’s most revered Christian.

Now doubts, fueled by a controversy that conjured up the past in his native Germany, are rattling Benedict’s reign.

Benedict lifted the excommunications in January of four breakaway bishops who boldly challenged fundamental Church reforms of the 1960s. The 81-year-old pope found out too late that he was redeeming, among others, an unrepentant Holocaust denier.

Last week, he made deep amends to Jewish groups in face-to-face meetings with rabbis and community leaders, the most visible sign that the Vatican realized an error had become a public-relations folly.

Lorenz Wolf, legal counsel for the powerful Munich archdiocese, last week openly sighed when asked to explain the notorious rehabilitation of Bishop Richard Williamson. Wolf had no sure answers for how the pontiff — who also offended Muslims in a 2006 speech with a medieval reference to Islam — was advised before he eased the excommunication.

“There’s an assumption that the Holy Father saw this all from the point of doctrine — the issue of excommunication — and didn’t see it in any other way,” Wolf said. “It is clear he did not know about Williamson” when he signed the order.

Usually, Wolf said, the Bishops’ Conference within the church is consulted on such serious matters. This time, Wolf said, the phone didn’t ring. “I don’t think it was intentional,” he added, “It just didn’t happen.”

Would Wolf, who advises the Catholic Church in Germany on legal administrative church matters, or other advisers have been able to raise alarms about Williamson?

“When I heard about the excommunication order from the media — and that is how we all found out about it, from the media — I felt, immediately, this would be a hot issue,” Wolf said carefully.

As clips from Swedish TV — easily found on YouTube — showed Richard Williamson of the ultraconservative Society of the St. Pius X saying, in clear English, that he didn’t believe Jews were gassed to death in Nazi-run camps, the Vatican stumbled for days.

Williamson’s interview ran on Jan. 21, the same day that Benedict lifted the excommunication order, media reports show. The Vatican made the decision public three days later, apparently unaware of Williamson’s open denial of the Holocaust.

Seven days later, as outrage spread among Jewish groups and Germans, the pope, without directly addressing Williamson, condemned the Nazi genocide and expressed his deep “solidarity with the Jewish people.” Still, another week passed before the Vatican told Williamson, by name, to recant his denial “in an absolute and unequivocal way.”

By then, recriminations had swelled with particular fury in the pope’s homeland. Benedict’s move to unify the church — urging extreme-right traditionalists to return — had backfired badly.

Der Spiegel magazine was among the German media that threw out tough questions as revelations grew daily: “How can it be that a German pope, of all people, is pardoning a Holocaust denier? ... Does the pope, a man of books throughout his life, still understand the world outside his palace walls?”

Siegfried Wiedenhofer, a retired professor of systematic theology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, was guided for 15 years by Benedict, who was a professor at the time and who oversaw Wiedenhofer’s doctoral thesis. Wiedenhofer knows the pope as a theologian who spent a lifetime reading and writing. That cerebral outlook may be a strength and a weakness, Wiedenhofer said.

Vatican advisers have yet to understand — or help — a pope who may miscalculate other facets of his job, he said. “To work as a team or choose the right people to work for him — that is not one of his strong suits,” Wiedenhofer said. “I think the whole mess has been caused by the Vatican administration.”

Williamson became a riveting sideshow to Benedict’s deeply serious effort to determine if the clerics and the schismatic sect founded by Marcel Lefebvre were ready to accept decades-old changes of the Second Vatican Council.

That aim of his papacy appears seriously weakened. Others, even within Vatican City, fear that the damage goes deeper.

Italian journalist Marco Politi, who has written books on Benedict and on his popular predecessor John Paul II, sees a stark difference between the papacies. “John Paul II was a spin doctor. He knew the media was important,” Politi said.

“Benedict XVI doesn’t often calculate his decisions on public opinion. He acts very alone,” Politi said.

Politi said Vatican insiders know “that certain issues — the Jews, the Holocaust, German Jews and German Christians — must be handled correctly” and in consultation. The confusing litany of Vatican explanations hurt Benedict’s image if not authority, he said.

“This has not only been a mistake. This has been a crisis that has left strong unease within the church about how the pope is ruling,” Politi said. “Inside the Vatican and outside the Vatican, you can see people questioning how he rules.”

Williamson, who lives in Argentina, still stokes the controversy. Just as Vatican statements cooled some tempers, Williamson told Der Spiegel that he was not yet reversing course. He instead wanted time to read more history — a pose interpreted to suggest a possible legal battle with the Vatican.

Last Sunday, the Archbishop of Munich, already blunt in his frustration at the mistake, again warned about the dangers of anti-Semitism and Holocaust deniers. Since January, bishops from Freiburg to Stuttgart to Hamburg to Berlin have levied criticism at the pope and the Vatican. Walter Kasper, a German prelate in charge of interfaith relations, took to Vatican Radio to explicitly blame the Curia, the Vatican management.

Jewish groups in Germany — as well as global Jewish organizations — are taking heart in the pope’s assurances but remain vigilant over further missteps about a papal trip to Israel apparently planned for May.

“Holocaust denial must not go uncensored, and anti-Semites should not be allowed to have a say in the church,” Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress said in the course of the controversy. A delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations met with the pope Thursday and responded positively to yet another statement of reconciliation from him.