By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published February 5, 2009
Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory, who serves as chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, said Feb. 2 that he was “embarrassed” by the statements of a traditionalist bishop who questioned the severity and extent of the Holocaust.
“Someone has said something terribly offensive and insulting to friends and neighbors,” he said.
But the archbishop said the foundation of unity between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community is not weakened by the action of Pope Benedict XVI, lifting the excommunication of British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, a member of the Society of St. Pius X, and three other bishops of the society.
“The document ‘Nostra Aetate’ and all of the hard work that Pope Paul VI, John Paul II, and Pope Benedict himself have done to strengthen the bonds that unite us are not in any way in jeopardy,” said Archbishop Gregory, referring to the landmark Second Vatican Council document on interfaith relations. In it, the church highlighted its respect for the Jewish faith. “God holds the Jews most dear,” said the document.
“There is no place in the church for anti-Semitism or racism. None. Absolutely none. Not just for bishops but for ordinary Catholics as well. You can’t consider yourself a disciple of the Lord Jesus and hold or maintain or propose beliefs that run contrary to the Gospel,” Archbishop Gregory said.
Bishop Williamson has claimed that reports about the Holocaust were exaggerated and that no Jews died in Nazi gas chambers. An interview he gave last November was released the day the pope lifted the excommunication Jan. 21.
Regarding the viewpoint expressed by Bishop Williamson, Archbishop Gregory said, “In many respects, it is a moment when we are embarrassed.”
He said that he will be taking part in an interfaith panel at The Temple in Atlanta in March and will take that opportunity to assure the Jewish community he will do whatever he can to reinforce Catholic-Jewish relations.
“That is what many bishops in America will have to do—to take that opportunity to let them know of our esteem and strengthen our relations,” he said. “The vehicles are there. We need to use them. We need to show our Jewish friends our desire to continue to move forward.”
In lifting the excommunication of the four traditionalist bishops, the pope was showing his concern about unity in the Catholic Church and especially striving to heal the only schism that occurred following the Second Vatican Council, said the archbishop.
“He is concerned deeply about the unity in the church. … It belongs to the nature of his job,” he said.
The pope Jan. 28 renewed his “full and unquestionable solidarity” with the Jews and condemned all ignorance, denial and downplaying of the brutal slaughter of millions of Jewish people during the Holocaust.
Meanwhile, rabbis and Jewish leaders are expressing their displeasure at the pope’s actions.
The Chief Rabbinate of Israel Jan. 27 postponed indefinitely a March meeting with the Vatican in protest over the pope lifting Bishop Williamson’s excommunication.
The strain in Jewish-Catholic relations is also being felt in the United States.
“Bishop Williamson’s disgraceful remarks … indicate his contempt for those who oppose his advocacy of Holocaust denial,” said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, the American Jewish Committee’s U.S. director of interreligious affairs.
“While we appreciate that Pope Benedict has again declared his support for the Jewish people and his rejection of Holocaust denial,” he continued, “we fear that the Vatican’s decision to invite (Bishop) Williamson back into the Catholic Church will give legitimacy to these outrageous lies and suggest toleration of those who perpetuate them.”
“Doubtless, this will contribute to the deterioration of the excellent relations between Jews and the Catholic Church,” the rabbi said in a statement.
U.S. church leaders are finding their partners in interfaith dialogues looking for answers.
“It has been very hurtful to our Jewish partners,” said Father James Massa, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs. “They’ve been calling us for answers for what this means. The mood is very tense.”
The entire ordeal has created a lot of confusion, Father Massa told Catholic News Service Jan. 29.
There is a difference between the lifting of excommunication and being in full communion with the Catholic Church, he said.
“Removing excommunication doesn’t mean they are fully reconciled as priests and bishops of the Catholic Church,” Father Massa said. “Like any other Catholic, they can go to Mass and receive holy Communion, but they cannot perform the sacrament themselves as fully recognized ministers of the church.”
The pope said he lifted the excommunication of the four traditionalist bishops with the hope they would take further steps toward unity, including the recognition of the authority of the pope and of the Second Vatican Council.
In 1988 French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre—the founder of the Swiss-based Society of St. Pius X—and the bishops he ordained incurred automatic excommunication for defying papal orders against their ordination.
According to a letter posted on his blog Jan. 30, Bishop Williamson apologized to Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos for “having caused to yourself and to the Holy Father so much unnecessary distress and problems.” Cardinal Castrillon heads the “Ecclesia Dei” commission, which oversees the reconciliation of Lefebvrite Catholics with the church.
Rabbi Bradley Hirschfield, president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said in a Jan. 26 blog that he was not “excusing (Bishop) Williamson.”
“But I am willing to entertain that however much pain his reinstatement might cause relative to this issue,” he said, “it may not be the only basis upon which the pope should make his decision, nor should it govern the future of church-Jewish relations, as some have already suggested/threatened it will.”
It is important now for the Catholic hierarchy to explain theological and canonical distinctions to their Jewish partners, and assure them of the church’s commitment to Jewish-Catholic dialogue based on Vatican II, Father Massa said.
“We are expressing our profound dissatisfaction with the egregiously offensive comments of Bishop Williamson,” he said. “It is unacceptable for a bishop who seeks to be in communion with the Catholic Church to deny the historical fact of the Shoah.”
This story incorporates material by Chaz Muth of Catholic News Service.