The Pope, Bishop Williamson, and what the Church is all about

The following article appeared in the monthly newsletter of St. Mary's Evangelical-Lutheran Parish in Berlin, which belongs to the Independent Evangelical Lutheran Church in Germany (SELK); the author is The Rev. Dr. Gottfried Martens and the translator Propst i. R. (retired provost) Wilhelm Torgerson:

In the last few weeks much attention has been paid to the lifting by Pope Benedict XVI of the excommunication imposed back in 1988 on the four bishops of the Society of St. Pius X, who were consecrated, without papal permission, by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. These bishops included the controversial English-born and former Anglican Richard Williamson, who denies the Holocaust suffered by the Jews in the concentration camps of the Third Reich. Even though we Lutheran Christians are not subjects of the Pope, this discussion should not leave us untouched. Before all else, we must have accurate information at our fingertips in order to form an intelligent judgement on the issues involved.


1. Is this topic even something to get excited about?

Yes, Holocaust denial is something for us to get very upset about, both as citizens and as Christians! We should indeed care passionately and speak up loudly whenever people try to minimize or even deny this unfathomable crime against the Jewish people. And even if Bishop Williamson, along with many people who think like him, tries to downplay the whole topic as a mere debate about historical facts, in which different historians express differing opinions, we are really dealing with something much more important. First and foremost, such statements cause deep hurt and offence to all those who lost relatives in the concentration camps, for whom therefore the denial of these crimes must be simply unbearable. Here the words of the Book of Proverbs apply: "Open your mouth for the speechless, in the cause of all who are appointed to die" (Proverbs 31:8 NKJV). This is why it behoves Christians to raise their voices and speak up on this matter.

Moreover, we should clearly see that denying the extermination of the Jews in the gas chambers of Auschwitz-Birkenau and other concentration camps can only happen when people develop certain conspiracy theories that serve but to weaken or refute the rather decisive evidence for these crimes. In matters historical you can of course start by doubting anything and everything - we face similar problems in dealings with the New Testament. In the realm of history one cannot from the outset "prove" anything because theoretically every document, record, or given piece of evidence could be forged. The question arises whether denying the veracity of such documents it is the reasonable thing to do in this particular instance. In the case of Holocaust denial, the highly dubious motives for questioning the historical records are always the same: oftentimes they show more or less open anti-Jewish sentiments; they evince a desire to describe the thinking leading to such crimes as not really that bad or even in some ways understandable.

Christians do well to be properly informed so that when in doubt and confronted with such spurious claims, we don't just express our indignation but rather are able to prove the contrary. In this connection I should like to recommend to you a non-theological book that I personally consider quite helpful: Markus Tiedemann's "In Auschwitz wurde niemand vergast" - 60 rechtsradikale Lügen und wie man sie widerlegt ("No one was gassed to death in Auschwitz - 60 Lies of the Rightwing Radicals and How to Refute Them").

Unfortunately, these discussions are not merely some kind of superfluous rearguard action. It happened just recently during one of our confirmands' retreats: nine-year-olds telling me in all innocence how they heard that Jews are evil, or when I find out what kind of repulsive "Jewish jokes" are told these days in Berlin schools, then that is a clear indication that we as citizens and as Christians are certainly called upon to be on guard. All manner of socio-psychological mechanisms are still at work in the search for scapegoats in our society.

In this regard we as Christians should always be mindful that according to the witness of the Holy Scriptures  the Jewish people  are not just like  any other nation  (to be sure,  genocide committed against any nation  is just  as heinous a crime  as the one perpetrated on the Jewish people). For the Jewish people are the apple of God's eye to whom God's special promises are directed, as St. Paul makes very clear indeed in Romans 9 and 11. Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ is himself a Jew, and any stupid joke about Jews would therefore also be directed at him. As a church we cannot cut ourselves off from our Jewish roots: "Remember that you do not support the root, but the root supports you" (Rom. 11:18). It is all the more horrible that people, who in the sight of Jews must appear to be "Christians", who in part even call themselves Christians, in the past century committed such crimes against the Jewish people; that in fact even baptized Christians of Jewish ancestry were often not protected during the Third Reich but callously abandoned by their fellow Christians, as an exhibit with its accompanying book Evangelisch getauft - als Juden verfolgt. Spurensuche Berliner Kirchengemeinden ("Baptized as Protestants - Persecuted as Jews. A Search for Traces in Berlin Congregations") has shockingly proven these last few months. Holocaust denial is indeed a big issue, and the relationship between Christians and the Jewish people is something that should be of great concern to us.


2. Did Pope Benedict XVI Rehabilitate a Denier of the Holocaust?

The answer to this question, however, raises an entirely different issue from what I hopefully just made sufficiently plain. To speak clearly at the very outset: The claim made by Germany's Spiegel Magazine ("Pope Rehabilitates Denier of the Holocaust"), and subsequently repeated by many others, is simply wrong.


What really happened?

To understand the ramifications, let's look back  about  50  years at  the  Second Vatican  Council (Vatican II) that was convened in the Roman-Catholic Church between 1962 and 1965. It was a reform council that in all likelihood changed the practice and image of the Roman-Catholic Church more than any other council in history. One of the decisions that came about as a result of the council involved the "reform of the liturgy": Services were no longer to be in Latin but in the vernacular language; during the service the priest was no longer to look away from the congregation towards the altar, but should now stand behind the altar to face the congregation; these are just two noteworthy changes. Additional changes quickly followed, e.g. placing the host into the hand of the usually standing recipient instead of placing it on the tongue, which had been the custom in the Roman Church and is still the use followed in our SELK. In many congregations, the historic uniform liturgy was replaced by "self-made" orders of worship.

Led by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, conservative Roman Catholics opposed these almost revolutionary changes. When conservative RC seminarians asked him to provide them with adequate theological training, Lebfebvre founded the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X (SSPX) and a seminary in  cone, Switzerland. To begin with the church approved the fraternity, but after Lefebvre increasingly distanced himself from the new order of worship the church had published in the meantime and from certain decisions of Vatican II, this approval was revoked. When, in 1976, Lefebvre ordained new priests without official (papal) permission, Pope Paul VI suspended him from office. Lefebvre never recognized this suspension. After having turned 80 years of age, he decided in 1988 to consecrate four priests as bishops, since he was the only bishop of the fraternity; otherwise, after his death, no seminarian in his Society could have been ordained a priest anymore.

According to Roman Catholic canon law, an illicit bishop's consecration automatically results in the excommunication of the consecrator and those consecrated; therefore Lefebvre and the four bishops, among them Richard Williamson, were excommunicated by Pope John Paul II. However, this church penalty does not alter the fact that the episcopal consecrations carried out by Lefebvre were and are valid according to the Roman Catholic canon law, even though they were illegitimate. But it is obvious that these thus consecrated bishops were excluded from the Roman Catholic Church and forbidden to act as priests and bishops. The Society of St. Pius X with its approximately 200,000 supporters worldwide is therefore leading an existence as an independent ecclesiastical entity.  It is in the difficult situation that,  on the one hand, they want to be more Roman than the Roman Catholic Church, while, on the other, they reject decisions made by the pope and church councils to whom, according to their own doctrinal understanding, they should be willingly subject.

As Lutheran Christians we certainly can understand to a certain extent some of the concerns of the Fraternity of St. Pius X and even agree with them. For instance, there is the concern that the liturgical reform in the Roman Catholic Church went too far and that the mystery of the worship service and of the sacrament of the altar became downright trite. The way external changes, such as the introduction of receiving the consecrated host in your hand rather than into your mouth, influence not only the piety of the people but in the end even the proclamation of the church, we can observe in many places within the Roman Catholic Church with some degree of regret.

And as much as we as Lutheran Christians concur with Martin Luther's concern to celebrate the worship service in the vernacular, we can certainly begin to understand what loss it must have entailed for the Roman-Catholic Church that the worldwide unifying band of the Latin language of worship was so rigorously severed, that the Latin mass, regularly celebrated up to the mid-1960s, was in fact generally forbidden in the congregations.

And we also agree with the criticism of the Fraternity regarding the statements made by Vatican II about the non-Christian religions, as for instance where the Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium says: "Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the grace of Christ and his Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do his will as it is known to them through the dictates of their conscience." To ascribe to a person without faith in Christ such abilities, to attain salvation through his deeds, is certainly one of the more problematic formulations of Vatican II.

Despite such agreements with several of their concerns, the Fraternity, from a Lutheran standpoint, remains a problematic group: they vehemently refuse any agreement with Lutheran theology and our church, and they oppose many of the good and sensible decisions of Vatican II - even to the point of open criticism regarding the recognition of general human rights by that council. And aside from some of their reasonable representatives, such protest movements often provide a platform for those with highly problematic ideologies; anti-Jewish tendencies within the fraternity have repeatedly been detected, even though we would not want to charge all members with such thinking.

From the start, Pope Benedict XVI saw it as his duty to promote the unity of his church and to heal divisions. It is well known that at the beginning of his pontificate he invited the papal critic Hans Küng to Rome to signal his readiness for reconciliation. And, on the other hand, he had already as a cardinal repeatedly criticized the harshness with which, after Vatican II, the old Latin mass was decried and its celebration basically forbidden. It would be more than problematic to forbid something which for centuries had been the church's central method of presenting itself. Acting out of this conviction, Pope Benedict sent a signal of understanding to his traditionalist members by reducing the conditions to be met for celebrating the mass in Latin, so that in congregations wishing to do so it could thus be celebrated, though not as the only form of worship.

Subsequently there was a rapprochement between the Fraternity and the Vatican, culminating in the letter of 15 December 2008, by the superior of the fraternity, Bishop Bernard Fellay, one of the four consecrated by Lefebvre. In it he requested, in the name of the four bishops, the lifting of the excommunication that caused them so much pain. Since excommunication always (with us too!) has as its goal the call to repentance and the summons to change their ways of those affected, the pope considered that letter to be an expression of repentance and initiated the process of acceding to the requests of the bishops by revoking the excommunication.

In this regard we ought to be mindful of two things: At the time of his decision the pope was not aware of Bishop Williamson's remarks about the Holocaust, and secondly, he only revoked the excommunication of the four bishops, not their suspension from the performance of their priestly duties. To this day Bishop Williamson has no permission to preach or conduct the mass in the Roman Catholic Church. He is merely permitted to receive the forgiveness of sins (absolution) in the church. To claim that the pope "rehabilitated a denier of the Holocaust" is simply wrong in a twofold sense: first of all, the decision of the pope obviously did not refer in any way to Williamson's view on the Holocaust, which was unknown to the pope; and secondly, Williamson, even apart from his terrible statements, has not been "rehabilitated" but rather is still prohibited from performing the duties of a bishop.

By way of comparison: In 1980 Hans Küng was deprived of the right to teach (missio canonica), so that he no longer was allowed to instruct at the university in the name and by the authority of the Roman Catholic Church; but certainly he was and still is allowed to officiate as a priest and he was never excommunicated.

However offensive the content of the statements by Bishop Williamson was, the discussions during the last few weeks have shown that the public usually lacks understanding of what the church's nature really is: she is not an association of the like-minded like a political party, and she is not a gathering of morally decent people. Rather the church is an institute of salvation, and precisely because of that she is the church of sinners who desperately need to be offered salvation in this church. Thus membership in the church is granted by different criteria from those that apply in the case of membership in a political party. The church is open even to murderers and criminals, because no one belonging to the church receives eternal life because he is such a good, decent person or at least better than others. In the church all without exception are dependent upon the grace of God. Any form of Pharisaism ("I thank you, Lord, that I am not like others...") must be rejected.

Jesus himself provoked people back then by joining the chief publican Zachaeus, a despicable scoundrel (Schweinehund) in fellowship at table, even though he exploited other people. If similar press organs had existed back then,  no doubt  they would have asked Jesus  for his immediate resignation. And indeed, in the church we will have to put up with the fact that we kneel at the altar side by side with real sinners, even with people whose words and deeds we find personally repulsive because they do not conform to God's commandments. Whoever the church receives into her fellowship is not accepted according to criteria of political correctness but on account of pastoral concerns - and the church should not allow anyone to dictate such standards from the outside, however well-intentioned the advice offered might be.

Three things must remain absolutely clear:

1. The church must always distinguish clearly between the sinner and the sin. She can receive the sinner, who seeks her fellowship, into her midst - but that does not mean that she approves of the murder he has committed. Rather she must express her disapproval of this deed with a clear No.

2. It is of course the church's task to call members, who do not see the error of their ways, to change and repentance. But normally this will not happen by public pronouncements and newspaper articles, but in a pastoral process dealing with the individual, which, in case of persistent impenitence, may lead to exclusion, that is, to excommunication as the last step. What I just said about the murderer may equally be applied to Holocaust deniers or to others whose words and deeds we find repugnant.

3. The church must take special care about those acting in an official capacity, who therefore speak and act in the church's name. If that is not in accord with the position and teaching of the church, then the church has a right and the duty to forbid such a person the exercise of his office - which, however, does not mean that he must at the same time be excluded from the church.

It is an interesting observation, however, that many people expect the Vatican to act in this rigorous manner, even though this kind of process has previously been sharply criticized as "authoritarian" in other cases. To say it again: the pope has not permitted Bishop Williamson to perform any official acts. If he were to do so without Bishop Williamson having recanted his statements, then that, of course, would be most problematic. But at the moment this is not the case.

We cannot deny that the revoking of Bishop Williamson's excommunication was both a media and a diplomatic disaster. But on the other hand I consider it unfortunate that some of the Roman Catholic bishops in Germany scrambled to disavow the decisions made by the Vatican, but did not make much effort to explain why decisions about excommunication or the revocation of the same are made according to criteria quite different from those applied to the church and her action by people on the outside. We're dealing here with the very core of what makes church to be church: that she is the church for real sinners to whom certainly God's law has to be proclaimed in all clarity.

It is my impression that the public debate these days is certainly also designed in part to do damage to a pope whose clear theological positions have aroused opposition for a long time. And in this debate some thought to have found a starting point by somehow connecting the pope's standpoints with a stance of anti-Judaism - something extremely unfair, as is the insinuation that only the pressure exerted on him in the public media caused the pope to be willing to distance himself from Holocaust denial and to support the statements of Vatican II about the relationship between the church and Judaism.

Even though we as Lutheran Christians cannot agree with everything the pope has said, and we don't need to do that, we do well to acquire the necessary background knowledge  so we might be part of the informed debate on this topic; we ought not to participate in the process of using Holocaust denial for other church-political purposes.

And perhaps it will be possible for us, in various discussions on this issue, to remind those we talk to what is the great thing about the church: that indeed she is not an association of the decent people, but that in the church anyone is welcome who realizes that he is in need of God's forgiveness. It is the Lord's church, and already in the olden days her opponents made the essence of her mission crystal-clear: "This man receives sinners and eats with them."