Pope Benedict XVI’s decision last month to revoke the excommunications of several renegade bishops from the Society of St. Pius X sparked outrage on the part of Jews and concerned Catholics alike. Most of the news reports on the controversy have focused on the Holocaust-denying comments of Bishop Richard Williamson, as well as similar remarks made by Father Floriano Abrahamowicz.
But the Holocaust denial of a pair of clergymen is not the only aspect of this episode that should alarm those who care about Jewish-Catholic relations. Deep currents of theological antisemitism run through the Society of St. Pius X, a schismatic group that rejects the Catholic Church reforms enacted in the 1960s at the Second Vatican Council. Welcome as it was, Pope Benedict’s clear repudiation of Williamson’s Holocaust denial does not adequately address the more fundamental questions raised by his decision to revoke the excommunications.
At Vatican II, the church rejected centuries of Christian antisemitism. The church’s historically antisemitic theology — often referred to as the “teachings of contempt” — included the charges that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion and were thus eternally cursed. These theological positions helped create an environment that nourished violence and discrimination that lasted into the 20th century, and ultimately contributed to the Holocaust.
It was Vatican II, particularly through the document Nostra Aetate, that finally broke with that tradition. The document stated that Jews today cannot be blamed for the death of Jesus, and said that the church “decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” While the document seems mild today, it served as the starting point for a historically unparalleled revolution that, over the past 44 years, has moved Jewish-Catholic relations forward, despite some difficult obstacles that are still not resolved.
The Society of St. Pius X, however, rejects the Vatican II reforms, including those aimed at making amends for past mistreatment of Jews. This we can see from a pair of essays that were until recently posted on the Web site of the society’s American branch. (Both have disappeared in the wake of the controversy over the pope’s actions on the bishops.) The essays seem to illustrate the society’s general theology on Catholic-Jewish relations and its desire to turn back the clock.
In one essay, the Vatican II teaching that “the Jews should not be spoken of as rejected or accursed as if this followed from holy Scripture” is described as “outrageous.”
The other essay claims that “Judaism is inimical to all nations in general, and in a special manner to Christian nations” and that “the unrepentant Jewish people are disposed by God to be a theological enemy, the status of this opposition must be universal, inevitable, and terrible.” There are claims that “the Talmud, which governs Jews, orders enmity with Christians” and that the “Jewish people persecute Christendom,” “conspire against the Christian State,” commit “usury” and even “are known to kill Christians”! Thus the essay defends the notion that Jews should not be “given equality of rights” but rather should be forced into ghettos (“isolated into its own neighborhoods”).
The issue of the Holocaust denial of a few individuals associated with the society is thus only the tip of the iceberg. To concentrate on that aspect of the story ignores the bigger picture. In fact, it allows the Vatican and the society a cheap escape route. It is too easy for them to disavow such extremist statements by individuals and think that they have then put the issue to rest.
True, Pope Benedict has now said that any reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X is contingent upon the society embracing Vatican II. While this was an important statement, the acceptance of Vatican II must be more than a box that can simply be checked off for readmission into the church’s good graces. It must require a commitment to a renewed theology of dialogue that respects Jews and Jewish self-determination, and embraces the documents and teachings that have circulated from the Vatican and the Catholic Church over the almost half a century since Nostra Aetate was published. These guidelines need to become part of the society’s teachings and the curriculum in its seminaries. The Vatican should make this clear.
But there is also a broader lesson that must be drawn from this controversy. The improved relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people is not one that can be taken for granted, and the work begun at Vatican II in this regard is not yet complete. To be truly meaningful, the commitment to building this relationship must be internalized, so that it would not require the intervention of a German chancellor or thousands of outraged Catholics and Jews for the church to recognize the obvious. It is not a stretch to say that if anyone with sensitivity to the issue of Jewish-Catholic relations had bothered (or been requested) to look at the full spectrum of the society’s teachings, this blow-up could have been avoided. That it was not points to a blind spot in the thinking of the Vatican and raises questions about its priorities.
Pope Benedict has spoken movingly and powerfully about his feelings about antisemitism, the Holocaust, Jews and Judaism. But unless the church’s deeds begin to match its words, Jewish-Catholic relations will continue their downward trajectory of recent years.
Mark Weitzman is director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Task Force Against Hate.