Will this embarrassment be a lesson for the Pope?

In covering the story of the Holocaust-denying bishop most of the media reports have focused – as usual – on a single controversial detail, missing the heart of the matter. They speculated whether Bishop Richard Williamson really was a holocaust denier, whether the Pope knew that Williamson was holocaust denier, and so on and so forth.  Hardly anyone has asked what the Priestly Fraternity of St. Pius X, which Williamson and other bishops belong to and which has now been restored to the Roman Catholic Church, actually stands for, what had led to its excommunication in the first place, and why the Pope is so keen to reach out to its members now.

Most of the reports describe the so-called Lefebvrists (after their founder, archbishop Marcel Lefebvre), as a traditionalist society that broke with the Roman church in protest against the changes introduced by the Second Vatican Council, in particular the replacement of the Tridentine Latin Mass in use until then by a liturgy in local languages. However, this amounts to substituting a detail for the core of the issue.

In fact, this is not about the Tridentine liturgy or Latin. Both are only a vicarious symbol for the Lefebvrists. What this is really about is that they still cling to a pre-Council church MENTALITY and long for a separation of the Catholic environment from non-Catholics and non-Christians. They all reject the principle of the freedom of belief and conscience. They all cling to a vertical Church hierarchy in which the laymen constitute only a listening Church. They still believe in an anti-Catholic global freemason conspiracy. The list could go on.

All these attitudes were characteristic of the crisis mentality that gripped the Church in the late 19th and early 20th century. The Council was determined to put an end to this once and for all. But in so doing, it also abolished many of the traditional Church’‘s  external symbols, including the Tridentine mass and the use of Latin. It has become clear in retrospect that some of the changes, introduced abruptly and from above, had not been properly thought through or had been carried out badly, and that a great deal of the treasure trove of the ancient texts and rituals that have made the Roman Catholic Church what it is, also ended up on the skip. Unfortunately, the Lefebvrists meanwhile appropriated these symbols and based their resistance on them.

So if a Lefebvrist lets slip that he denies the holocaust, this is not an accidental slip-up from an individual. All these people profess views of varying outrageousness: after all, that is why they became Lefebvrists. And that is what attracted them to the Society, rather their love of Latin. Holocaust denial has the advantage of being outrageous in an obvious, generally understandable way. But in emphasizing this particular point, the media should not have presented it as an isolated outrageous view of a single Lefebvrist bishop but rather as the tip of the iceberg of many other, less conspicuous outrages hidden under the surface, under the false slogan of traditionalism. In fact, this isn’’t traditionalism but rather fundamentalism and obscurantism, which is a parody of real traditionalism.

It should not surprise us if a Lefebvrist bishop professes outrageous views. What is rather more surprising is that the Pope is prepared to go this far in his long-term effort to accommodate the Church’’s traditionalist wing. May this embarrassment be a lesson to him. After all, it is an old – traditional! – Catholic truth that one must hope and pray to one’’s very last breath that those who blunder and sin will see the truth.

Translation: Julia Sherwood

This article was originally published in Czech in the Respekt on 10 February 2009.

We are grateful to Martin C. Putna for the permission to publish this text in English.