FaithWorld

Pope to bishops: check your mail

pope-pic-1Those of us who thought the pope had said the final word on the Williamson saga will have to think again. It seems to be never-ending.

On Thursday the Vatican officially releases a letter to the world’s bishops in which the pope essentially acknowledges that the Vatican handled the lifting of the excommunications of four ultra-traditionalist bishops very badly and that it hurt him personally that things went awry. (Photo: Pope Benedict at his weekly audience, 11 March 2009/Alessia Pierdomenico)

The story started leaking out on Tuesday night in the blog of Andrea Tornielli of Il Giornale and a story with partial excerpts was published in the Italian newspaper Il Foglio on Wednesday.  The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung printed what it said was the full text in German of the pope’s letter. Our story is based on a face-to-face conversation I had with an Italian archbishop who received the letter. We discussed it over a light meal near St Peter’s Square.

POPE-JEWS/If the leaks and the archbishop’s comment are any indication, the letter may be a sort of first — a pope explaining to his bishops why he did something that some of them contested, at times openly. He talks about his pain and also speaks of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), how he felt that he had to bring them back into the fold because there are good people among them. But the pope also acknowledges how some of them are arrogant and think they know better than everyone else.  He says some speak in ways that are discordant with the Church and its teachings. Why do you think the pope felt he had to do this? Was it necessary to write the letter? Will it be interpreted as a sign of weakness or strength?  The entire letter will be  be on the Vatican’s website tomorrow after 1100 gmt. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)

For those of you who read Italian, here is a link to Andrea Tornielli’s blog. For German speakers, here’s today’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung text. Following are some excerpts from the German text translated by Reuters:

Pope meets Devil in Düsseldorf

Pope Benedict met the Devil in Düsseldorf on Monday. To be more precise, a large papier-mâché figure of the German-born pontiff shook hands with another figure depicting the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson. The mock encounter was part of the annual carnival parade on Monday, known as Rose Monday in Germany, where the parade floats traditionally poke fun at public figures.

Benedict’s decision to readmit four excommunicated bishops of the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) last month sparked off loud protests among Catholics and Jews, especially in the German-speaking countries because Williamson appeared in a Swedish television interview only days before and denied the Nazis used gas chambers or killed six million Jews. The wing on the Williamson figure says “Anti-Semitism” and the brush at the end of his tail says Piusbrüder (Pius Brothers, the German term for the SSPX priests).

Just so there’s no confusion, the Williamson figure sports an armband clearly identifying who Benedict is shaking hands with. Thanks to Ina Fassbender for these shots.

Jewish leaders speak of tensions before meeting Pope Benedict

Two Jewish leaders due to meet Pope Benedict on Thursday say he has to ensure the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) changes some of its core views before current Catholic-Jewish strains can ease. We’ve run a news story on my interviews with them and a timeline on Catholic-Jewish relations. To give a fuller picture of what they’re saying, here are the transcripts of our talks.

__________

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chair of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations (Photo: Conference of Presidents)

What do you hope to get from the meeting with the pope tomorrow? Can steps be taken to put this behind you?

Vatican/SSPX — the fallout continues

The fallout from the SSPX issue continues to rain down on the Vatican. Several items over the weekend showed how messy it can get when the Vatican botches its presentation of a potentially controversial decision.

    A demonstration against Williamson at the Vatican nunciature in Paris by several dozen Jewish protesters on Sunday. The Reuters photo below by Mal Langsdon shows a man holding a cartoon from the Paris daily Le Monde in which two SSPX bishops say in mock Latin “The gas chamber doesn’t exist.” Pope Benedict holds up a cloak which says “Down with Vatican II” and comments: “As long as they don’t say it in Hebrew, I’m not saying anything.” Will there be more of these elsewhere?

    Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, one of the four SSPX bishops whose excommunications Pope Benedict lifted last week, told the Italian daily La Stampa (here in English) that the rebel prelates have no intention of changing their traditionalist views when they negotiate their reinstatement in the Roman Catholic Church with Vatican officials.” No, absolutely not,” he said. “We do not change our positions, but we have the intention of converting Rome, that is, to lead Rome towards our positions.” This is the man who in 2005 told the traditionalist U.S. weekly The Remnant “I will say, one day the Church should erase this Council.  She will not speak of it anymore.  She must forget it.  The Church will be wise if she forgets this council.” Until now, most attention has focused on SSPX Superior General Bishop Bernard Fellay and the Holocaust-denying Bishop Richard Williamson. Fellay is considered the most moderate of the group and statements from the others are likely to take a tougher stand against any concessions to the Vatican. (Photo: Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, May 2008/SSPX) Several news outlets such as The Times and the BBC have picked up a story from Austria that the pope had approved the appointment of a new auxiliary bishop of Linz, Gerhard Wagner, who once described Hurricane Katrina as God’s punishment for sin and sexual excess in New Orleans and denounced the Harry Potter books for “spreading Satanism.” In a new interview with the Austrian Catholic agency Kath.net, he says “Islam is really a danger.” How much would you bet this would have gone unnoticed if there hadn’t been other negative news about the Vatican?

New statements and comments are popping up all over. A few trends emerge:

“Obama was elected by God” — Bosnian Grand Mufti Ceric

The Grand Mufti of Bosnia thinks the election of Barack Obama as American president is a gift from God that could help foster greater international tolerance of Muslims. “I believe that Obama is a divine sign to humanity,” Mustafa Ceric told me in an interview in Sarajevo. Americans “think that they have elected him, but I believe that he was elected by God.” (Photo: Grand Mufti Mustafa Ceric, 27 Jan 2009/ Danilo Krstanovic)

“Barack Obama is one of these most noble goods of our time and our civilisation, that is why I think he is a gift of God,” he said. “At the moment we feel a trend to change. Whether this change will be really in practice and life, we need time to see.”

Sometimes called one of the world’s most liberal grand muftis, Ceric is considered a voice of moderation with an international reputation. He is active in dialogue with other faiths and discussions of how Islam can integrate into European societies.

German-speaking bishops insist SSPX accepts opening to Jews

Catholic bishops in the German-speaking countries have been especially outspoken in demanding the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), whose four excommunicated bishops were welcomed back into the Church on Saturday, must explicitly accept Second Vatican Council documents assuring respect for the Jews. The Vatican had been demanding full acceptance of Council documents for years, including in a compromise it offered last June but the SSPX rejected it. As far as is known, it was not part of the deal that has now led to the bans being lifted. The issue has hit the headlines because one of the four, British-born Bishop Richard Williamson, openly denied the Holocaust in an interview on Swedish television broadcast last week. (Photo: St. Peter’s Basilica, 5 Feb 2005/Tom Heneghan)

The German Bishops Conference noted the four bishops, whose dissent against Rome mostly concerned its rejection of the Council reforms including a modern liturgy and recognition for Judaism and other religions, must now discuss their future status in the Church with Vatican officials. “We have the clear expectation and make the urgent request that the four bishops and the Society announce unmistakably and credibly their loyalty to the Second Vatican Council and especially the declaration ‘ostra Aetate,’ said a statement by Bishop Heinrich Mussinghoff, its main official for relations with Jews. Nostra Aetate, the Vatican II Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, is the cornerstone of the post-Council opening to Jews, Muslims and other religions.

Munich’s Archbishop Reinhard Marx said Williamson’s comments were “unspeakable, unacceptable…” and added “Every denial of the Holocaust must be punished harshly.” In a statement, he noted the Vatican would now negotiate the conditions of the four bishops’ return into the Church. “There is no doubt that the decisions of the Second Vatican Council are binding for that.”

The pope and the Holocaust: Regensburg redux?

The uproar over traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson and his denial of the Holocaust highlights an open secret here in Rome: Vatican departments don’t talk to each much, or at least as much as they should. The pope appears to have decided to lift the 1988 excommunication of four schismatic bishops of the SSPX (including Williamson) without the wide consultation that it may have merited. The Christian Unity department, which also oversees relations with Jews, was apparently kept out of the loop. The head of the office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, told The New York Times it was the pope’s decision. Kasper’s office and the Vatican press office, headed by Father Federico Lombardi, were clearly not prepared for the media onslaught that followed the discovery of Williamson’s views denying the Holocaust. (Photo: Bishop Richard Williamson, 28 Feb 2007/Jens Falk)

Pope Benedict’s lifting of the ban and Williamson’s comments about the Holocaust are unrelated as far as Church law is concerned. The excommunications lifted last Saturday were imposed because the four were ordained without Vatican permission. As Father Thomas Resse, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University, told me: “The Holocaust is a matter of history, not faith. Being a Holocaust denier is stupid but not against the faith. Being anti-Semitic, however, is a sin.” This is an important distinction, but not one the Vatican seems to be able to get across.

It was all very reminiscent of the pope’s Regensburg speech in 2006. Few in the Vatican knew it was coming. The Vatican was overwhelmed by the Muslim reaction and the media interest. This time, it is also not clear how many people in the Vatican even knew about Williamson’s history. Surely, those negotiating with the traditionalists for the lifting of the excommunications should  have known. If they didn’t, why didn’t they? If they did, why did they not tell Kasper’s department? The Holocaust is such a sensitive issue for Jews that this response could have been seen from miles away.

French faith leaders work to contain any Gaza backlash

Whenever the Palestinian issue heats up, the temperature rises in the gritty neighbourhoods the French call the banlieues (suburbs). These areas, best known for the low-cost housing projects that postwar city planners planted out there, are a vibrant and edgy mix of local working class, recent immigrants and minorities now in France for several generations. (Photo: Police survey housing project in Paris suburb, 1 June 2006/Victor Tonelli)

Among those groups are Muslims and Jews, many of whose families came from the same parts of North Africa. About 7-8 years ago, at the start of the second Palestinian intifada, some of the far more numerous Muslims took out their anger at Israel on their Jewish neighbours. The official reaction against that wave of anti-Semitism was slow in coming back then, but leaders in France today — especially leaders of the main religious groups — seem determined to do their best to head that off this time around.

They have their work cut out for them. According to a French Jewish Students’ Union (UEJF) list (here in French), there have been 46 anti-Semitic acts in France since Dec. 27, when Israel began its bombardment of Gaza.  That includes several firebombs and several Jews beaten by thugs. Muslim and Jewish leaders have already issued several calls for calm. In some cities such as Strasbourg and Lyon, they have joined the mayor and their Catholic colleagues. After meeting President Nicolas Sarkozy on Monday evening, the national heads of the Muslim, Jewish and Catholic communities said they would produce a joint appeal soon. See my story on this here.

Graves desecrated often in France, mostly Christian

If you go by what’s reported in the media (including by us), you’d think cemetery desecrations in France like the big one last weekend happen occasionally and target mostly Jewish and Muslim graves. Those are the cases the police report and we write about. A report by two parliamentary deputies, however, has taken an overall look at the problem nationwide and come up with some unexpected conclusions.

First, there are far more cemetery desecrations than we knew about. They happen on an average of every two to three days!  There were 144 last year and 110 up until Sept. 1 this year. And most of them target Christian — which in France would mean overwhelmingly Catholic — graves. Most desecrations are vandalism by teenagers, with only a small minority prompted by the racism, anti-Semitism or satanic cult practices normally highlighted in the media, the report said. The news story on this by our parliamentary correspondent Emile Picy is here. (Photo: Police inspect desecrated graves in France, 8 Dec 2008/Pascal Rossignol)

The report is not aimed at playing down the gravity of attacks on Muslim and Jewish graves, but rather to get an overall idea of the problem in order to suggest possible remedies. It lists some obvious ideas like better surveillance of cemeteries and better use of existing punishment. What I found the most interesting was their discussion of the waning respect for the dead. The title of the report highlights this — “Du respect des morts à la mort du respect?” (“From respect for the dead to the death of respect?”)

U.S. and Canadian Jews, Muslims seek dialogue

Muslim and Jewish leaders across the United States and Canada plan to meet this weekend to discuss ways to fight anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia.

The meetings and panel discussions from Friday to Sunday — dubbed the Weekend of Twinning — are part of a broader movement of interfaith dialogue taking place against a global backdrop of tensions between religious groups.

Several of the rabbis and imams have broadcast a public service announcement on CNN appealing for interfaith understanding (see the video above) and published a full-page ad in the New York Times available here in PDF form.