Pouncing on a Papal Blunder

The opportunistic criticism of Pope Benedict over the SSPX controversy.

By its own tardy admission, the Vatican botched the handling of Pope Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunications of four Society of St. Pius X bishops. Vatican officials failed to inform the Pope that one of those bishops, Richard Williamson, had made appalling remarks about the Holocaust.

The episode raises many legitimate questions about the Vatican’s insular mode of operation. Couldn’t Vatican officials have “Googled” Williamson’s remarks easily enough? astonished observers asked. Williamson’s status as the “Borat of the schismatic Catholic farright” was hardly a secret, they remark.

Sure, Vatican officials could have. But then the Vatican in recent times doesn’t appear to have Googled the infamous remarks of many derelict and dubious bishops—a style of aloofness that clerics like Roger Mahony have long enjoyed.

The furor in February was rich in such ironies. Catholic dissenters on the left who don’t even believe in the concept of excommunication grew furious at the Pope for lifting one. “Inclusive” Catholics suddenly turned exclusive. Self-appointed ecumenists who normally demand that the Pope dispense the “medicine of mercy” now clamored for him to withdraw it.

Playing Torquemada does not become them. For one thing, left-wing Catholic dissenters share more in common with the Williamsons than they care to realize: He downplays the significance of the Jewish Holocaust; they downplay the moral significance of the unborn holocaust. He sees Vatican II as a rupture that ruined an ancient religion; they see Vatican II as a rupture that created a new one. He disobeys the Pope, seeing him as too lax; they disobey the Pope, seeing him as too rigid.

By alternative routes, they reach the same road—a road that heads out of Rome and into the sectarian byways of the world where crackpot theories abound.

That abortion-deniers would lecture the Pope, even call for his resignation over this matter, is outrageous. He made a dismaying but innocent mistake. He simply didn’t know Williamson’s views. But what’s innocent about their abortion-denying? How many rationalizing and minimizing statements have they made about that massive loss of life? Do they plan to recant those statements? Will they apologize for the scandal caused by their dissent and disobedience?

The truth is that the flames of the flap were fed not so much by sincere shock (though that existed in some measure and some of the questions the incident triggered still deserve answers) but by ulterior ideological motives, throwing light on the usual gross opportunism at work in any papal controversy.

According to the Boston Globe, Catholic Democrats pharisaically pounced on the Pope’s blunder in early February.

“Nearly 50 Catholic Democratic members, including US Representatives William D. Delahunt, Stephen F. Lynch, James McGovern, and Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, signed a letter asking the pope to repudiate the remarks by Williamson,” it wrote. “‘These comments were so outrageous and so egregious it really demanded a response,’ Delahunt said in an interview yesterday. ‘The moral authority of the church is important to retain, and having those statements out there was unacceptable.’”

The Church’s moral authority is important to retain? Really? What touching concern for it from Delahunt, a Congressman who has received a 100 percent voting rating from the National Abortion Rights Action League. One would have thought anyone could join Nancy Pelosi’s communion line; apparently not anymore.

Hermann Haering, an “eminent liberal theologian,” as German newspapers put it, opined that “If the Pope wants to do some good for the Church, he should leave his job.” No mandatum for Benedict!

Historian Kevin Madigan, speaking to the Boston Globe, offered that “There has been a loss of confidence in the Holy Father’s judgment at the highest levels in the church, as well as in the pews”—a rather confident and omniscient pronouncement from someone described as “a professor of the history of Christianity at Harvard Divinity School.” Also, wasn’t it the “highest levels of the church” that failed to protect the Pope here?

An elite secularist media that could not care less about the welfare and unity of the Catholic Church has faked up a concern about them, carefully stoking the fires of opportunistic outrage in a repeat of its performance after the Pope’s speech at Regensburg.

Yes, the Vatican and Pope invited it all through inattention. But a sense of proportion is badly needed here before rendering judgment—and the carping chorus of Benedict critics whose own hideous denials have gone unpunished is the least equipped to provide it.

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