The Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), a schismatic “radical traditionalist” Catholic group that broke with the Vatican over the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), has ejected from its ranks a bishop whose outspoken Holocaust denial has long been source of embarrassment for both SSPX and Rome.
Bishop Richard Williamson was formally expelled last week, reportedly after ignoring an SSPX ultimatum demanding that he shut down his blog, Eleison Comments, and publicly apologize for the harm he had caused the society and church by publishing it.
Williamson has been a thorn in SSPX’s side since at least January 2009, when Pope Benedict, hoping to bring the schismatic group back into the mainstream Catholic fold, triggered international controversy by lifting the excommunication of four SSPX bishops, Williamson among them.
What the pope reportedly did not know is that just days before his decision to lift Williamson’s excommunication, the bishop had appeared on a Swiss TV program insisting the Nazis had no gas chambers. “I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against — is hugely against — 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler,” he said. “I believe there were no gas chambers.” (Actually, no historian says 6 million Jews died in the gas chambers, although several million did. Millions of Jews were also murdered by Nazi firing squads and using other methods.)
The Vatican said the pope had been unaware of Williamson’s views, which provoked a firestorm of criticism, some of it from ranking Catholic officials. Within a month of lifting the excommunication, the pope had decided Williamson would not be allowed to perform priestly functions unless he recanted his views.
Soon after that, Williamson was also suspended from his post as head of the SSPX seminary in La Reja, Argentina. SSPX Superior General Bernard Fellay issued an order forbidding Williamson to make “any public statements on political or historical issues.” Argentina expelled the bishop, and he returned to his native England.
Meanwhile, Fellay told the world that Williamson’s beliefs “do not in any way reflect the position of our Society.”
In the sense that SSPX’s clerics do not all deny the Holocaust, this may pass for truth. But SSPX’s basic doctrine is harshly anti-Semitic, as are the political and historical views of many of its ranking clerics.
In 1997, for instance, two SSPX priests published an article in the SSPX monthly that called for locking Jews into ghettos because “Jews are known to kill Christians.” They blamed Jews for the French Revolution, communism and capitalism; suggested that a Judeo-Masonic conspiracy had destroyed the Catholic Church; and described Judaism as “inimical to all nations.”
SSPX’s website also once hosted a reproduced 1959 letter to the late SSPX founder Archbishop Marcel-François Lefebvre from Bishop Gerald Sigaud, who also rejected the Vatican II reforms. “Money, the media, and international politics are for a large part in the hands of Jews,” Bishop Sigaud wrote. “Those who have revealed the atomic secrets of the USA were … all Jews. The founders of communism were Jews.”
Lefebvre, a hard rightist who supported the pro-Nazi Vichy regime, founded the SSPX in 1970 as a reaction to the Second Vatican Council, which in the 1960s enacted several liberalizing reforms within the Church.
Though he participated in the council, Lefebvre refused to sign some of its final reports, and in 1974 publicly denounced the effort as heretical. In response, then-Pope Paul VI ordered him to shut down his Swiss seminary. When Lefebvre refused to comply, the Vatican suspended his right to perform priestly functions – a step short of excommunication.
In 1988, Lefebvre took the radically defiant step of consecrating four bishops – Williamson among them. Then-Pope John Paul II, a conservative who nonetheless held ecumenicalism in high regard and had made great strides in improving relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community worldwide, responded by excommunicating Lefebvre and his four new bishops and declaring the group in formal schism with Rome.
Now, Williamson himself has been kicked out of the only religious organization that could tolerate his presence.
Fellay did not mention Holocaust denialism as a reason for Williamson’s expulsion, nor did SSPX take the opportunity to distance itself from his position.
According to Stephen Heiner, a radical traditionalist layman who is close to Williamson, the bishop was ejected from SSPX for expressing dissent on his blog, Eleison Comments.
When it began three years ago, Eleison Comments consisted mainly of Williamson’s musings on the evils of modern art and the destructive influence of liberals (who, according to one 2011 post, are “false crusaders, true tyrants, and effeminate men”).
But SSPX leaders’ dialogue with the Vatican enraged Williamson, who believes that no reconciliation can take place unless the changes introduced during the Second Vatican Council are reversed entirely.
Of late, the bishop has used Eleison Comments as a venue for attacking SSPX itself. “[T]he last worldwide bastion of Catholic Tradition risks being on its way to surrendering to the enemies of the Faith,” he wrote on Sept. 1. “Friends, prepare to fight for the Faith from within your homes. Fortify your homes.”
Based on this, SSPX’s frustration with Williamson is easy to understand. For an organization whose tenuous grasp on authority is based on presenting something like a united front, such public dissent is intolerably damaging.
But that’s not what Williamson fan Stephen Heiner thinks. Instead, echoing a bizarre charge leveled against the mainstream Catholic hierarchy by some on the most extreme fringes of the radical traditionalist movement, Heiner has suggested that Fellay is himself Jewish or controlled by Jews: “[W]hy expel over such a matter? Perhaps this will blow warmth into the cooling ashes of a deal with Rome. A sign of good faith. The traditional Jewish tradition of the scapegoat,” wrote Heiner, who is collecting donations for Williamson.
Of the expulsion, Heiner wrote: “I welcome this news. It will free up Bishop Williamson to continue to do what he does so well — preach the Gospel and wake Catholics out of complacency.”
That does seem to be Williamson’s plan. In an Oct. 27 blog post, the former SSPX cleric described his exclusion from the society as a “final blow” to its mission. Assuring followers that he has no plans to retire, he wrote, “Hang tight, everybody. We are in for one ‘helluva’ ride. Let’s just make that a ride to Heaven! Kyrie eleison. [Lord, have mercy.]”
Meanwhile, talks between SSPX and the Vatican seem to have broken down completely. When Pope Benedict lifted the excommunication bans in 2009, the idea was that that schism might be healed. But on Sept. 30, after more than two years of making what Reuters Religion Editor Tom Heneghan described aptly as “unrequited concessions” towards SSPX, the Vatican announced that talks were over.
“We cannot give away the Catholic faith in negotiations,” said Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. “There will be no compromises here,” he said. “I think there now will be no new discussions.”