He was a pope playing out Jesus’s parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep – leaving the flock to search for the stray and return it to the fold – and nobody in the Vatican’s inner circle had the smarts or the knowledge to warn him of the consequences.
The story of Benedict XVI and the Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson, is as simple as that, the story of a pontiff largely insulated from the outside world by a tiny handful of unworldly advisers.
He was enthusiastically intent on ending a schism in Roman Catholicism by enticing an ultraconservative orthodox sect back into the 1.1-billion-member church. Except no one in the Vatican explained to him who was in the catch.
The Vatican has acknowledged Benedict had no idea of Bishop Williamson’s views before lifting an excommunication order against him last month.
The acknowledgment itself is an almost unprecedented admission of error. A number of senior clerics have made astonishing public declarations that a mistake was made, and long-time Vatican-watchers have described the Pope’s act of readmitting the bishop to the fold of mainstream Roman Catholicism as the church’s worst communications debacle in memory.
The leading Italian commentator on the Vatican, Sandro Magister, has described the Roman curia, the administrative apparatus of the church, as chaotic and the Williamson affair as a double disaster: of governance and of communication.
The curia plays on a great stage – Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s magnificent St. Peter’s Square – but in reality it’s a tiny, unsophisticated bureaucracy stumblingly running a global behemoth.
The BBC’s chief Vatican correspondent, David Willey, says he has never seen a comparable fiasco in his more than three decades of reporting on the church.
Much of the problem stems from Benedict’s isolation. He sees maybe three advisers on a daily basis, people who don’t think in terms of who should be consulted on various decisions.
Unlike his predecessor, John Paul II, he doesn’t socialize, he doesn’t network, he doesn’t invite people in for meals.
The Vatican is an autocratic society where everyone is hugely deferential to the Pope and what he wants to do. There would have been people who knew about Bishop Williamson’s Holocaust views, but they would not have access to the Pope.
Moreover, the errors of the Williamson affair have been compounded by the Vatican’s seeming inability to explain just what the Pope did – which was simply to revoke the excommunication order prohibiting Bishop Williamson from participating in church life as a step toward ending a schism with the 150,000-member group, the Society of St. Pius X, to which he belonged.
At no time did the Pope restore him to any episcopal office. Bishop Williamson remains suspended from functioning as a priest.
The news media reported Bishop Williamson’s Holocaust views and his imminent readmission to the church three days before the Vatican made its official announcement revoking his excommunication, and yet no damage control was attempted. Indeed, the church let another 10 days pass before ordering him to publicly recant his statements.
In addition, the Williamson controversy bears more than passing resemblance to the furor Benedict ignited in 2006 when, during a lecture at the University of Regensburg in Germany, he quoted from a Byzantine text characterizing the Prophet Mohammed as evil and inhuman.
Benedict’s media spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi, quietly conceded later that if more worldly and knowing eyes had read the Pope’s lecture before it was delivered, the offending text might either have been removed or more properly contextualized and the uproar avoided.
In the case of Bishop Williamson, Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, said the matter was “talked about too little” in the Vatican and he wasn’t even consulted before the bishop’s excommunication was revoked.
And one of the Pope’s strongest allies in the church hierarchy, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Austria, said: “Someone who denies the Holocaust cannot be rehabilitated to an ecclesial office. One cannot but voice a certain criticism of the Vatican for not looking into the matter more closely.”
The Society of St. Pius X was created for the followers of the late French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected the 1960s Second Vatican Council reforms ending, among other things, the Latin mass and the notion that the Jews were guilty of deicide for having crucified Jesus Christ.
When Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated Rev. Williamson and three other priests as bishops without Vatican approval in 1988, Pope John Paul II ordered them all excommunicated.
The theologically conservative Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who became Benedict XVI in 2005, was never militantly or intellectually opposed to the Lefebvre traditionalists and has taken several steps since becoming pope to accommodate them.
The Society of St. Pius X this week expelled Bishop Williamson from the seminary he had been running in Argentina, and yesterday an Argentine government official said he would face a court inquiry into his Holocaust statements.