The Argument

The Devil’s Publicist

What was Pope Benedict thinking when he tried to rehabilitate a Holocaust denier? By Philip Jenkins When the Catholic Church canonizes a new saint, a Devil’s Advocate marshals all possible evidence against the candidate. Judging by current events in the Vatican, one might imagine Pope Benedict XVI has a full time employee called the Devil’s ...

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What was Pope Benedict thinking when he tried to rehabilitate a Holocaust denier?

By Philip Jenkins

When the Catholic Church canonizes a new saint, a Devil’s Advocate marshals all possible evidence against the candidate. Judging by current events in the Vatican, one might imagine Pope Benedict XVI has a full time employee called the Devil’s Publicist, who is charged with finding the most embarrassing story to release at the worst possible time. The Devil’s Publicist is cultivating the nastiest possible reputation for the papacy worldwide. After a speech that enraged Muslims in 2006, this time, the Devil’s Publicist has provoked Jews, and much of Europe. Not only did the Vatican lift the excommunication of some extremely traditionally minded clerics, but one of them — Bishop Richard Williamson — had recently given an interview denying the Holocaust. He rejected the historical reality of gas chambers, and placed the number of Jewish victims at “only” two or three hundred thousand. The row broke just as Jewish activists worldwide were smarting from controversies surrounding the Israeli attack on Gaza. They were extremely sensitive to any suggestions of Western anti-Semitism, especially when these could be linked to a Bavarian pope. If the Publicist was trying to turn Benedict into another “Hitler’s pope,” he could scarcely have done better.

However disastrously matters have turned out (and they have — prompting even German Chancellor Angela Merkel to pipe in), Benedict did have quite reasonable and even creditable motives for his decisions. Putting the affair in context requires understanding the recent history of the Catholic Church, particularly in Europe. The second Vatican Council met from 1963 through 1965, and launched a sweeping modernization of every aspect of the church’s life, which among other things meant replacing the old Latin liturgy. Many traditionalists disliked these changes, and a hard core of clergy resisted them strongly. The most visible opponent was French Bishop Marcel Lefebvre, whose movement — the Society of St. Pius X, or SSPX — coalesced around the Swiss seminary of Ecône. During the 1970s, this group distanced itself ever further from the institutional church. And by 1988, Lefebvre took the irrevocable step of consecrating four new bishops, including Williamson. Today, the SSPX claims the loyalty of several hundred priests and tens of thousands of followers, mainly in France and Brazil. The group’s U.S. membership spiked after the clergy sex scandals in the U.S., as conservatives jumped ship from mainstream Catholicism.

When Joseph Ratzinger became Pope Benedict in 2005, ending the nagging schism became a priority item on his agenda for several reasons. Very high on Benedict’s list of concerns is the defense — perhaps the saving — of Catholic Christianity on the European continent. Benedict knows only too painfully that Catholic loyalties in most countries are far weaker than they were 40 years ago, whether measured by mass attendance or vocations. Meanwhile, once-faithful countries like Spain seem happy passing very liberal laws on abortion and gay marriage — both of which Benedict opposes strenuously. If there is a solution to this great fall from grace, he has suggested, it is to be found in the small and very faithful Catholic societies — including the so-called new ecclesial orders. If we can no longer count on heavy majorities of Spaniards or French people going to mass, Benedict reasoned, the Catholic future depends on dedicated minorities who will act like a leaven to raise the whole mass.

Moreover, the pope was also truly sympathetic toward the traditionalists’ hostility toward recent liturgical experiments. Benedict resisted temptations to turn the clock back too far, but he did give conservatives greater latitude in celebrating the Tridentine services.

Examples of the groups he hoped to reintegrate were the Italian Focolare, the Spanish Neocatechumenate, Opus Dei, and the French Emmanuel Community. Gradually, in Benedict’s vision, the orders could re-evangelize the continent. Already, we can see their influence. The sensationally popular World Youth Days, which provide such opportunities for mass Catholic enthusiasm, were an invention of the Focolare. If the SSPX, too, could be brought back within the orthodox fold, it would bring thousands of dedicated activists to Benedict’s pet project of re-energizing two critical countries — France and Brazil — which both lean towards secularism. What could go wrong?

The answer, of course, is that Benedict and his associates simply misjudged the degree of extremism and manic conspiracy theory circulating in the SSPX. The sect’s eccentricity went further than simply holding quirky or reactionary views. Lefebvre and his immediate circle reacted radically and fundamentally to the Vatican’s 1960s reformism. Theirs was not simply suspicion of modern decadence, but rather a fundamental belief in the evil forces subverting the modern world — which included the Jews.

Pope Benedict erred in seeing the Lefebvrists as simple traditionalists or reactionaries whose views slotted into the right wing of the acceptable European political spectrum. Some, at least, were far more extreme, and the Vatican’s attempted embrace of them will probably cause lasting damage both inside the church, and in relations with other faiths.

We can only wait and see what the Devil’s Publicist has in mind for his next trick.

Philip Jenkins is the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History and Religious Studies at Penn State University and the author of The Lost History of Christianity (New York: HarperOne, October 2008).

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