Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Pope on the Ropes

It has been a very bad few days for the Heresiarch's favourite pontiff. He must be wishing he could just click those ruby heels together and disappear back to Kansas. Even Damian Thompson seems to be coming round to the view that Herr Ratzinger's readmission of SS officer lookalike "bishop" Richard Williamson - along with his equally antediluvian, if less openly Nazi, confrères of the Society of St Pius X - has been a terrible own goal. The move has been condemned by rabbis and greeted with horror (or possibly glee) by Ratzo's liberal enemies within the Catholic church. Further unflattering tales continued to emerge - another Holocaust denying SSPX priest, a new Austrian bishop who thinks that God brewed up Hurricane Katrina to smite the sinful folk of New Orleans (he should get on well with the Anglican Bishop of Carlisle). The row is almost as great as that which engulfed His Heiliness after he made some unflattering remarks about Islam a few years ago; though without the riots or nun-slayings, of course.

Thompson, who remains convinced that "the greatest pope of modern times" was right to lift the excommunications, puts much of the blame on the "utter incompetence of the Vatican communications service" - though he also maintains that Benedict "walked into a trap" set for him by liberals, mainly Damian's rivals at The Tablet. If only it were that simple. The reason this saga has proved so deeply damaging for the pope personally, and for the reputation of the Catholic Church, is that the pope has form - not to mention an image problem. There was, for example, the prayer for the conversion of the Jews that he included in the restored Latin mass, and his evident enthusiasm for beatifying wartime pontiff Pius XII (a.k.a. "Hitler's Pope"). And of course he's German. Someone who was once a member, however brief and unwilling, of the Hitler youth ought to tread very carefully in such areas.

Certainly, it hasn't gone down well in Germany - "Germans are falling out of love with their pope" as Reuters' Madeline Chambers put it. Stephan Kramer, secretary general of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, has called the decision "quite shocking". It was "particularly disturbing in that he is also a German pope," he was quoted as saying, while his colleague Charlotte Knobloch thought the trouble went deeper. "I don’t think this is a coincidence. The pope is a highly educated man. He says what’s being thought in the Church."

Even Angela Merkel has joined in the chorus of complaint, telling her compatriot that his recent remarks condemning the Holocaust didn't go far enough. "The Pope and the Vatican should clarify unambiguously that there can be no denial," she thundered, "and that there must be positive relations with the Jewish community overall." What's she going to do? Send in the tanks?* Perhaps the saddest comment came from Hans-Dietrich Genscher, the former foreign minister. "The Poles" he lamented "can be proud of Pope John Paul II".

It may be that the Protestant Merkel has spotted an opportunity for some good old-fashioned Pope-bashing - but short of re-excommunicating Williamson it's hard to see how he could repair the damage. And - despite what Damian would have us believe - it's not just Williamson. The Lefebvrists aren't simply a group of romantic traditionalists who enjoy incense and lace. HC stalwart Father WeepingCross mentioned said the other day that he had heard them likened to the "Front National at prayer".

Says Thompson, "many liberals are delighted that the entire traditionalist movement has been tainted by the supposed rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier". Why should this be? Perhaps because in the Roman Catholic Church there's a long-established connection between theological and liturgical conservatism on the one hand and extreme right-wing politics on the other. From Ultramontanists in 19th century France to Franco's patronage of Opus Dei, not to mention Leo XIII's encyclical Rerum Novarum, which denounced democracy as the work of the Devil, old-style Catholicism and reactionary views have gone together like the proverbial horse and carriage. As the events of this week have borne out.

Thompson wants us to think it was a simple failure of communication - internal and external. The other day, he reported that Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, Archbishop of Vienna and "an ally of the Pope", had "criticised Vatican staff for failing to check out Williamson's Holocaust-denying past." The Cardinal said in a radio interview, "Obviously a mistake has been made. Someone who denies the Holocaust ... cannot be restored to an office in the Church." He put the blame squarely on "staff practice" for not examining Williamson's record or past comments. Thompson thinks the solution lies in recruiting "media-savvy English speakers" to the Vatican PR office - perhaps that was a job application.

But who was it who made the final decision? Blaming subordinates is a time-honoured but ignoble art: as Harry S Truman put it, "the buck stops here". And he didn't claim to be infallible. In any event, Time Magazine has a somewhat different story to tell, in which "the disaffection can already be measured in Rome" where "a generally supportive Vatican hierarchy was caught off guard by both the timing and substance of the boss's unilateral olive branch to a group that has shown little good will toward Rome". Indeed, Time reports, far from being a victim of Vatican incompetence in this matter the pope managed to keep it out of the loop.


Benedict made an end-run around the famously imposing Vatican bureaucracy, including the key offices of liturgy, doctrine and inter-faith relations that would have wanted to weigh in with their concerns under normal procedures. Several top Curia officials contacted by TIME this week declined comment, and there has been a notable dearth of vigorous defenses of the embattled Pope.


The timing of the original announcement, on the eve of Holocaust memorial day, struck many people as especially tactless - but it was later explained that Benedict wanted to mark a rather different anniversary, the convocation of the 2nd Vatican council. He shares the distaste of the Lefebvrist Four for many of the council's reforms, which included a revision of the chuch's historical attitude towards Judaism (a particular sticking point for the Lefebvrists). But that, of course, is the point - in the final analysis, Ratzinger simply doesn't much care about public opinion, or interfaith sensitivities. Perhaps, privately, he even shares the alarming view of Damian Thompson that Catholic-Jewish dialogue is "boring, expensive and not leading anywhere", being merely "an unending stream of demands for apologies in one direction only". Well quite - those uppity Jews never properly apologised for killing Christ, did they?

What Benedict does care about is his neo-medievalist agenda for the church, bringing back not just old-style worship but the ultra-conservative theology that went with it. He sees the Lefebvrists as his natural allies - and he's desperate to get them on board while there's still time. The Church, it is sometimes said, thinks in centuries; Ratzinger, though, is well aware he may not have much longer left.

What a mess. The Heresiarch is not a Catholic (obviously), but nevertheless had high hopes for Benedict when he was elected pope, as being a rigorous thinker with a genuine commitment to defending the values of European civilisation. I shared the view of the late atheist writer Oriana Fallaci, who once said "When I read the books of Ratzinger I feel less alone". He has undoubtedly been a victim of a mischief-making media - for example the storm in a teacup over his perfectly reasonable critique of gender theory last Christmas. (So he believes that marriage should be between a man and a woman? Big deal. He's the pope, not Peter Tatchell.) And I have a natural sympathy with anyone who so regularly, and easily, gets up the noses of complacent bien pensants.

But this latest development seems almost suicidal. There's a touch of Gladstone's last ministry, when the octogenarian premier - described by Queen Victoria as "deluded and excited" - embarked on ever more doomed attempts to sort out Ireland. Perhaps he isn't quite as sharp as he used to be.

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*The Pope's brother, Georg, has rushed to his defence, reports the Times. "I always saw her as a rational woman," he says of Merkel. "But perhaps at the moment she is under pressure to say something irrational". What does he mean - is it that time of the month?

9 comments:

WeepingCross said...

As I've said before, I can see Benedict's reasons for wanting to conciliate the SSPX - many liturgical traditionalists feel the same way (have a look at the New Liturgical Movement's blog - I have no idea how these people's political ideals may contribute towards their stance). And readmitting the Lefebvrist bishops to communion doesn't mean recognising their office as bishops. Besides, they remain heretics, denying the dogmatic proclamations of Vatican 2, which as a General Council they can't and claim at the same time to be orthodox Catholics. So far the 'Benedictine' reforms have been explained as returning to the letter of Vatican 2, which is entirely true. But I found myself the other day re-reading the Council's extraordinarily generous statements about non-RC Churches, which went against four centuries of RC teaching (though not the explicit teaching of a Council, of course). There was a vast shift in awareness at the Council which still hasn't been digested. I wonder whether the RC Church is moving towards a crisis in authority, having spent the last few hundred years painting itself into a corner in which the Pope holds a teaching authority completely independent of his brother bishops - a hotline to God nobody else has. Vatican 2 explicitly reaffirmed that, while clearly hoping the Pope would never use the power again (Paul VI didn't use the weapon of infallibility to define the Church's position on birth control, merely an encyclical, which is not the same). It may take a few decades, but I think collapse is on the cards - or at least a radical redefinition.

WeepingCross said...

By the way, is that a Black Brunswicker bearskin he's wearing? Not even I've got one of those.

Edwin Moore said...

'Someone who was once a member, however brief and unwilling, of the Hitler youth ought to tread very carefully in such areas.'

Exactly - I think your blogs on Ratty pick up on what not many people pick up on, that the man has an erratic streak, a wild side that is showing itself more and more.

Oddly some good might come out of his owl-like shuffling - he seems to recognise, for example that whatever the Muslim god is, it's not the Catholic god, and the Muslim Jesus is not his Jesus. Speaking as an outsider, it's about time this was aired more I suppose.

But that has more to do with my plague on both houses view I suppose - not terribly constructive.

That's a fascinating post also, WC. I hope things get better but of course we don't know how the world will turn out. I remember Student Christian Movement folk assuring me that there was no stopping liberation theology, but yes there was, it had minimal effect on secular people like me and none at all on conservative church people.

Chris said...

'Hitler's Pope,' eh? So much for your slogan about complacency, received opinions and incoherent thought. Read Michael Burleigh. You might wonder (if you weren't a recycler of the Soviet Union's lies) why the Chief Rabbi of Rome converted to Christianity. Here's a clue: he knew what Pius XII had done for Rome's Jews in World War II. And why the hell should Catholics not pray for Jewish conversions? If it works, it works; if it doesn't, it doesn't. Possibly preferable to beating up Jews, burning synagogues, spraying swastikas on gravestones, and chanting, 'Hamas, Hamas, Jews to the gas,' anyway.

OurSally said...

Before Joe became pope he was just a cardinal, and he had plenty of old-fashioned opinions then inside Germany. I remember especially the fuss when he wanted to prevent girls from being ministrants, because "it was stopping boys from feeling a vocation to join the priesthood". The girls are still there, and Joe got promoted.

He is not changing, he is not erratic, he is showing his true colours at last. With luck he will drive yet more folk out of the true church club.

The Heresiarch said...

I'm sure you're right, Chris. My point, though, was that perception is not always the same as reality - and the media perception of Ratzinger, skewed as is undoubtedly is, behooves him to tread carefully. Instead of which he has a tendency to jump in with both feet - often then backpeddaling furiously, as he did after Regensburg.

Your talk of a collapse being on the cards, Father W, leads me to a strange thought. Is Ratzo the RCC's George W Bush, I wonder?

Dungeekin said...

Nice to have the Pontiff out of the closet - at least we all know what he thinks of the Holocaust now, no matter how he back-pedals.

Is it true he once rewrote the Lords' Prayer for Hitler?

I think we should be told....

D

valdemar squelch said...

Hi Chris. The Chief Rabbi of Rome converted to Catholicism, true. He was warned by the Pope of an imminent Nazi 'sweep' of the city. But he didn't warn his fellow Jews did he? And he failed to destroy a list of names before in fell into Nazi hands. So after the war everyone thought he was a bit of a shit. Not such a straightforward story as you imply. Odd you should mention Soviet distortion of history...

Peter51 said...

While many catholics would probably be happy to tell the SSPX to sod off, the very trditionally minded have a problem. You see, the SSPX bishops have the magic power to create other "valid" bishops - the Vatican can say that these Bishops have been "made" illegally but they are still Bishops (like moonshine whiskey). The Vatican does not want a whole alternative church growing up so it needs to get the SSPX back in before they do more "damage". You could not make it up.........