When Pope Benedict XVI signed a decree on Jan. 21, 2009, lifting the excommunication of four bishops from the archconservative Society of St. Pius X, he thought he was healing an internal schism in his church. Benedict's predecessor John Paul II had approved the excommunication of the four bishops in 1988 after rebel archbishop Marcel Lefebvre consecrated them without papal authority, an action the Roman Catholic Church considered "unlawful" and "schismatic."
Benedict's decision was a direct response to a letter written in December by St. Pius Bishop Bernard Fellay on behalf of his three banned colleagues and himself.
Bishop Fellay formally requested the removal of the excommunication. He affirmed that he and his three fellow bishops were "firmly resolute in our desire to remain Catholics and to put all our strength at the service of the Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, which is the Roman Catholic Church. We accept her teachings in a filial spirit. We firmly believe in the Primacy of Peter and in its prerogatives, and for this reason the current situation causes us much suffering."
Catholic spokesmen declared the pope's decision to be a first step toward a full restoration of the relationship between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X, which has been strained because of the society's rejection of the reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s.
What was supposed to be an act of healing became a source of great embarrassment for the Roman Catholic Church when one of the restored St. Pius bishops, British-born Richard Williamson, was revealed to have repeatedly denied the Holocaust. During a trip to Germany in November 2008, Williamson confirmed his views in an interview recorded for Swedish television network Sveriges Television AB, asserting that "not one single Jew died in a gas chamber" during World War II.
In a strange twist, the interview was broadcast on the very day that Pope Benedict signed the decree lifting Williamson's excommunication. News media reported the Holocaust denial, and within hours of the news release announcing Williamson's restoration, the Vatican had a full-blown scandal on its hands.
Vatican response to anti-Semitism
The fact that Williamson voiced his views on the Holocaust in Germany was especially galling. Denying the Holocaust is a crime in Germany , and Williamson's remarks prompted a state prosecutor to open an official inquiry on the need to press charges against him. Roman Catholic cardinals in Germany were quick to distance themselves from Williamson's position, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel called upon the German pope to take a strong stance against anti-Semitism.
The Jewish community in Germany also voiced its dismay over the possible implications of the pope's decision. Some Catholics were so embarrassed by their church's initial silence that they renounced their membership in their own church.
After 10 days of waiting, there was finally a response from the Vatican. Pope Benedict repeated his well-known condemnation of the Holocaust and called upon Bishop Williamson to recant his views or face renewed excommunication from the church.
Without retracting his anti-Holocaust statements, Williamson apologized for any embarrassment he had caused the Vatican and agreed to review his controversial opinion. Since Williamson has consistently denied the Holocaust for over 20 years, it would be a major reversal for him to recant, and it is likely he won't.
The pope reassured Jewish religious leaders that his predecessor's attempts to improve relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community would continue. In the immediate aftermath of the Williamson revelation, the pope's visit to Israel this spring appeared to be off, but in mid-February Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert confirmed that the pope would visit Israel in May as planned.
While the Vatican's attempt at damage control may have allayed fears that the church was reverting to anti-Semitic tendencies, questions remained about how the pope could have restored someone like Williamson to full communion with his publicized controversial views. Is Benedict an intellectual who makes his decisions in isolation, as the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel speculated? Did his advisers not give him advance warning about Williamson's position?
Having already condemned the Holocaust himself in unequivocal terms, it is implausible that Pope Benedict's decision to reinstate Bishop Williamson can be equated with approval of Williamson's anti-Holocaust views. Instead, the impetus for the pope's decision was his desire to promote a restoration of unity within the church that he believes to be the only true church on earth. In the four years of his papacy, Benedict has clearly demonstrated his desire to position the Roman Catholic Church as the true defender of the Christian religion.
The most conservative pope in years
Benedict conveys a different image than Pope John Paul II, who was seen as reaching out to other religions and attempting to establish an interfaith dialogue. Benedict has no objection to reaching out to other religious groups as long as the restoration of unity within the Christian community and promoting unity among religions does not translate into questioning the preeminence of his church. Several examples confirm this viewpoint:
• During a visit to Germany in September 2006, the pope chose to quote a Byzantine emperor who was critical of the Islamic faith: "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." His use of the quote prompted violent protests in the Muslim world, but German Interior Minister Wolfgang Schäuble remarked just a day after the pope's Regensburg speech that it ought to be possible for the pope to use a quote critical of Islam.
Apparently there weren't enough Europeans expressing similar views to satisfy the European Union commission president, José Manuel Barroso. "I was disappointed that there weren't more European leaders who said that the pope has the right to express his views," Barroso said in comments made to the Welt am Sonntag weekly. "The problem isn't the pope's speech, but rather the reaction of the extremists," he continued.
Barroso gave two reasons for the reluctance of fellow European leaders to voice support for the pope: "concern over a possible confrontation" and a "kind of political correctness" that says that "one is only tolerant if one values the opinion of others higher than one's own opinion."
In an interview with the French daily La Croix a year after the pope's controversial speech, the president of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, said that interreligious dialogue is currently not possible "with Islam, not at this time. Muslims do not accept discussion about the Koran, because they say it was written under the dictates of God. With such an absolutist interpretation, it's difficult to discuss the contents of the faith."
• On June 29, 2007 the Vatican restated its position that the Catholic Church is the only true church established by Jesus Christ. In a brief document titled "Responses to Some Questions Regarding Certain Aspects on the Doctrine of the Church," the Vatican 's doctrinal office repeated controversial claims made in a doctrinal paper published seven years earlier, "Dominus Iesus." According to the Vatican , other Christian denominations may have certain elements of biblical truth, but they cannot claim apostolic succession—the ability to trace their bishops back to the apostle Peter. Rome therefore reasons that such denominations cannot properly be called churches.
The response of various Protestant leaders was to be expected. The idea that non-Catholic churches are deficient because they do not accept papal authority and the primacy of the pope generally caused offense and was seen as a blow to the interdenominational dialogue fostered by the late Pope John Paul II.
• Last year Pope Benedict authorized changes to a Latin prayer for Jews by traditionalist Catholics at Good Friday services. The new Latin prayer deleted a reference to the Jews' "blindness" over Christ, but added a request that "God our Lord enlighten their hearts so that they recognize Jesus Christ as the savior of all men."
Since the Catholic view is that the pope is Jesus' representative on earth, accepting Jesus for Jews would also mean that they are incorporated into the church that Catholics consider to be the only true church on earth—the Catholic Church.
The Society of St. Pius X and the Second Vatican Council
In July 2008 Pope Benedict was reported to have authorized the Congregation for Divine Worship to study some modifications in Catholic mass liturgy. In particular, the pope is supposed to favor the restoration of Latin for the eucharistic consecration within the mass otherwise conducted in the local language. Benedict is also said to favor the use of Latin for the texts used in the Catholic baptism, confirmation and confession ceremonies.
Interestingly, Benedict's move was considered to be an attempt to reach out to the ultra-traditionalist Society of St. Pius X and bring it back into the Vatican 's fold. The Society of St. Pius X was founded by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1969 in Switzerland in opposition to the reforms introduced by the Second Vatican Council. In his desire to promote unity within his church, Benedict wanted to reconcile with the conservative group, which has demanded freer use of the old Latin Mass as a precondition for normalizing relations with the Vatican.
Benedict himself appears to believe that statements from the Second Vatican Council need explanation. For example, the pope's position that apostolic succession is an important key for identifying the only true church is his attempt to clarify some of the confusion resulting from the Second Vatican Council.
Specifically, the term "sister churches" was used in reference to non-Catholic denominations. A "sister church" is therefore a denomination that can trace its roots back to Peter as the supposed first pope, but is currently separated from the Roman Catholic Church as a result of an earlier schism. In the Vatican's view, one church in this category would be the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Two weeks after his excommunication was lifted, St. Pius Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais told the Italian daily La Stampa that he and his three colleagues (including Bishop Williamson) would not be satisfied with just being readmitted to full communion in the Catholic Church: "We don't want to change our position. Instead, we want to convert Rome [to our position]."
His remarks appear to have prompted Benedict XVI to state publicly that the Pius bishops would have to accept the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. Bishop Fellay said that the pope appeared to agree with the Pius bishops on the question of liturgy, but agreement on Vatican II's teachings may take longer. According to Bishop Fellay, his society insists on clarifying the council's teachings before an agreement can be reached on adhering to them.
"The [Vatican II] texts are not clear, and there are a multitude of diverse interpretations that have gained currency in the church. If one does not desire the collapse of the church, clarifications on this council—which was supposed to be pastoral and not dogmatic—are urgently needed" (as quoted by the Catholic News Service, Feb. 18, 2009).
Traditionalism as a source of stability
The continent that is home to the Roman Catholic Church, Europe, is entering a challenging phase of its post–World War II history. The European Union with its 27 members has become a sluggish bureaucratic giant, and the streamlining of its institutions via the Treaty of Lisbon is by no means assured.
The current economic crisis has plunged Europe into a deepening recession. Germany, the national economy that is the motor of the European Union, may contract as much as 5 percent this year. German exports, which account for one third of Germany's GDP, have dropped by 10 percent since November.
The months and years ahead could strain European unity to the breaking point. One institution has remained largely unchanged in the last five decades—or even centuries, for that matter. It is the Roman Catholic Church, which under Pope Benedict XVI is accentuating its conservative roots and its claim to being the only true church on earth, the mediator between all men and God.
When postwar economic assumptions and alliances are challenged, will the church at Rome and its growing conservative assertiveness provide a source of stability for a Europe seeking to realign itself in a fast-changing world? Bible prophecy indicates just that.
To learn more about the end-time prophecies of Europe and the church, request or download our free booklet The Book of Revelation Unveiled. WNP