Bishop Richard Williamson said, “There was not one Jew killed in the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies.” Williamson, a member of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX), was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1988, along with three other bishops in the Society. Pope Benedict rehabilitated Williamson and the others on Jan. 21.
Amid cries of outrage from Holocaust survivors, the general public, Jewish organizations, and even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Vatican issued a statement on Sunday stating that Bishop Richard Williamson must “unequivocally” distance himself from his anti-Semitic statements to serve in the Roman Catholic Church. Also on Sunday, the La Reja Seminary in Argentina announced that Williamson is no longer its director.
According to a BBC report, the Vatican said that the pope was unaware of the bishop’s views when he lifted Williamson’s excommunication last month.
However, an article in the Intelligence Report of the Southern Poverty Law Center states that “the Society of St. Pius X, which has chapels and schools across the United States, remains a font of anti-Semitic propaganda.” The Southern Poverty Law Center is an organization known internationally for its tolerance education programs, legal victories against white supremacists, and the tracking of hate groups.
Founded in 1970
SSPX was founded by the late French archbishop Marcel-Francois Lefebvre in 1970. During World War II he supported the pro-Nazi Vichy regime in France.
Lefebvre rebelled against the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, and it was in this context of conservative reaction that he formed SSPX. In 1974 he publicly denounced the Vatican II reforms, and in 1988 he consecrated four bishops in defiance of the Vatican. Pope John Paul II responded by excommunicating the bishops and declared the SSPX organization to be in “schism” with the church. These are the four bishops who have just been reinstated by the current pope.
SSPX’s history is no less damning than its beginnings. In 1989, a fugitive French war criminal, Paul Touvier, was arrested and convicted of ordering the execution of seven Jews in 1944. Touvier had been hidden for years at an SSPX monastery in France.
That same year, Williamson gave a speech at a Canadian church in which he decried the Canadian government’s persecution of Holocaust denier and neo-Nazi Ernst Zundel. At the time Williams was the rector of SSPX’s main North American seminary — in Winona, Minn. It was at that pulpit that he issued the statement above: “It was all lies, lies, lies.” He went on to say, “The Jews created the Holocaust so we would prostrate ourselves on our knees before them and approve of their new state of Israel.” The Canadian government reacted by banning all SSPX publications.
Consistent and public with stance
Williamson has been consistent and very public in his stance. Just days before the rehabilitation, he was shown on Swedish state television saying that historical evidence “is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed” during World War II and that only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews were killed.
At present in the United States, SSPX claims about 100 chapels and 24 schools; eight of the chapels and four of the schools are in Minnesota. There are chapels, schools, and seminaries from Australia to Canada, South America to Europe. Its U.S. monthly periodical, The Angelus, has about 3,000 subscribers, and the Angelus Press sells anti-Semitic books and pamphlets. The Southern Poverty Law Center notes, “Throughout it all, SSPX denies all allegations of anti-Semitism.”
The Anti-Defamation League, the world’s leading organization fighting anti-Semitism through programs and services that counteract hatred, prejudice and bigotry, says about SSPX: “SSPX has promoted theological and conspiratorial anti-Semitism among its adherents. In sermons, writings, web sites and publications, SSPX representatives have charged contemporary Jews with deicide, have endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and have claimed that there is factual basis for the Blood Libel. One of its bishops has also denied the Holocaust.”
A disingenuous claim
It is disingenuous of the Vatican to claim that the pope was unaware of Williamson’s views. The Vatican’s recent statement that Williamson must “unequivocally” distance himself from his statements to serve in the church is equally as egregious.
While the pope’s position is untenable, the church does not deserve a blanket condemnation. It is important to note that there are Catholic priests who have committed their life’s work to the study and documentation of the Holocaust and to the improvement of Catholic-Jewish relations.
Before the Nazis implemented the “final solution” to exterminate Jews in gas chambers and crematoria, nearly 1.5 million Jews were killed by Nazi mobile killing squads who brutally shot Jews at close range in mass murders. The Rev. Patrick Desbois, a French priest, recently won the Jewish Book Award for his compelling book, “The Holocaust by Bullets: A Priest’s Journey to Uncover the Truth Behind the Murder of 1.5 Million Jews.” Published in collaboration with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is the story of Desbois’ discovery and documentation of these gravesites throughout Ukraine.
Paul A. Shapiro, director of education at the Holocaust Museum, writes in the book’s foreword, “Motivated by family history, ethical fiber, faith, and fervor for remembrance, Father Desbois has undertaken to locate the mass graves of the victims in Ukraine and to record videotaped testimony from hundreds of eyewitnesses who have never spoken publicly before — people who in their youth saw their Jewish neighbors, acquaintances, friends, even schoolmates and lovers murdered. … We can now know the whole truth in all of its frightening detail. Father Desbois has found the mass graves where the victims lie. He is telling their stories and arranging for Kaddish (the Jewish prayer for the dead) to be recited in their memory. … He is restoring to hundreds of thousands of victims too long forgotten the humanity that the Nazis sought to strip from them.”
Scholar-priest Kevin Spicer, visiting professor at Notre Dame University, has documented the role of the Catholic Church under the Nazis in a compelling book, “Hitler’s Priests: Catholic Clergy and National Socialism.” Spicer’s extensive research examines the “brown priests” who volunteered as Nazi propagandists and explores their political activism and their subsequent trial for their part in the crimes of Hitler’s government. In addition to his teaching and research about the Holocaust, Spicer directs programs promoting Catholic-Jewish dialog.
The Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota, is bringing Desbois to speak in Minneapolis on Thursday, Feb. 26, at two events, both free and open to the public: one at noon at Nolte Education Center, East Bank, University of Minnesota; and one at 7 p.m. at Temple Israel, 2324 Emerson Avenue South, Minneapolis.
The center is hosting Spicer in April. He will speak at the University of Minnesota-Duluth on April 2; at the University of Minnesota and at Mt. Zion Temple, St. Paul, on April 3; and at the Basilica of St. Mary, Minneapolis, on April 4. Details of both priests’ visits are here. You may also call 612-624-0256.
It is insufficient for the pope to demand that Williamson recant his statements of Holocaust denial. It is imperative that this rehabilitation be retracted and that the pope publicly condemn SSPX for its promulgation of hate.
At the same time, the church must commit to efforts that will promote good will and understanding among all peoples, so that priests like Desbois and Spicer will devote their lives to human-rights issues that affect us all.
Ellen J. Kennedy, Ph.D., is interim director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, University of Minnesota.