Thursday, February 12, 2009

Catholics Walk Away, The Pope Speaks

I blogged yesterday about the astonishingly high price Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI have made the whole church pay as they have implemented their restorationist agenda ( In the Western world, the Catholic church has been bleeding members at a rate that ought to alarm anyone concerned about its future—and should be of great concern to pastors whose vocation is supposed to be all about seeking the lost sheep and feeding the flock.

As I noted, reports from Germany and Austria, countries in which the decline in church membership had already been precipitous, indicate that in the wake of Benedict’s rehabilitation of the Society of St. Pius X, there is a new spate of resignations from the Catholic church. The German publication Deutsche Welle reported last week that Catholics were removing their names from the official government membership list of church members “in droves” in protest against Benedict’s action.

The National Catholic Reporter website links today to a statement by one German who has left the church in response to the rehabilitation of anti-Semite Richard Williamson. Mario Kaiser, a journalist in Berlin, reflects on his recent decision to leave the church in the International Herald Tribune (

Kaiser notes that, as a German, he had previously taken pride in Benedict. Though he would like to see Benedict stop suppressing discussion of the role of women in church and society, of the use of condoms to stop AIDS, and of the bona fide ecclesial status of Protestant churches, he has been willing to live with Benedict’s intransigence regarding these issues while respecting the pope as an intelligent, thoughtful, pious man.

For Kaiser, the breaking point is Benedict’s response to the revelation of Richard Williamson’s overt anti-Semitism. Kaiser finds Benedict’s response to this revelation—a demand that Williamson distance himself from his “positions” on the Holocaust—entirely inadequate:

After days of unbearable silence and outrage around the world, Benedict finally spoke, and that is when he lost me. He didn't actually speak: The Vatican issued a statement demanding that Williamson "distance himself from his positions on the Shoah."

I looked at these words and wondered why, in the eyes of the Vatican, denying the Holocaust was a "position." I wondered why all it required for a Holocaust-denying bishop to remain a bishop was to "distance himself" from his words.

I couldn't understand why Benedict didn't distance himself and the Catholic Church from Williamson in the same way he had associated himself with him, with the stroke of a pen. So I distanced myself from the pope.

In Kaiser’s view, the question of whether the Holocaust actually happened is beyond discussion. Even to speak of Holocaust denial as a “position” among other possible positions is morally outrageous. Kaiser states,

But there are certain issues I do not want to discuss. I don't wish to discuss if Hitler had a lovely side to him. And I don't ever wish to discuss if the Holocaust really happened.

And so, Mario Kaiser, along with many other German Catholics, has taken the step to go to the German registry office and have his name removed from the rolls of Germans listed as Catholic for tax purposes. With each such resignation, the church loses tax revenue.

Even more, of course, it loses human beings, irreplaceable, precious human beings with manifold gifts. Members of the body of Christ, called to be there because they are part of the ongoing drama of salvation in which we are all involved. A necessary part of that drama whose loss impairs the rest of us in our journey to salvation. Sheep needing sustenance, who find the pastoral leaders of the church are starving them to death. As those leaders flatten moral discourse about the Holocaust by suggesting that Holocaust denial is one “position” among other possible “positions” to debate and discuss.

Meanwhile, a report in Huffington Post today says that Benedict spoke out forcefully today at a Vatican audience with American Jewish leaders, about the unacceptability of Holocaust denial ( According to Nicole Winfield, Benedict stated,

The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah was a crime against God and against humanity. This should be clear to everyone, especially to those standing in the tradition of the Holy Scriptures. It is beyond question that any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable and altogether unacceptable.

A wonderful statement. I’m glad Benedict has made it. But I fear that for those now exiting the church—as well as for the millions of us who have found the church leaving us lo these many years now—it is too little, too late.

For many of us, serious questions remain, and will, we suspect, in all likelihood never be addressed. How could Benedict not have known of the well-documented history of anti-Semitism among SSPX members, and Williamson in particular? Why are overt anti-Semites welcomed with open arms when millions of Catholics of good conscience who took Vatican II seriously shoved away from communion? Why has the response to the furor surrounding the discovery of Williamson's anti-Semitism treated Holocaust denial as one "possibility" among others? Could the pope have avoided such a tragic mistake—this new act of alienation of more Catholics—if he had been willing, for years now, to listen to and engage in dialogue with the faithful?

The price the church is paying for the restorationist agenda, built as it is around stubborn intransigence and fierce determination to preserve mutable clerical structures that no longer serve the church well at all (and are all about male domination), is enormous. One wonders whether destroying the church in order to preserve it is really worthwhile.