Jewish-Catholic relations were strained in January when Swedish television aired allegations by a British bishop — whose 1988 excommunication had just been lifted by Pope Benedict XVI — that the Holocaust death toll was exaggerated and that no Jews died in Nazi gas chambers. As the controversy spread throughout the world, the Diocese of Rochester responded with a strong statement of support for the Jewish community.
In a statement released Feb. 2, diocesan officials decried Bishop Richard Williamson’s assertions, which were made in a November 2008 television interview but not broadcast until Jan. 21.
The diocesan statement emphasizes that Bishop Matthew H. Clark "and the priests, deacons and people of the Diocese of Rochester join with Pope Benedict XVI in affirming our love for and solidarity with the Jewish people throughout the world, and our absolute repudiation of Bishop Williamson’s historically inaccurate and shameful remarks denying the Holocaust. The systematic murder of more than 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators remains a tragedy of indescribable proportion and evil. To deny that the Holocaust occurred or to attempt to lessen the scope of this evil that is historic fact is monumentally wrong."
Bishop Williamson’s interview aired on Swedish state television the same day that Pope Benedict XVI lifted Bishop Williamson’s excommunication for accepting illicit ordination as a bishop by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988.
"I am going by what I judge to be historical evidence according to people who have observed and examined that evidence. I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, but none of them by gas chamber," Bishop Williamson said in the interview. "This is a question of historical truth. Historical truth goes by evidence and not by emotion."
In recent weeks, Pope Benedict and other Vatican officials have issued numerous statements condemning Bishop Williamson’s assertions and affirming the church’s “full and unquestionable solidarity” with the world’s Jews. Meanwhile, Bishop Williamson’s remarks led to his being ordered to leave Argentina by that country’s government or face expulsion. He departed on Feb. 24 after having resided there for several years, arriving in London the next day.
The British-born Bishop Williamson, 68, is a member of the traditionalist order Society of St. Pius X. He is one of four bishops whose illicit 1988 ordination prompted their automatic excommunication as well as that of Archbishop Lefebvre, founder of the St. Pius X order, who died in 1991. The society rejects the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council as well as its concepts of religious freedom and ecumenism.
Pope Benedict said he lifted the excommunications of all four living bishops in hopes of establishing unity between Rome and the schismatic order.
Rabbi Alan Katz, leader of Temple Sinai in Rochester, said he saw a video of Bishop Williamson’s interview and was "horrified" that someone with the title of bishop would make such remarks.
"I know that there are Holocaust deniers and anti-Semitic people in the world, but this was something that just really made my skin crawl," Rabbi Katz said.
He expressed "a tremendous amount of gratitude" to the Rochester Diocese for speaking out, adding that he doesn’t view Bishop Williamson’s views "in any way as being the philosophy, position or attitude of the local priests and diocese. I felt they (the Rochester Diocese) had a moral responsibility to make a statement, and they did. I was very grateful."
Rabbi Katz was involved in the formulation of the historic Rochester Agreement of Understanding in 1996. The Feb. 2 diocesan statement said the Rochester Diocese "takes pride in its ongoing relationship with the Jewish community" and describes the 1996 pact as "a joint declaration of solidarity and mutual defense that was signed by both Jewish and Catholic officials locally and one that has borne much fruit in bettering interfaith relations."
The diocesan statement also emphasizes that "people of all faiths and all generations must work unceasingly to remember the Holocaust and the millions of children, women and men who perished, not only to honor their memory but to ensure such unspeakable crimes never can or will happen again to any people."
However, many Jewish organizations — particularly in Germany, the United States and Israel — have expressed outrage that the church has not reversed the lifting of Bishop Williamson’s excommunication in light of his TV interview and previous statements downplaying the Holocaust’s scope.
Vatican officials have noted that Pope Benedict was not aware of Bishop Williamson’s interview at the time he lifted the excommunication, and have called for Bishop Williamson to recant his televised comments.
Moreover, Father James Massa, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, explained that there is a difference between the lifting of excommunication and being in full communion with the church.
"Removing excommunication doesn’t mean (Bishop Williamson and the other three bishops) are fully reconciled as priests and bishops of the Catholic Church," Father Massa told Catholic News Service Jan. 29. "Like any other Catholic, they can go to Mass and receive holy Communion, but they cannot perform the sacrament themselves as fully recognized ministers of the church."
The controversy was fueled in part by a lack of communication within the Vatican, said a cardinal who coordinates Vatican dialogue with the Jews.
"Up to now people in the Vatican have spoken too little with each other and have not checked where problems might arise," Cardinal Walter Kasper told Vatican Radio’s German program Feb. 2, adding that "there were misunderstandings and management errors in the Curia."
Contains reporting by Catholic News Service.
This story was updated on Feb. 26, 2009.