Illustration of two figures holding different chalices


Pope Benedict, Disaffected Anglicans, and Holocaust-Denying Bishops

Illustration by Andrew Zbihlyj

By Kevin Madigan

As many commentators have observed, the Church of England has gone through something like a prolonged corporate identity crisis. Is it simply Catholicism without the pope? Or is it instead a form of Christianity that has genuine links with the thought and practice of magisterial reformers (like Luther or Calvin), though it may be unable to name a single epoch-making figure to whom it looks for theological and religious depth and authority? Students of the relationship between the old Church of Rome and the new Church of England know that their shared 500 years of history have never been free of conflict, literary polemic (much of it very funny), and mutual suspicion.1

One would be hard pressed to imagine a moment in the past century when an archbishop of Canterbury, however graciously he may have spoken of the Vatican in his public utterances, felt more shock, incredulity, and perhaps even mistrust than this past October. As has been widely reported, this was when the Vatican, in the person of Pope Benedict XVI, took steps to facilitate the reception into the Roman Catholic Church of the Anglican Church’s clergy and lay men and women. The Anglican Communion has something on the order of 80 million followers in the world. That makes it, statistically speaking, a very large church. Indeed, only the Roman and Eastern Orthodox communions are larger, if considerably so.

It would be wrong to imagine, as has been heard recently, that the pope has been “poaching” from or even preying upon the Anglican Communion. In fact, discussions were initiated by several Anglophone prelates of the worldwide Anglican Communion. Variously dubbed “dissidents,” “conservatives,” or, bowing to tradition, “reformers,” these bishops and archbishops approached Rome and the pope, on whose sympathy with their disillusionment with social and cultural developments in the Anglican Communion they could count. Some were disappointed with the decision of the Anglican Communion to ordain women. But that is to put it too flatly. They were profoundly disenchanted, as the reasons put forward for the desirability of ordaining women were couched almost exclusively in terms of contemporary social and cultural developments and conceptions of gender. In other words, what the dissatisfied bishops did not hear was a justification expressed in the primary terms of a two-millennia-old religious tradition, which they had vowed themselves ready to justify and, if possible, to spread across the globe.

The Anglican Communion was further fractured over the issue of gay clerics, and especially gay bishops. Even before Queen Elizabeth II appointed Rowan Williams archbishop of Canterbury, his liberal views on homosexuality were quite well known. Like his medieval predecessor Thomas Becket (1118–1170), martyred by royal knights in his cathedral, Williams could surprise his supporters. After vigorous protests from the African Anglican bishops, Williams urged a close friend, Jeffrey John, a homosexual, to withdraw from consideration for appointment to the episcopate at Reading. With John’s supporters in a lather at this flagrant act of betrayal, the consecration of Gene Robinson of New Hampshire outraged evangelicals even more; their indignation only deepened when Robinson announced his plans to marry his male partner of 20 years. His consecration caused the secession from the communion of a small number of American dioceses from the Episcopal Church in the United States and scores of individual defections. Meanwhile, at least four women have been ordained bishops.

The archbishop of Canterbury has been pilloried in print, radio, and television media by his Episcopal colleagues for supporting these and other developments. Traditionalists simply cannot see his causes as expressions of the historic mission of the church. One of these causes, his favorite, is global warming, on which he speaks frequently and passionately. He once suggested that England could not accept vegetables transported by air to England because of the impact of global warming on the atmosphere. To Williams, man-made global emissions threaten God’s creation. As such, it is a moral issue on which he is permitted, even obliged, to speak out. His opponents argue that Williams is a clergyman and not a scientist, thus unqualified to pronounce on the complex technical issues involved in climate change. Global warming, they argue, is not an issue that concerns the entire Anglican Communion, whose leader should be speaking to the English about moral and spiritual, not secular issues. In the end, many traditionalist bishops have concluded that the ordination of gays and women is biblically unjustifiable, and this, together with what they see as Williams’s trendy secular pieties, has made it impossible for them to remain in the Anglican Communion.

This is where Pope Benedict comes in. While it was he who was approached by the Anglican clergymen, and not the other way around, there can be little doubt that he was happy to find a way to accommodate their acceptance into the Roman Church. In the end, they will be offered a possibility of “conversion” by means of “personal ordinariates” so as to preserve remnants of Anglican liturgical tradition and piety. Allowed thus to save crucial aspects of their religious identities, they will more easily establish seminaries for the training of Catholic priests. In turn, they will be asked to accept the notion, debated since antiquity, that the “Petrine ministry” (i.e., the papacy) was “willed by Christ for his Church.” Anglican priests already married may remain so after they swim the Tiber. (One unforeseen consequence of the opening to Anglican priests may be a weakening in an already-shaky commitment to Catholic celibacy.) Some of these new Catholics will be from England (already, priests in London and Yorkshire have announced their intention to attach themselves to the Roman Church), the United States, and Australia. But it is likely that many more defectors will come from Africa (some of the most energetic, and conservative, churches in the communion) and other non-Western countries. Apocalyptic prophecies about “the end of the Anglican Communion” are too uninflected to be swallowed whole. On the other hand, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the conservative wing, in joining with Rome, is joining the vibrant branch of the church, while the progressive wing seems doomed to die on the vine. Statistical studies demonstrate that, both in England and the United States, the mainline, liberal denominations are losing congregants: their congregants are getting older on average, and the youth are voting with their feet. Despite the Holy Father’s encouraging them to follow the path of the great monk St. Benedict, the young may in fact be walking through the doors that house the religiously traditionalist congregations, which, compared to their progressive counterparts, seem to be thriving everywhere one looks.

This brings us back, once again, to Pope Benedict XVI and his alacrity in accepting traditionalist prelates in the Anglican Communion seeking to affiliate with Rome. Benedict is frequently seen to be looking back, with a touch of nostalgia, to the time when Christianity played a major role in shaping individual and common humanity in Europe. These pronouncements are balanced by what might be called an overly optimistic hope for the repristination of Christendom, a European continent united by Catholicism—surely a prospect that cannot possibly be received with joy by all the continent’s Jews, Protestants, Muslims, and secularists.

On several occasions, Benedict’s driving desire to reestablish a vibrant and unified Catholic Church has led him into some inexplicable, if not unconscionable, blunders. No more serious blunder occurred than when, in January 2009, Benedict chose to rehabilitate four schismatic bishops, a few days before Holocaust Remembrance Day, from the traditionalist (some say ultraconservative) Society of Pius X. This group is opposed not only to the liturgical changes and collegiality promoted by the Second Vatican Council, but also to the cordial relations Vatican II sought to establish with other religious traditions, including Judaism. Its four rehabilitated bishops had been excommunicated by John Paul II after they had been consecrated irregularly, that is, with no approval or mandate from the papacy. Benedict declared that he had rehabilitated the bishops as an attempt at unifying the Catholic Church and as a first step in welcoming them fully back into the Church; but it was hard not to perceive it as an attempt to nudge the Church further to the right and into a pre-Vatican II mindset. Initially, no concession to the reforms of that council was demanded of any of the four bishops. But that would change as the curious thoughts on the Holocaust of one of them came to light.

One of the four bishops rehabilitated was Richard Williamson, a Briton, who had a history of Holocaust denial— and who as recently as one month before the rehabilitation had denied the existence of Nazi gas chambers in an interview on Swiss television. He restated his conviction that no more than 300,000 Jews had died in the Holocaust. Williamson was director of a seminary in, of all places, Argentina, once the haven for Eichmann, Mengele, and other Nazi war criminals. In a subsequent interview published in Der Spiegel, Williamson initially refused to distance himself from his views and refused as well an invitation to visit Auschwitz, where, as is well known, remains of the gas chambers exist. He would, he said, have to do more research before changing his views. Late in January, the Vatican announced that Williamson’s history of Holocaust-denying statements took them by surprise, and the pope from Germany in particular was unaware of that history. He was not the only one surprised.

The Vatican secretary of state demanded that Williamson recant his views in an unequivocal and public manner. His apology, when it finally came, concluded: “To all souls that took honest scandal from what I said, before God I apologize.” The Vatican’s chief spokesman, Father Federico Lombardi, immediately responded, saying that the apology had hardly fulfilled the conditions set for his readmission into the Church. Quite obviously, his apology did not take back his view that the number of victims of the Holocaust had been grossly exaggerated, nor that millions of them had been asphyxiated in gas chambers. Nor did he specifically express regret for deeply hurting survivors and the Jewish community in general. Finally, Williamson was removed from his position as director of the society’s seminary in Argentina in August 2009.

At first blush, the rehabilitation of the schismatic bishops and the crafting of an apostolic constitution arranging for the incorporation of traditionalist Anglican bishops seem to have little to do with one another. In fact, they are intimately linked. Both are attempts by the pope to connect the emerging European Union with (hopefully) a revitalized church. One thinks of the Carolingian popes attempting to multiply converts by linking the Roman Church with the Frankish empire presided over by Charlemagne. One may reasonably ask whether such a world could, or should, ever be resurrected. In either case, the central figure in both cases is the Holy Father, who wishes to receive many clerics and laity into the embrace of Bernini’s colonnade. The central issue is the ascendancy of the conservative churches and conservative wings of traditional churches, as well as the slow dying of the liberal churches and the liberal wings of such churches. Happily or not, both are strong trends, not likely to weaken in the next decade or two.


  1. One of the most successful books written on the English Reformation is Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars (Yale, 1993). Duffy’s revisionist study champions a bold thesis: that the Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation was not as corrupt as it has often been made out to be; that it held the loyalty of the people right up to the rupture with Rome, which was orchestrated by King Henry VIII; and that it supplied the laity with a meaningful framework within which to live their lives.

Kevin Madigan, Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at HDS, is a historian of medieval Christian religious thought and of religion in the Nazi era. He is the faculty advisor for the Bulletin in 2009–10. His most recent book, co-authored with Jon Levenson of HDS, is Resurrection: The Power of God for Christians and Jews (Yale University Press, 2008).

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