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Holocaust denier complicates Catholic traditionalism

Pope Benedict XVI ignited a firestorm when he recently withdrew the excommunications of four ultratraditionalist bishops, one of whom denies the Holocaust.

The move caused an uproar among Jews and embarrassed many Catholics.

But it also was welcomed in places such as Our Lady of the Rosary Chapel on McKinley Parkway in South Buffalo, where members worship using the Tridentine Latin Mass and adhere to a form of Catholicism that largely vanished more than 40 years ago.

They believe that the Catholic Church went awry in the 1960s, when the Second Vatican Council ushered in dramatic liturgical changes and a new way of dealing with other faiths, especially Judaism.

The pope's attempts to reconcile with these traditionalists has been greeted with suspicion, not solely because of Bishop Richard Williamson, whose statements about the Holocaust triggered the outrage.

The Society of St. Pius X, which operates Our Lady of the Rosary Chapel, has condemned Williamson's Holocaust views and removed him as rector of a seminary in Argentina.

But the society itself still rejects the validity of the Second Vatican Council and its outcomes, including "Nostra Aetate," the landmark document repudiating the church's long-standing "teaching of contempt" for Jews.

"The society would prefer on not just this topic, but on every point, adhesion to what the church has taught for centuries," said longtime parishioner John Vennari.

What the church taught for centuries about Jewish people prior to Vatican II was not flattering. In particular, Jews have been considered collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, a powerful "deicide" charge that was used by some Christians as grounds for violence against Jews.

"Nostra Aetate" put an end to that teaching, as well as to any theological notion that Jews were an accursed people and Judaism a failed faith.

Benedict's reaching out to the society and to Williamson especially brought old wounds to the surface, despite decades of warm relations between Jews and Catholics.

"If it hadn't been for Williamson, I don't think the Jewish community would have hardly taken notice," said Rabbi David Novak, a University of Toronto professor of Jewish studies and longtime interfaith collaborator who discussed the dust-up in a recent talk at Canisius College. "The fact is, the cat is out of the bag: What are you going to do with Williamson? . . . How on earth could a virulent anti-Semite like Williamson possibly say, 'Vatican II was right, and I've sinned?' "

The Vatican has called upon Williamson to publicly recant his statements denying that Jews were killed in gas chambers and that 200,000 Jews, rather than 6 million, died at the hands of the Nazis.

Catholic scholars have pointed out that the lifting of the excommunications does not mean Williamson and the other SSPX bishops are now in "full communion" with Rome.

"In a way, there's been some exaggeration and misinformation," said the Rev. John Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic-Jewish Studies program at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. "But the statements of Bishop Williamson were just so outrageous that it really lit a tinder box."

The Rev. Francis X. Mazur, who for years has served as the Catholic Diocese of Buffalo's chief liaison for ecumenical and interfaith concerns, said the Vatican obviously didn't do its homework on Williamson before announcing the reconciliation effort.

"It's an embarrassing situation," he said. "It's a blunder for sure."

Mazur said he doubted that the issue would hurt rapport between Catholics and Jews in Western New York.

"We have real personal relationships that are so deep that we would continue to have dialogue," he said.

Novak described the Catholic-Jewish dialogue as "like any relationship, like a marriage, you have ups and downs."

Pawlikowski, who is president of the International Council of Christians and Jews, predicted "some damage" on the grass-roots level, "but overall most people want the dialogue to continue."

Still, he added, the strong relationship between Catholics and Jews "can only overcome so many of these things" before it starts to break down.

In 2007, the pope authorized wider use of the Latin Mass in parishes worldwide in a nod to traditionalists. That move, too, was viewed as a snub to interfaith relations because the Tridentine Mass' prayers on Good Friday include a call for conversion of the Jews.

"The pope] seems to regard any sort of schism or break as something that ought to be healed, and he feels it's his responsibility as pope to do that," Pawlikowski said.

But Pawlikowski said mending those rifts "can't be done at any price" and should not be at the expense of progress on interreligious understanding.

Williamson's comments were condemned by other SSPX leaders and by lay traditionalists, as well.

"There are crazy people in our church as well as everywhere else. Bishop Williamson is just one of them," said Bill Kearney of Lake View, part of the Tridentine Mass community at St. Anthony Church in Buffalo. Kearney said he is not part of Our Lady of the Rosary Chapel, but he defended the SSPX for holding "very rigidly" to the faith.

Vennari said that Williamson's television interview was "a mistake" and that "I wish it wouldn't have happened."

But he also said historical views aren't part of worship or discussion in Our Lady of the Rosary, where people are "interested in the faith and they're interested in their children receiving the sacraments."

Williamson "speaks the voice of the church" on issues of Catholic dogma and theology and is much loved by SSPX priests as a fine seminary rector, Vennari said.

It's precisely that role that causes concern for Mazur.

"That's what I would worry about," he said, "if he's been teaching this to his people."

e-mail: jtokasz@buffnews.com

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