You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Possible But Improbable

I've kept silent so far about Pope Benedict's decision to de-excommunicate four Lefebvrist bishops of the Society of Saint Pius X, at least one of whom is a virulently anti-Semitic Holocaust-denier. My silence is a product of uncertainty about what I might add to the discussion. I agree with Andrew that the pope's action demonstrates very clearly that the pope is far more interested in reaching an understanding with ultra-traditionalist dissenters than he is with feminist or homosexual Catholics. (I also find this to be completely unsurprising.) I agree with others who argue that de-excommunication is, in itself, an intra-Catholic theological and doctrinal issue that does not really concern non-Catholics. And I take Ross Douthat's point about the controversy being at least in part a product of the ineptitude of the Vatican's press office.

What more is there to say? Only that I was troubled by a parenthetical comment in Rod Dreher's post on the subject, mainly because I fear that the perplexity he expressed is shared by many young, devout Catholics (and young, devout Christians more generally). In the midst of an even-handed discussion of the de-excommunication, Rod wrote the following:

Though what is it with Catholic traditionalists and the Jews? Not all Catholic trads have anti-Semitic views, or even most of them, in my experience. But I have found an unusual preoccupation with Jews and Israel in trad circles.

I'm sorry, but this shows a serious lack of historical awareness. (I now see that Rod has a new post up in which he points to an article by reporter John Allen on the anti-Semitic history of the Society of Saint Pius.) The reason why traditionalist Catholics (like the Lefebvrists -- and this charming fellow) are often strangely preoccupied with the Jews and Israel is that traditional Catholicism (prior to the Second Vatican Council) was a pretty thoroughly anti-Semitic faith. Not that Catholics back then were unusually preoccupied with Jews. Often they didn't think about them at all. But when they did, it was usually with contempt or disgust.

Now, this changed rather dramatically with Vatican II, and John Paul II did a lot to consolidate the change. Bravo to his efforts, and to those of his successor, which are sincere and ongoing. But it would be a terrible shame if acknowledging and praising the change blinded us to precisely how radical it was and is.

To answer Rod's question, then: Why are Catholic traditionalists unusually preoccupied with Jews and Israel? Because they are Catholic traditionalists -- and they give us a little taste of what traditional Catholicism was like, not only in their preference for the pre-Vatican II Latin liturgy, but also in their deeply ingrained anti-Semitic habits of mind. (Of course there is nothing in traditional Catholicism that requires that one deny the fact of the Holocaust, but if you accept the theological portrayal of the Jews that prevailed in the Church prior to Vatican II, you will be far more likely to accept denialist conspiracy theories than if you reject those pre-Vatican II views.)

Is it possible to purge the reprehensible elements of pre-Vatican II Catholicism while preserving and nurturing its appealing aspects? It looks like that's what Benedict hopes to do. And I hope he succeeds. But I doubt it.