In his homily at his inaugural Mass as Pope, Benedict XVI asked Catholics to “Pray for me, that I may not flee for fear of the wolves.” The media firestorm over Benedict’s decision to lift the excommunication of the four bishops consecrated without papal approval in 1988 by the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre provides a perfect illustration of how modern wolves attack and what they attack, and thus might be of interest to non-Catholics as well as Catholics.
Lefebvre, the former archbishop of Dakar, Senegal, became increasingly disenchanted by the doctrinal confusion that followed in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. Lefebvre attracted a number of like-minded priests to join his Society of St. Pius X, and he consecrated four of these priests as bishops after he decided to back away from a deal with the Vatican that would have reconciled him and his followers to the papacy. One of the principal Vatican negotiators for that deal was the man who became Benedict XVI, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. Ratzinger was one of the few Vatican officials to win the trust of the Lefebvrites, because he shared their fondness for the traditional Latin Mass of St. Pius V that virtually disappeared in the wake of Vatican II, and because he expressed criticism of how Vatican II was being interpreted by some as a dramatic rupture with the Catholic past. Since the time of those failed negotiations, Cardinal Ratzinger continued both to hope for reconciliation with the followers of Lefebvre and to work for recovery of traditional forms of worship, including the Latin Mass. In 2007, Benedict XVI issued a decree, Summorum Pontificum, restoring the Mass of Pius V throughout the Church, alongside the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI after Vatican II. With this decree, Benedict XVI both advanced his own ideas on worship and made a gesture calculated to further the prospect of reconciliation with the Lefebvrites. This was the background to the lifting of the excommunications, and this should have been the focus of news reports on that topic.
Instead, of course, the media focus became the repellent comments on the Holocaust made by one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, in an interview he gave to Swedish television some months ago, but that wasn’t aired until after news of the lifting of the excommunications had leaked out, in a clear effort to embarrass the Pope. In story after story, the Pope was portrayed as somehow endorsing Williamson’s views, even though Williamson had not been excommunicated for his views on the Holocaust, and the lifting of the excommunication of Williamson and his confreres had nothing to do with Williamson’s views on the Holocaust, views which no rational person can impute to Benedict XVI. Indeed, in 2006, Benedict visited Auschwitz and said this: “To speak in this place of horror, in this place where unprecedented mass crimes were committed against God and man, is almost impossible—and it is particularly difficult and troubling for a Christian, for a Pope from Germany. In a place like this, words fail; in the end, there can only be a dread silence—a silence which is itself a heartfelt cry to God: Why, Lord, did you remain silent? How could you tolerate all this? In silence, then, we bow our heads before the endless line of those who suffered and were put to death here; yet our silence becomes in turn a plea for forgiveness and reconciliation, a plea to the living God never to let this happen again.” But facts do not matter to the modern wolves in the media, who prefer to use a mixture of lies, half-truths, innuendo, and guilt by association to intimidate any public figure who violates, or threatens to violate, the leftist consensus. Benedict is such a figure. The AFP story not only described Benedict’s action as the “rehabilitation of a bishop who denied the Holocaust,” but noted that “Since becoming the leader of the world’s 1.1 billion Catholics in 2005, Benedict has offended Muslims, women, native Indians, Poles, gays and scientists but his latest move is fast snowballing into his most damaging.” Naturally, the AP story mentioned Benedict’s membership as a teenager in the Hitler Youth, a common theme in articles about Benedict even though membership in the Hitler Youth was compulsory in Germany, Benedict did not attend meetings, and his father was a staunch opponent of the Nazis, in part because a relative was murdered as part of the Nazis’ euthanasia program.
The media firestorm has been worst in the Pope’s native Germany, a land that has replaced the dangerous hypernationalism of the Nazis with an unhealthy avoidance of normal expressions of national pride. German chancellor Angela Merkel sought to score political points by attacking Benedict, declaring that the lifting of the excommunications could not be allowed to pass “without consequences” and pompously declaring that Vatican statements pointing out the obvious differences between Benedict’s views of the Holocaust and Williamson’s “have, in my opinion, not yet been sufficient.” Although a Lutheran, Merkel heads a party, the Christian Democratic Union, founded by Catholics, including Konrad Adenauer, a party that has always depended on the support of the Christian Social Union, a related party also founded by Catholics and based in Bavaria, the home province of Benedict XVI and Germany’s Catholic heartland. Despite this background, Germany’s Catholic politicians have largely avoided criticizing Merkel for her attack on the world’s most famous German and Catholic. Instead, Benedict’s staunchest German defender has been his elder brother Georg Ratzinger, who expressed his anger at “how unjust and badly informed the people who are attacking [the Pope] are” and noted that “We always speak about an informed society, when in reality it is uninformed.”
Those with the principal duty of informing the uninformed described by Georg Ratzinger are Germany’s Catholic bishops. Unfortunately, too many of them have proven as supine as Germany’s Catholic politicians. Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz described the Pope’s actions as a “disaster” for Holocaust survivors and said “There must also be consequences for those who are responsible for this.” Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky of Berlin said that the Pope’s actions were not “right” and that the Vatican should apologize. Cardinals wear red to symbolize their vow to shed their blood in defense of the Church if necessary; Cardinals Lehmann and Sterzinsky leave the unfortunate impression that they are not even willing to endure a few unfavorable news cycles for the defense of the Church.
By all accounts, Benedict is a kindly, gentle man. His clear explanations of Christian belief have impressed many. But Benedict was right to pray for protection from the wolves. These wolves do not shrink from attacking someone whose office would have largely insulated him from criticism not so very long ago. And any traditionalist conservative who becomes prominent can expect these wolves to eventually attack him, using the same methods now being used against the Pope.