The Williamson Affair
Part V
15 August 2009
Back to: (Part I) (Part II) (Part III) (Part IV)


In surveying the impact of the Williamson affair, we should note that the wrath of the media has been directed not just at the bishop himself and the SSPX, but also at ordinary Catholics striving to preserve the integrity of their Faith.  After decades of being ignored at all levels, we followers of tradition have found ourselves being targeted in a way that defies all logic.  Not that anyone in the regular press has sought us out for questioning — or brought up the real religious issues concerning us.  No, by and large their methods have been grossly unfair, flagrantly so.  Furthermore, the tactics employed by certain celebrity “pundits” have betrayed a profound vapidity, if not stupidity.


Take the article in the February 9 issue of Newsweek entitled “The Pope’s Denial Problem” by Christopher Hitchens, an avowed God-denier who reportedly claims Jewish ancestry through his mother.  Far from having suffered media censure over his denial, he has won rave reviews for books entitled God is Not Great, and The Portable Atheist.  Readers of this series may recall that during a 1986 Firing Line episode he also evinced a singular lack of concern for the victims of the Ukrainian famine.  So should we expect him now to write fairly about traditional Catholics?  Hardly.  For starters, look at the subtitle to his piece: “By reconciling with extremist bishops, Benedict embraces the far-right fringe.”


So what’s the hitch?


Simply put, the hitch entails how Hitchens includes in this group all “lonely, cranky outsiders,” i.e. “schismatics,” who, having strayed from the conciliar fold, are not in good standing with Benedict.  That means us, folks.  Considering his own extreme state of denial, we might wonder why he should care, or dare to pontificate, but he explains that the Williamson debacle is much more than an “internal affair of the Roman Catholic Church.”  Here is why.  According to him, the changes wrought by Vatican II fall into two categories: the replacing of the Latin Mass with “services in the vernacular,” and the “abandonment by the church of the charge of ‘deicide’ against the Jewish people as a whole.”  The two are related, he says, because the old Latin form of the Mass “included a specific Good Friday prayer for the conversion of the Jews, who were in some version of the ritual described as ‘perfidious.’”


Ironically, the “ritual” in this case is not really a Mass, Good Friday being the one day in the year when none is said.  His point is clear, however.  Because once a year the Church has traditionally included the “faithless (in Latin, perfidis) Jews” in a list of those to be prayed for, Hitchens thinks the Latin liturgy as a whole is suspect, especially when one of those still saying it, namely Richard Williamson, has been exposed as being a flagrant denier.  I mean, it’s one thing to deny God — that’s Hitchens’ God-given right, right? — but quite another to deny any aspect of the Holocaust as officially defined and endorsed by the experts.  As for a solution to the problem, Hitchens offers none.  Would he prefer the faithful cease praying for the Jews on Good Friday?  Or could that, too, be interpreted as being negative and discriminatory?


The brunt of his ire, however, is directed not at Williamson, but at Mel Gibson and his father Hutton, who seem to epitomize for him all that is nasty in Catholic tradition.  Not that our atheist gets into the essence of what is at stake, i.e. their thoughts on the validity of the Novus Ordo Mass and ordinations, or the legitimacy of the papacy — indeed of the hierarchy as a whole.  No, all that matters to Hitchens is their attitude towards the Jews, since he views this as both negative and indicative of the general trend underlying the “increasing restoration of the Latin service.”


He claims Hutton Gibson is “bitterly hostile to all the liturgical and doctrinal changes of the past half century,” especially “Rome’s attempt to ‘reach out’ to Jews.”  This includes Ratzinger’s efforts “to modify the charge that all [sic] Jews demanded the crucifixion of Jesus.”  Though we must wonder: has Hitchens read the gospel accounts telling how some Jews, including Mary and the apostles, sided with Christ at the time, and how many more converted afterwards?  Not even Ratzinger would refute that.  Hitchens must be uninformed.  Otherwise how can he think this long established fact to be an idea that was newly hatched during Vatican II and is now in danger of being euthanized?


And how can our God-denier suggest Hutton Gibson’s book The Enemy Is Still Here is a fount of anti-semitism?  How many of its 391 pages has he actually read?  Consisting of newsletter items dating from 1994 to 2003, the book is not, to be sure, easily digested by those not familiar with topics like geocentrism vs. heliocentrism, creationism vs. Darwinism, and sedevacantism.  Also: heretical clerics; invalid ordinations; and the perils of Arianism, Averroism, modernism, communism, contraception and usury: hot stuff, to be sure.  The likes of Archbishop Lefebvre, Richard Ibranyi and Michael Davies come under scrutiny, while heroes include Saints Ambrose, Polycarp, Athanasius, Robert Bellarmine, and Clement of Alexandria: not one a modern Jew.  Should this be construed as an insult?  Hardly, considering that the nastiest of Gibson’s epithets are reserved for prelates like “His Ignorance Cardinal Knox of Melbourne” –– and John Paul II, who is dubbed repeatedly as “Garrulous Karolus the Koran Kisser.”


Gibson does indeed take jabs at ecumenical idiocy –– and those he considers responsible for it.  His list of top offenders fails to include Jews for the simple reason that, as Bishop Fellay finally put it recently in an interview, it’s not their Church!  They may have been in charge way back in Judea, but not now.  Today’s traitors are, rather, those who have usurped true authority and captured the Church from within.  Hitchens’ problem is that he views the situation solely from the outside, from what he sees as the proper Jewish perspective.


To all other considerations he is blind.


Here I am reminded of a colorful sign in a doughnut shop my family frequented when I was four to five years of age.  Its message went: “Watch the doughnut, not the hole.”  My father would remind me of this whenever I whined and griped, and I suggest the moral still applies, especially here.  Comparing the stuff of Christianity to a giant doughnut, we see the Bread of Life, a source of light and holiness.  Jews, in contrast, see only a gigantic black hole extending back through the centuries.  Dark and forbidding though this is, they nevertheless insist on trying to put themselves into the picture.  Since they can do so only in a negative way, the result is a bottomless pit of complaints.


Thus we come to The Hebrew People and Their Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible, published in 2001 by the Pontifical Biblical Commission.  At the time Cardinal Ratzinger acted as president for this and wrote the preface to the document, parts of which Gibson includes towards the ends of his book.  Interspersed by his own brief comments in brackets, the quotes are obviously what Hitchens is referring to when he mentions the attempts by Rome, and Ratzinger in particular, to “reach out” to Jews.  Hutton allegedly rejects these out of hostility towards that people.  But is this actually so?


Or does Hitchens, quoting out of context, distort the picture?


Upon examination we find this to be the case, Gibson’s main purpose here being not to criticize the Jews, but rather, to maintain the integrity of the Catholic Faith.  For this is exactly what is at stake.  The document in question says that the “extermination [sic] of the Jews” has caused all Churches to “re-think their interpretation of the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament.  Some have asked themselves whether Christians should repent for their appropriation of the Hebrew Bible and an interpretation that no Jew could accept.”  (But is this attitude of theirs surprising?  As Hutton comments, “Of course not!  That is why they are Jews!”)


The document goes on to say:

Christians can and should admit that the Hebrew reading of the Bible is a possible reading, which finds itself in continuity with the Hebrew sacred Scriptures of the time. . .  And it is similar to the Christian reading, which developed parallel to theirs. . .  From the concrete plane of exegesis, Christians can still learn from the Hebrew exegesis practiced for more than two thousand years.

So the new word coming from on high is that we should listen and learn from Jewish exegetes who not only deny Christ but find no hint of him in the Old Testament!  Talk about opening a can of worms!  What are the implications of all this?  Let us turn back to the book The Continuing Agony, quoted previously in this series.  In one of the essays, Rabbi Jacob Neusner quotes the prophet Isaiah (54:7-8):

He was oppressed and he was afflicted yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth.

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.

While admitting that Christians see in this their suffering Christ, Neusner asserts: “There is scarcely a Jew in the world who reads these words without understanding, beyond all doubt, that when Isaiah spoke, he told us about the Holocaust.”  He writes further:

To me Isaiah describes my life and the life of my people; it is with me when I wake up in the morning and when I go to sleep at night.  Can Christians tell our story in their way, so that they may find sympathy for us?  Clearly, they can, and may do.  That is why I do not doubt that Christians can find in the story of Christ resources for telling themselves, also, the story of Israel in our times.  And in reading the suffering servant as we do, they will discover in that conviction of ours that we are Israel, after the flesh, after the spirit, alike, the resources not for assent, but only for sympathetic hearing.

It is all too clear.


Returning to the analogy of doughnut versus unholy hole, we can see how Jews like Neusner have at long last found a substitute for the divine presence they failed to find in Christ.  In place of His agony they see theirs.  Into the vacuum of the dark pit extending through the ages they have projected Israel, their people.  Collectively, they emerge as the suffering Messiah foretold by Isaiah –– and also by Baruch Levy, who in a letter to Karl Marx predicted the Jews as a group would become just that: their own messiah.  It seems the Holocaust — and the remembrance thereof — has made this finally come to pass in a strange kind of religious reversal.  While the event is glorified constantly in books, movies and TV, museums, and school curricula, the image of Christ’s crucifixion seems ever to recede, along with the celebration of the true Mass.  In place of the Real Presence, the memory of the “Shoah” is reverenced, as though to fill the void left by our own apparently dying faith.


There is, to be sure, a big problem here.  As Christians we have to defend our traditional way of looking at scripture.  How can that quote from Isaiah, for instance, refer not to Christ’s Crucifixion but to the Holocaust — or to both at once?  Surely it has to be one or the other, since the Catholic and neo-Jewish interpretations of scripture are here mutually exclusive.  Could their view now be replacing ours in the eyes of the modern world?  Would this not be supercessionism in reverse?  Or, as some suggest, do we instead have, two parallel covenants in operation at once, one for the Jews, another for gentile Christians?  Can this be orthodox?  It hardly seems so.  Yet the document endorsed by Ratzinger that we quoted above encourages Catholics to read, and to respect such a prophetic spin.  And, since ascending the papal throne, Ratzinger has gone even further to encourage it!


Take the Time article for May 24, 2007 featuring “The Pope’s Favorite Rabbi,” who turns out to be our friend Jacob Neusner.  It seems that in his new book Jesus of Nazareth Benedict devoted 20 pages to a book by Neusner published in 1993 called A Rabbi Talks with Jesus.  In this the rabbi projects himself back into gospel times in order to “quiz Jesus on the Jewish law.”  Not surprisingly he found “the Nazarene’s interpretation irredeemably faulty.”  Yet 14 years later, Benedict “not only compliments Neusner as a ‘great Jewish scholar’ but also recapitulates the thesis of A Rabbi Talks and spends a third of one of his 10 chapters answering it.”


And he calls himself the pope?


Even Novus Ordo gurus like Eugene Fisher, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ liaison for Catholic-Jewish relations were taken aback by his unprecedented adulation for a rabbi.  Reportedly Fisher said: “Wow!  This is new.”  And indeed it is, considering what Neusner said in his own book.  According to Time, the rabbi asserted that by preaching “he who loves his father or mother more than me is not worthy of me”, Jesus defied the fourth commandment, and that by taking “liberties” with Sabbath restrictions, he also flouted divine orders to keep that day holy, etc.  Hence Neusner concludes Jesus elevated Himself “above the Torah and hence God.”


The possibility that He might have been God, and therefore the supreme Judge in all such cases, of course, is beyond Neusner’s feeble grasp.  Nor does he admit there might be any more subtle applications of the law itself.  Such nuances elude him.  I mean, there are limits to honoring and obeying one’s parents, especially for an adult.  Even a dimwit should know it’s not right to elevate them above God or the moral code as a whole.  If my dad, for instance, should tell me filch every doughnut in sight, I could not in all good conscience obey him.  Nor could I obey a Novus Ordo “bishop” who tells me to avow heresy.


Yet Benedict praises this rabbi and encourages Catholics to read him!


Considering the situation, can we be blamed for joining the opposition?  Should we not all stand up for orthodoxy?  Does it not violate our basic beliefs to say that these should have been transformed by Vatican II?  Ironically, even Hitchens admits there has been such a radical break with the past.  In his article he says that what makes the current “concessions” to traditionalists so alarming is that “this is not a departure from ‘original intent’ Catholicism but rather part of a return to traditional and old-established preachments.”  In other words, God-denier that he is, he likes the changes, and to hell with Catholics who do not.


How dare we object!


This then is the background for Hitchens’ jabs at Hutton, whose criticisms of Ratzinger, in context, seem quite mild.  Recall that in his book, Gibson includes excerpts from The Hebrew People and Their Scriptures in the Christian Bible, a project headed by Ratzinger when a “cardinal”.  One of the quotes goes as follows:

At the end of the trial before Pilate, the high priests worked up the people who were present into a state of excitement and made them decide in favor of Barabbas (Mk 15:11) and, therefore, against Jesus (Mk 15:15).  The final decision of Pilate, powerless to calm the multitude, was that of ‘seconding it,’ which for Jesus signified crucifixion (Mk. 15:15).  Now, that occasional multitude cannot be confused with the Hebrew people of that time, and still less with the Hebrew People and Their Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible of all times.  Instead of this it must be said that this multitude would represent the sinner world (Mk 14:41), of which we all make up part.

Truly this represents the height — or should we say depths — of absurdity.  The text appears to deny the presence of real live human beings in the crowd, in order, no doubt, to absolve them of guilt for demanding Christ die in place of Barabbas.  Instead it says all humanity in abstract, i.e. “the sinner world” was there.


Talk about surreal!


Remember how Hitchens credits Ratzinger with attempts to “modify the charge that all Jews demanded the crucifixion of Jesus” –– and how he blames Hutton for rejecting these.  Theological considerations aside, all our atheist worries about is anti-Semitism, however that might be defined.  While not Jewish in any religious sense of the word, he is incensed by Hutton’s comment that “all the Jews on hand publicly and vociferously assumed the guilt.  ‘His blood be upon us, and upon our children.’”  Gibson also said:

This crime certainly outranks Original Sin, and the Tower of Babel; the punishment for both sins of pride was also inflicted upon all future generation.  In accordance with history’s record of massive disasters suffered by the Jews, the Church has always held this position.  And why may not the ‘holocaust’ have been due to the same curse which they called down upon themselves?

For Hitchens such a conclusion reflects Hutton’s “coarse and nasty manner.”  So does the latter’s response to John Paul II’s suggestion that the Jews are in a certain way our elder brothers.  Hitchens reports: “Gibson snorts: ‘Abel had an older brother!’”  Or so he is quoted in Hitchens’ article.  Actually, these words in Hutton’s book are in brackets, which constitute more of an aside than a snort.  The message, nevertheless, is clear: Hitchens, too, knows his Old Testament!  Not to be outdone by such crudity as Hutton’s, he hurls a low blow:

When Mel Gibson, who has funded a special Latin Mass church in Malibu, Calif., was arrested by a police officer upon whom he then up-ended a great potty of Jew-hating paranoid drivel, he tried to defend himself by saying that it was the drink talking.  No, it wasn’t the drink talking: it was his revered father talking and, through him, a strain of reactionary Catholic dogma that we hoped had been left behind.

Hitchens fails to mention how Jewish groups had hounded the movie star throughout the filming of The Passion and that the stress from this might have triggered the tirade.  For our God-denier none of that counts.  His own ranting and raving does tell us something, however, because, as noted above, in the process he admits that the current “concessions” being made by Rome to “Holocaust-deniers and anti-Semites” represent nothing new, but rather, “a return to tradition and old-established preachments.”  Only since Vatican II, he says, has the church attempted “to acknowledge its historic responsibility for defaming the Jewish people.”


Now, though, with the concessions to the SSPX, he fears Rome could be regressing.


Here let us interject that, in addition to bias, Hitchens displays a basic ignorance of fundamental Catholic terms.  Apparently his Oxford education failed to expose him to what any 10-year-old would have known at my parochial grade school.  In his first paragraph, for instance, he remarks how many Roman Catholics have regarded Vatican II as a “ghastly mistake,” and that the “best known of these outside the church was probably Evelyn Waugh.”  The “best known inside the church” he identifies as being the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.  Trouble is, British author Evelyn Waugh, after converting to Catholicism some 36 years before his death, remained very much inside the Church, not outside!  Indeed he died in 1966 after attending what Hitchens terms “Easter services.” (Catholics, of course, would say “Easter Mass”.)


It would seem our pundit has confused the state of being “inside the church” with that of being part of the hierarchy, or of the priesthood.  Though maybe not.  After reading the passage again I was struck by another possible interpretation.  Do you suppose Hitchens means that Waugh is the “best known” traditional type known by those “outside the Church,” while Lefebvre is the best known to those “inside the Church?”  That makes more sense, but if this is indeed what Hitchens means, he needs to say so less ambiguously.  It makes us wonder about his editors: aren’t they paid to catch such glitches?  Of course, with all their money, wouldn’t you also think Newsweek might try to solicit writers more familiar with their subject matter?


Wonders never cease.


Later on Hitchens announces that “it is only in one verse of one Gospel (Matthew 27:24-25), and in the climactic scene of Mel Gibson’s movie, that the Jewish Sanhedrin demands to be held responsible for the coming crucifixion for all time and through all generations.”  This is not so, of course.  Gibson is not the only other one in the past two millennia to have dealt with this scene.  What about all those passion plays through the centuries, not to mention sermons and biblical commentaries by everyone from Thomas Aquinas to your local pastor?


Ironically, in overlooking all these, Hitchens elevates the man he is castigating to a unique realm near that of the evangelist himself!  But in saying what he does, he also makes another mistake.  Turn to your Bible and you will find that the Sanhedrin is not mentioned in the passage cited at all!  The verse in fact describes the crowd of Jews before Christ and Pilate crying out “May His blood be upon us and upon our children.”  While being manipulated, to be sure, by their chief priests and other leaders, the people at the scene did nevertheless shout those words.  Does Hitchens not check his citations, or does he simply not care?  Perhaps the New Testament is beneath him.  Certainly it is outside his realm of expertise.  Did he even watch the movie?  No version of The Passion that we have seen has this quote subtitled in English.  Since the crowd is shouting in old Aramaic, only those familiar with either that language or their Bible know what is being said!


Reportedly Gibson gave in to pressure by not allowing the translations of those particular words of dialogue to be flashed across the screen in versions of the film available to the public.  Not that Hitchens would admit as much.  No, he shows Gibson the same amount of respect that he shows St. Matthew, who, of course, was Jewish himself.  As one of the twelve apostles, he, of course, lived through the passion and death of his Master and later wrote a gospel in Aramaic for the benefit of his fellow Jews.  We learned that in school, but Hitchens is obviously not impressed.  Whether or not he actually read the gospel, he goes on to challenge its authenticity by saying, in reference to the above passage: “Then there is the question, even if the rabbis [sic] did make such a demand, of whether they could claim to speak for all Jews then, let alone all those who have been born since.”  The implication is, of course, that the religious leaders (or the crowd being manipulated by them) in all probability never really said what the evangelist said they did.


According to Hitchens, St. Matthew cannot be taken as gospel, in other words.


But can our celebrity atheist?  Can he be taken seriously as a theologian and Bible critic, given his extreme bias and catechetical deficiencies?  Proof of the latter can also be found in the following statement: “Christian doctrine holds that all of us were implicated in the guilt of Calvary and were, in a mystic sense, present for it.  Every time we sin or fall away, we increase the pain and misery of the awful scene.”  Now, do examine his words closely, for we detect a misunderstanding — indeed a misappropriation –– of the doctrine regarding the Real Presence.  According to that, Christ becomes present during the Mass under the appearances of bread and wine.  His Sacrifice recurs on the altar, but liturgically, in an unbloody manner.  The congregation is not mystically transported back to Calvary in the process!  He comes here; we don’t go there.  We don’t go backwards in time to join the crowd of onlookers!


Hitchens goes on to say, “Every time we sin or fall away, we increase the pain and misery of that awful scene.  Thus the principle of collective responsibility applies to everybody and not just to Jews.”  Now, while correct in a sense, this statement, too, is confused.  It fails to note that any effect those who were not present had on Christ’s suffering is due to the fact that, as God, He possesses an eternal dimension outside of time and place.  It does not mean that the whole drama with its cast of thousands is constantly replaying itself in any mystical, much less tangible, sense; nor that His bodily suffering continues in some ongoing state of flux.  Nor are we in any way taken “mystically there”, except, if we so desire, privately, in our imaginations, not as part of any liturgy.


Where did Hitchens get such an idea?  Could his source for it possibly be The Hebrew People and Their Holy Scriptures in the Christian Bible?  Let us recall our previous quote from that: in speaking of the crowd before Pilate, it says, “that occasional multitude cannot be confused with the Hebrew people of that time, and still less with The Hebrew People . . . of all times.  Instead of this it must be said that this multitude would represent the sinner world . . . of which we all make up part.”  Hmm.  Do you suppose this has prompted our atheist to deduce that, as sinners, all of us are periodically, mystically transported back there into the nameless, faceless — downright disembodied — crowd of non-Jews shouting for Christ’s blood?


But it gets worse.


In a final effort to bring “Jewish orthodoxy” into the picture, Hitchens writes:

In commenting on the Christian Bible, the greatest of the sages, Maimonides, affirmed that the rabbis of Jerusalem were to be showered with praise for their courageous rectitude in thus disposing of the foul impostor and heretic who dared claim to be the adored and long-looked-for (and still-awaited) Messiah.  You can be sure that devout Catholics down the ages were as acutely aware of this awkward fact as most of today’s secular Jewish liberals are blissfully unaware of it.  The old-style Easter sermons, the “Passion Plays” at Oberammergau and elsewhere, and bestselling Catholic devotional books such as the visions of the German nun Anne Catherine Emmerich, are replete with revolted [sic] depictions of Jewish mobs reveling in the sufferings of the Nazarene.

Talk about nerve!


Having bashed St. Matthew (not to mention Christ), Hitchens goes on to praise “the greatest of the sages”, the 12th century Sephardic philosopher Maimonides, who reportedly not only called Jesus a “foul impostor and heretic” but also showered praise on the rabbis of Jerusalem for having disposed of Him!  Yes, Hitchens tells us this!  Yet, rather than admit that it might in any way reflect the slightest amount of “hate” on the part of any Jew of any age, our expert proceeds to castigate instead all those nasty Catholics who, he suggests, reacted to Maimonides by initiating Passion plays and other supposedly violent devotions and prayers during the centuries before Vatican II.


Do we detect a double standard here?


The irony is that while he implies Catholics act hatefully out of revenge for what Maimonides said, no one I know, myself included, had ever heard of those remarks before this article.  Yet he blames us for acting violently in reaction to them!  Is this fair?  Were we to take a show of hands, I would bet that fewer than one in a hundred Catholics out there has ever even heard of the 12th century Sephardic sage.  I only did some years ago, when I read how he considered Christians to be idolaters for their worship of the Trinity.  Moslems, in contrast, escaped his censure in this regard, but Hitchens does not say so.  The idea that Arabs or Moors — or Persians — might think more like Jews than do Catholics or fundamentalist Protestants is no longer cool, the heated disputes over territory in the Middle East having altered the old alliances.


Nor is it fair of Hitchens to suggest mega-stars like Mel Gibson and his father typify traditional Catholics.  No way do their high profile situations compare with ours, especially not in regards to run-ins with the police.  Take, for example, the Sunday morning years ago when the kids were small and, preparing to load up for our 200 mile round trip to Mass, we parked the car in our driveway with the back end sticking ever so slightly out into the street.  It was only 7 a.m. with next to no traffic, not even foot, to be seen in our quiet neighborhood, until a cop suddenly materialized and gave us a ticket for blocking the sidewalk.  Surprisingly, this failed to make the news, local or otherwise, though it is true no harsh words were exchanged.  It wasn’t as though we dared complain.


No, it all went very quietly, like most of our lives in general.

Copyright by Judith M. Gordon 2009