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LYNN NEARY, host:

On Saturday, Pope Benedict XVI reversed the excommunications of four bishops, all of them members of a sect that was founded in the 1970s to protest what they saw as an increasingly liberal church, a Vatican that was abandoning tradition. The decision to bring back these bishops into the fold has caused controversy. One of them, Richard Williamson, said this in an interview that aired on Swedish television last week.

(Soundbite of interview)

Bishop RICHARD WILLIAMSON (Society of St. Pius X): I believe that historical evidence is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler.

NEARY: Bishop Richard Williamson in an interview that aired on Swedish television last week. If you're Catholic, we want to hear from you. How did you react to the Pope's decision to reinstate these four bishops? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255, our email address is talk@npr.org, and you can join the conversation on our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Joining us now from a studio in Denver is John Allen, a senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. Good to have you with us, John.

Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Senior Correspondent, National Catholic Reporter): Hi, Lynn.

NEARY: Let's start with Bishop Williamson, and particularly, a lot of the controversy is focused on him. This isn't the first time that he has said something controversial. Tell me a little bit about him.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, Bishop Richard Williamson is a convert from Anglicanism who joined the Catholic Church and very quickly joined the traditionalist movement within the Catholic Church in the early 1970s, and as you say, has a long and checkered track record of comments that are at a minimum controversial; some would find them outrageous. In the late '90s, he actually narrowly escaped prosecution in Canada for a speech he gave there in which he voiced skepticism about the historical reality of the Holocaust, praised the work of a well-known Canadian Holocaust denier.

Bishop Williamson has also, however, addressed issues such as the 9/11 bombings, which he believes were not the result of airplanes hijacked by terrorists, but rather demolition charges as a kind of plot. He's expressed sympathy for the Unabomber and also some other strong views about what women should and should not wear when they're in church. And so, you know, this is someone who's well-known in Catholic circles for being on what many would see as the fringe. And while there is absolutely no evidence, the Vatican was aware that he had given this interview to Swedish television before it granted the decree lifting the excommunication of these four bishops. Clearly, people either knew or should have known that Bishop Williamson was associated with these views.

NEARY: Yeah, and that he is a very provocative figure. So, why would the Pope decide to revoke his excommunication and the excommunication of the three other bishops as well at this point?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think the first thing out of the gate to say is that the motive here clearly was not to promote anti-Semitism. The motive here was to end what is the only formal schism in the Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, which launched this program of modernization of the Church. You know, there are a lot of different camps in the Catholic world, obviously, that have different views about where the Church is going, but the traditionalists are the only group that have gone into schism, which means that you've got bishops, priests, in addition to rank-and-file Catholics, who sort of formally cut ties with Rome and set up, in effect, their own parallel church.

And in Catholic theology, any legitimately ordained bishop can ordain other legitimate bishops. And so, the fear always over the centuries has been with these schisms that you will have a parallel church that becomes self-replicating. So, popes have always gone to great lengths to try to heal schisms, and clearly Benedict's motive here was to try to promote unity in the Church. Now, having done that, obviously, I think there are a number of people who would say that promoting unity with this particular set of leaders opens the door to giving at least the appearance of a sort of seal of approval for views that obviously are not consistent with mainstream teaching of the Catholic Church.

NEARY: Right, and the schism, as you've described - I mean, this goes back, what, some 40 years, are we talking? Is that right?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I mean, the so-called Lefebvrites - that is, the followers of the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was the leader of this movement - in effect, sort of moved out of communion with Rome, really, in the immediate wake of the Second Vatican Council. But formally speaking, this excommunication dates from 1988. That was the year in which Archbishop Lefebvre ordained these four bishops to carrying on his work, knowing that his life was nearing an end and he died in 1991.

NEARY: Well, so why, at this moment, would healing this schism be so important that you would risk such a controversy, risk alienating Jewish people? And the Church has been making quite an effort to heal some of the rifts between Catholics and Jews that have existed for a long time over the last 40 or 50 years. Doesn't this sort of set back those efforts which have been made? And I mean, why would you do this at this moment?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, clearly, it does create a significant new obstacle in Catholic-Jewish relations. I mean, it probably ought to be said that it's by no means just Jews who are unhappy with this move. I mean, there are a number of Catholics, too, who would raise questions, not nearly having to do with Bishop Williamson's personal views about the Holocaust, but about what it might signal in terms of the broader direction of the Church. But in terms of the why, I think it's quite clear that it's not just Pope Benedict. I think every Pope would see trying to do whatever is possible to end a schism as a top priority. The timing is that the Lefebvrites and these bishops have actually always denied that they are excommunicated. They see the 1988 decree as invalid. What has happened recently is that they were willing, in December, to submit a formal request to the Vatican to have the excommunication lifted, and that explains why it's happening now.

NEARY: We're talking with John Allen, senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter, about the reinstatement of four bishops who had been excommunicated from the Catholic Church, reinstated by the Pope, a very controversial decision. If you want to join us, the number is 800-989-8255. And we're going to take a call now from Mike, who's calling from St. Louis. Hi, Mike.

MIKE (Caller): Hi, thanks very much for taking the call. My thought is, is that the Catholic Church is struggling with membership. It's also struggling with trying to be relevant to young people in our society, and by taking what appears to be a extremely conservative stance, it's like going back prior to Vatican II and making it harder for people to understand how this hierarchy then therefore can relate to them. And the other question I have is, does anybody ask Bishop Williamson - first of all, who cares what he thinks about the Holocaust? Because he's just - it's not a religious opinion. And secondly, why does he have to express this? It just seems like he's grandstanding, and it makes no sense at all.

NEARY: John?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, on the first point, there is no doubt that in some parts of the world, the Catholic Church is struggling with membership, particularly in the developed West, Europe and parts of the United States. I mean, actually, globally, over the 20th century, it expanded and extended quite rapidly. But there's no question that moves such as this will make it more difficult for at least some sectors of the population to relate to the Catholic Church or will create a kind of negative impression of it. I think there's something of a track record under Pope Benedict XVI of sometimes taking steps without adequately thinking through what public reaction to them might be. I mean, you may recall back in 2006, the Pope gave a lecture in Regensburg in Germany in which he quoted a 14th century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad had brought things only evil and inhuman, which caused a huge negative reaction in the Islamic world. And the Vatican has been laboring this last two and a half years to undo some of that damage. Probably the same thing will happen here.

In terms of why Bishop Williamson is even commenting on these issues in the first place, you know, clearly, he is not doing so because anyone in Catholic officialdom has asked him to do it instead. You know, these are obviously simple issues that he feels he wants to address. And as you know, despite the public mythology of the Catholic Church being a rigidly centralized and ultra-hierarchical institution, actually, in experience, I will tell you, one of the most difficult things in the Church to do is to get a bishop to shut up if he doesn't feel like doing it.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Mike.

MIKE: Thanks very much.

NEARY: Appreciate your calling in. We're going to take another call now. We're going to go to Mike - oh, no, I'm sorry - we're going to Daniel, who is calling from Louisville, Kentucky. Hi, Daniel.

DANIEL (Caller): Yes, thank you for taking my call.

NEARY: Go ahead.

DANIEL: Ah, yes. I just wanted to express my comments that I'm excited to see the excommunications lifted. I've been fairly young, but I've been following this group for at least the past few years, and it's - I think it's unfortunate that Bishop Williamson has gotten so much publicity over this interview lately because Superior General of the Society, Bishop Fellay, has in, I guess, the past few days, has distanced, you know, the society from Bishop Williamson's comments, and he's, you know, officially said that these are not - this is not the view of the society. And I think Bishop Fellay is very much a level-headed man, you know, a true bishop of the Church and someone who, I think, is excited to work with Pope Benedict in bringing the group to the aid of the Church, I guess, you would say.

NEARY: But - maybe you can explain a little bit more to - for us, Daniel, why it is you think this is a good thing that these bishops are being brought back into the Church. And I presume if you think that that you would consider yourself to be a traditional Catholic.

DANIEL: Yes, I would consider myself a traditional Catholic. The reason why I think it's nice because there's already groups that are in full communion with the Catholic Church, such as the Fraternity of St. Peter, that celebrate the Latin mass, and these groups typically attract many young people, of course, people of all ages, but surprisingly a lot of young people. And I think there is a hunger in the Church today for a more traditional form of liturgy, and if now that the Society of St. Pius X is going to be in a regular situation within the Church, I think that that we will see the traditional liturgy continue to grow, which I think is, of course, a good thing for the Church.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Daniel.

DANIEL: Thank you.

NEARY: I just want to remind our listeners that you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. John Allen, I want to bring - make a point here, or you can help me make this point, which is something that Daniel just brought up. The earlier caller said young people are disaffected from the Church, but I understand that a lot of younger Catholics are actually the most conservative Catholics, and is that who Benedict is trying to appeal to, these very traditional, young Catholics, who he - I mean, that those are the people he wants to keep in the Church and attract to the Church?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, and I think both of these things are going on at once. I think there is a wide a spectrum of younger Catholics - not exclusively younger ones, obviously - but nevertheless, who may find it difficult to relate to some of these sort of artifacts of Catholic tradition, but certainly there is a subsection of the younger Catholic population that is deeply attracted to the older mass in Latin, to the sort of doctrinal traditions of the Church, to older forms of pieties such Marian devotion and so on. And I think it's important to make this point, and I think the caller did it quite well, that it is by no means the case that each and every traditional Catholic would somehow identify with the views espoused by Bishop Williamson. On the contrary, I think most Catholics who would take part in the older mass and who would find themselves at home in this more traditional universe would be among the first to repudiate those views. So, we shouldn't identify the two things.

You know, in terms of who the Pope is trying to appeal to, I mean, I think a Pope tries to be the pastor of all Catholics and, therefore, tries to create, if you like, a sort of big tent in which different Catholic sensibilities can be at home. But I think it is equally clear that for Benedict XVI, job number one in this day and age is to try to defend a strong sense of traditional Catholic identity in a secular milieu that is often not very friendly to religious belief. And this decision to try to bring these traditional Catholics back into the Catholic fold clearly would be of a peace with that.

NEARY: All right, let's take one more call, Steve in St. Louis, Missouri. Hi, Steve.

STEVE (Caller): Hi. I am very critical of this decision to rescind the excommunications because I think if a process of reconciliation needs to happen, there has to be some coming together. And essentially it seems that Benedict has given everything to the St. Pius X people, and they have not made any concessions and admitted that there was an extreme act of defiance in appointing these four bishops.

And in my community in St. Louis, there have been several very acrimonious situations involving excommunication, where people, priests, for instance, attempted to appoint women to the priesthood. There's another parish where the community of immigrants had owned the Church building, and the archbishop said, you know, hey, we want the building back, and when the parish refused, these people were thrown out of the Church. You know, essentially, it seems like the Church is sending mixed signals in terms of who it wants to invite back in and who is left out in the cold. And my understanding of this process of excommunication was that it's not meant to be punitive; it's meant to be kind of a warning sign, which seems to be lost in all of this.

NEARY: Interesting, John, I'm curious to hear what you have to say about the fact that the - it seems to me that Steve is saying that there have been excommunications that he doesn't understand the basis for at the same time that these people are being reinstated.

Mr. ALLEN: Well, I think this is fairly common sort of intra-Catholic reaction to this decision, which is that there are lots of groups in the Church that have run afoul of authority for different reasons. The Vatican clearly has invested far more time and treasure in trying to reconcile with the traditionalists than it has with many of these other constituencies. Now, I think the logic for that is what I've said, before which is that what makes the traditionalists different is that they are led by a group of bishops legitimately, fully legitimate Catholic bishops who have the authority in Catholic doctrine to ordain other bishops and thus to create a formal parallel church.

And as I say, over the centuries, this has been the nightmare scenario for the Vatican. But nevertheless, I think he makes - the caller makes a very good point, which is that there are number of people who would say that if there is to reconciliation between the mainstream church and the traditionalists, then it has to be a two-way street. And so far, it has been the Vatican, which has repeatedly then sort of offering the olive branch without insisting on concessions from the traditionalists, beginning with their acceptance of the teaching of the Catholic Church about respect for Judaism. And that I think is the other shoe that still has to drop.

NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for joining us today, John.

Mr. ALLEN: Lynn, a great pleasure.

NEARY: John Allen is a reporter for the National Catholic Reporter. He joins us today from a studio in Denver. And this is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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