Jews as Christ Killers

Bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St Pius X (SSPX) is up to his old tricks and has angered the European Council of Rabbis with his remarks about the Jews' role in the crucifixion of Jesus. The bishop believes Jews are Christ-killers -- and his latest words on the subject come as Pope Benedict XVI begins an inter-faith summit in Assisi. Among his many attributes, I must say Bishop Williamson has great timing. The Guardian ran a story last week on the Jewish reaction to the bishop's comments. However, the story had some problems. "Bishop's blog raises tensions between Jews and the Vatican" misstates church history and makes assumptions about the relationship of Bishop Williamson to the Catholic Church. And like most reporting on Vatican-Jewish relations misses or misunderstands the pope's outstretched hand to the Jews.

Let's take a look at the story. It begins with the the author's interpretation of events, a sentence clarifying who Williamson is, what he believes and what the Catholic Church teaches, is followed by quotes from his latest missive and the ECR's response.

Relations between Jews and Catholics are under immense strain after a bishop made controversial remarks on his blog.

Richard Williamson, who has previously denied the existence of gas chambers and the murder of 6 million Jews during the Holocaust, accused the Jews of killing Jesus, a charge that divided the two faiths for centuries until Pope Benedict XVI declared this year that Jews could not be held responsible for Jesus's death.

In his weekly post, Williamson wrote that "the killing of Jesus was truly 'deicide' " and that "only the Jews (leaders and people) were the prime agents of the deicide because it is obvious from the gospels that the gentile most involved, Pontius Pilate, … would never have condemned Jesus to death had not the Jewish leaders roused the Jewish people to clamour for his crucifixion."

His comments have angered Jewish leaders and Holocaust survivors, who are urging Rome to cease reconciliation talks with the ultra-traditionalist splinter group to which Williamson belongs, the Society of St Pius X. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt of the European Council of Rabbis said: "We call upon the Catholic church to suspend negotiations with extremist Catholic tendencies until it is clear that these groups show a clear commitment to tackling antisemitism within their ranks."

Let's start with the obvious problem and then move back to the deeper issue of identity. The Catholic Church did not stop accusing "the Jews of killing Jesus" in 2010. On 28 Oct 1965 Pope Paul VI promulgated the Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions (Nostra Aetate). A product of the Second Vatican Council, Nostra Aetate rejected the charge of deicide leveled against the Jews.

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, ... [and the Church] decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

What happened in 2010 was the publication of excerpts from the pope's latest book, Jesus of Nazareth - Holy Week: From Entrance into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, which was published in March of this year. The Daily Mail reported that in his new book Benedict:

confronts the controversial text of St Matthew’s Gospel in which ‘the Jews’ demand the execution of Jesus and shout to the Roman governor Pontius Pilate: ‘Let his blood be on us and on our children.’

The passage has been described as a ‘rallying cry for anti-Semites down the centuries’.

But the Pope said when St Matthew wrote ‘the Jews’ he meant the mob in Pilate’s courtyard and not the Jewish people in general.

As such the crowd was representative of the whole of sinful humanity, he added.

In addition to the factual error, the identification of Richard Williamson in this article I also find problematic. It is possible for a man to be Roman Catholic and a bishop, but also for that same man not to be a Roman Catholic bishop. Richard Williamson is not a Roman Catholic bishop -- he is a bishop of the Society of St Piux X, and his consecration as a bishop in 1988 led to his excommunication from the Catholic Church. The way the first sentence is worded implies that Williamson is a Roman Catholic bishop (and the photo caption identifies him as such.)

The SSPX and the Vatican have been engaged in talks to end the split -- which is (rather confusingly) not a schism. As blogger Fr John Zuhlsdorf  notes:

In the 1988 Motu Proprio Ecclesia Dei adflicta Pope John Paul used the word “schism“.  It looks like a schism, to be sure.  But officials of the [Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei] have affirmed over the last few years that while Archbishop Lefebvre’s actions in 1988 were schismatic acts, the SSPX did not in fact go into schism.

In 2009 the excommunication was lifted, but Williamson has not been permitted to function as a bishop. His denial of the Holocaust and rejection of Nostra Aetate led the Vatican to state that  "in order to be admitted to episcopal functions within the Church, [Williamson] will have to take his distance, in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion, from his position on the Shoah, which the Holy Father was not aware of when the excommunication was lifted."

It is not just the Vatican who is appalled. Williamson's comments were also published in defiance of his SSPX Superior General, Bishop Bernard Fellay, who not only ordered him to stop making "any public statements on political or historical issues", but has also denounced his anti-Semitism.

In a limited sense, Williamson is right in saying that Jews are Christ-killers. The catechism states that "All sinners were the authors of Christ's Passion" (cf CCC 598). However this means that all Jews, all Gentiles -- you, me, everyone -- is responsible for the crucifixion. But that is not what Williamson is saying and while the Guardian story at its close does note that the Vatican has asked Williamson to recant, the overall tone of the story does not give a true sense of the church's rejection of this pernicious evil.

Christianity's relations with Jews and Judaism has been fraught with cruelty, abuse and murder. The Catholic Church should not be singled out on this point, however. Quakers aside, I am hard pressed to think of any Christian body that has not behaved badly. However, the past few decades have seen great strides in Catholic-Jewish relations. Cardinal Ratzinger, as he was then, was and is a consistent and strong voice for rapprochement -- when I covered Catholic - Jewish relations in Europe for the Jerusalem Post I heard time and again from members of the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and other Jewish leaders of their respect and appreciation for Joseph Ratzinger (and later Benedict XVI).

It is the absence of this underlying element, Joseph Ratzinger's philo-Semitism, that distorts the reporting on the Vatican's relations with Jews and Judaism. (That and factual errors.)

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