Fordham Faculty and Students Respond to Papal Controversy


Posters reading “Choose Life” drew criticism from some students, who responded by ripping them down. (Laurence Kesterson/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT)

Published: February 12, 2009

The Vatican has been making headlines recently because of Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to revoke the excommunication of the Society of St. Pius X, a radical Catholic sect that counts among its members a known Holocaust denier. The Fordham community has reacted strongly to the news, with students and faculty alike calling for an explanation from the Vatican and statements from American bishops. Students and professors said that while they feel that Fordham does not have an obligation to respond to the Vatican’s actions, they do hope that this controversy is used as a learning opportunity.

Richard Williamson, the bishop at the heart of the controversy, said that there is no ‘historical evidence’ to support the use of gas chambers during the Holocaust, according to the New York Times. It was also reported that the Pope has asked Williamson to “recant” his comments about the Holocaust, and that Cardinal Casper, who is in charge of interfaith dialogue at the Vatican, was not consulted on the decision to revoke the excommunication of the Society.

On Feb. 9, Williamson was dismissed from the Argentine seminary for which he worked.

Edward Bristow, professor of history, said, “I was disappointed by the Pope’s reinstatement of the [the Society of St. Pius X] because I have no doubt that the Pope remains a friend of the Jews. His action was uncharacteristic of the Pope and the Catholic Church as a whole.”

Peter Steinfels, professor of theology and the co-director of the Center for Religion and Culture at Fordham, agreed that the Pope is not an anti-Semite, but he questioned the Pope’s motivations. “How did this come about? …Was he not informed, or did he just not weigh in?” he asked.

Steinfels voiced his concern over the fact that the Pope said he hadn’t known about Williamson’s Holocaust denials.

“It’s something that you wish there would be clarification of. Not just clarification of the question of Williamson and his kooky views, but clarification of how the Vatican is proceeding. When Cardinal Casper… says he wasn’t consulted on this… it raises questions. What are the procedures? What is the consultation?”

Bristow said, “This was not a passing matter on the part of Williamson, and this attitude in less extreme forms is widespread within [the Society of St. Pius X].”

Steinfels writes the bi-weekly Beliefs column on religion and ethics for the New York Times and wrote a column about the papal controversy. He wrote, “…One would expect that at least one of 433 active or retired Catholic bishops in the United States might have voiced some misgivings or raised some questions about Pope Benedict XVI’s recent action” regarding the Society of St. Pius X, which Steinfels called “an ultra traditionalist schismatic group.”

“Would somebody please say something?” he said. “I would like to hear some American bishops say, ‘Please give us some answers on this. You ought to know how much this is paining not just the Jewish community… but Catholics in general.”

In trying to understand why none of the American bishops have spoken out, Steinfels said, “I don’t claim to understand the culture of the American Catholic hierarchy, but they are just very reluctant to…voice any kind of public criticism of the papacy.”

Steinfels also pointed out the fact that European Catholics have been more outspoken about their concerns with the Pope’s actions.

Karina Hogan, assistant professor of theology, called the fact that the Vatican requested that Williamson revoke his statements on the Holocaust “an attempt at damage control.”

She said, “Incorporating the bishops of the Society of St. Pius X into the leadership of the Catholic Church calls into question the present Pope’s commitment to the reforms of Vatican II, which that Society considers heretical.”

Bristow said, “Since Vatican II, a doctrine that reversed 2000 years of Catholic teaching that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’s death, there’s been meaningful interfaith dialogue between Catholics and Jews.”

Steinfels said that there was “concern” among the Fordham community about the Pope’s decision, and that he has received much positive feedback in regard to his article.

He also said he hoped Fordham professors would discuss the controversy in classes and use it as a learning experience.

The Pope was scheduled to meet with American Jewish leaders on Feb. 11.