The recent kerfuffle over excommunicated Catholic priest Richard Williamson’s TV interview, in which he claimed that “historical evidence” showed that 6 million Jews were not deliberately gassed in gas chambers, tells us three things.

First, that English-born Williamson, an Anglican convert to Catholicism, belongs to that school of flamboyantly flakey Holocaust deniers who, in a narcissistic way, seek publicity for their offensive views but whose influence over broader, legitimate debates about the past is confined to Crazy Corner. How do we know this? Well, anyone who has seen the Swedish TV interview, recorded November 2008 (aired in Sweden in late January) will realise that here we have a not-terribly-bright supporter of the US denialist Institute of Historical Review.

Yes, I know Williamson went to Cambridge, but, good university that Cambridge is, back in Williamson’s day, it had a sizeable quotient of dim, private school backdoor entrants. I know. I used to teach them. If you want further proof that Williamson is not the brightest candle in the chandelier, listen to his conspiracy theory sermon on George Orwell and 9/11. I actually burst out laughing halfway through this masterpiece of incoherence and claptrap: no mighty intellect at work here. Add to that his views that women should neither wear trousers nor receive tertiary education, that Julie Andrews’s Sound of Music was p-rnographic (is that why it was so popular?), and that the Jews want to set up the Anti-Christ in Jerusalem, and you get a rounded picture of the loopy cleric at work.

The second and more important point about Williamson’s sudden elevation to global notoriety is to do with the circumstances of his 15 minutes of global fame. Williamson is an excommunicated “bishop” illegally consecrated as such in 1988 by the late renegade Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, adherent of the Latin mass and other far less quaint beliefs.

On January 24th last, Pope Benedict rescinded Williamson’s excommunication, as well as the excommunications of three of his co-“bishops”. It was a move that stunned many Catholics as well as non-Catholic Vatican observers, not least members of the Jewish community. For a pope who had put considerable effort into developing dialogue with Judaism, the move seemed bizarre, insulting even, since Williamson’s views were well known within the Church.

A furore erupted. The Vatican was initially defensive, but after German chancellor Angela Merkel publicly chided countryman Benedict, he explained that he knew nothing of Williamson’s denialism, with the Vatican demanding that Williamson recant his denialist views. Williamson then issued a disingenuous non-apology, expressing sorrow that his views had stirred up controversy.

The third point is really two questions. Is the Williamson business a storm in a teacup, or is it a significant event? And the answer is — both.

As far as Holocaust denial is concerned, Williamson’s views are easily filed in an already fat dossier marked David Irving/Ernst Zündel/Friedrich Töben — the trivial ramblings of just another Holocaust denier. As far as the Catholic Church is concerned, the Williamson case represents a serious crisis in its internal and external relations. To begin with, Williamson is a member of a banned schismatic sect, the Society of Saint Pius X, better known as SSPX.

Set up by Lefebvre in the early 1970s, SSPX takes its worldview from its anti-modernist hero Pope Pius X. It has about 500 or more clerical members as well as a larger number of lay adherents and sees itself as the vanguard of conservative Catholicism and SSPX has been a thorn in the flesh of the Catholic Church since its inception. Benedict XVI would know all about the sect since the current pope, then known as “God’s Rottweiler”, spent more than a decade in charge of the Congregation of the Office of the Faith, the Vatican office that deals with schismatics and heretics.

During that time Cardinal Ratzinger, as he then was, earned a reputation for ferociously suppressing internal dissent. He was against liberation theology, gender inclusivity in church documents, contraception and women priests but firmly in favour of continuing the tradition of priestly celibacy.

The problem for Benedict is that, notwithstanding his occasional moments of progressive diplomacy, the Pope’s intention to leave his mark as the custodian of conservative Catholic values is constantly undermined by the rogue SSPX. It is Williamson and his friends who keep setting the reactionary benchmarks which are generally a bit more conservative than those of the pontiff, but are, in some cases, seriously deranged.

Benedict had two choices. Keep SSPX at arm’s length, with his leadership credentials constantly weakened by this gang of out-of-control mavericks who can simply keep consecrating more wacky “bishops”, or bring them back into the fold on the basis that they have no authority as “bishops”, may not consecrate any more ‘bishops’, and must keep their mouths shut. This is the LBJ camel-in-the-tent principle of HR in action.

Unfortunately for Benedict, and before SSPX were allowed back in, Williamson opened his mouth, and was caught on camera. Now Williamson is in hiding in Argentina, having been cut loose by SSPX and dumped by his Lefebvrist seminary in La Reja. SSPX are back in the papal frame in and Williamson, quite rightly, is out in the cold.

Get more Crikey, for less

It’s more than a newsletter. It’s where readers expect more – fearless journalism from a truly independent perspective. We don’t pander to anyone’s party biases. We question everything, explore the uncomfortable and dig deeper.

Join us this week for 50% off a year of Crikey.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
50% off