The dangers of premature reconciliation

Given the unique status of the Holocaust as an icon of evil in a morally confused world, Holocaust-denial triggers revulsions similar to those triggered by blasphemy in the Middle Ages: the Holocaust-denier must be shunned, for everyone else’s moral health.  Thus it was completely understandable that, when Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of four bishops illegally ordained in 1988 by the late French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, reporting and commentary focused on the fact that one of the four, Richard Williamson, is a Holocaust-denier and a man given to extolling that hoary anti-Semitic forgery, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

Understandable, but something of freakish sideshow, for Williamson is an internationally known crank and no serious person can believe that Benedict XVI’s act constituted an endorsement of Williamson’s lunatic view of history.  As the Pope made clear at his Jan. 28 general audience, he has long recognized the Holocaust as a unique icon of wickedness—one that should call all of us “to reflect on the unpredictable power of evil when it conquers the heart of man.”

For Catholics, condemning Holocaust-denial is a moral imperative rooted in the conviction that anti-Semitism (of which Holocaust-denial is a pseudo-sophisticated form) is a sin against the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus—a God who keeps his promises, both to the people of Israel and to the people of the Church. That conviction leads readily to another conviction: that God preserves the Church from fundamental error in essential truths. And that, not questions of liturgical taste, is what is really at issue with Lefebvrists: Were the Second Vatican Council’s teachings on the nature of the Church, on Church-state theory, and on the sin of anti-Semitism in continuity with the great tradition of Catholic faith? Or did they represent a rupture and a breach of faith?

The interpretation of Vatican II among Catholic “progressives” has long stressed that Vatican II was a Council of radical change: a new beginning that, in effect, created a new Church. On this understanding, the Council broke with hundreds of years of Catholic history by mandating an open dialogue with secular modernity.  In an odd mirror-image, the Catholic far right—embodied by Lefebvrists, among others—agrees: except that, in this instance, rupture means betrayal. Marcel Lefebvre was shaped in part by currents in French public culture that helped produce the Vichy regime during World War II. To a mind formed in that cauldron of resentments, prejudices, and dreams of an ancient regime restored, it seemed self-evidently clear that the Council made a fatal bargain with modernity, thereby emptying Catholicism of its content while eviscerating the distinctive Catholic way of life.

For the past three decades, by contrast, Joseph Ratzinger has argued vigorously in defense of Vatican II as an authentic expression of Catholic faith that must be interpreted in continuity with the Church’s tradition. For Ratzinger, Vatican II was a Council of development: its teaching teased new meanings out of ancient tradition, but it in no way involved a rupture with the past. How could it, if God keeps his promise to preserve the Church in essential truths?

The Council’s continuity with the great tradition of Catholic faith is what Archbishop Lefebvre and his movement have long denied. And while some may sympathize with the Lefebvrists’ commitment to dignified worship, few, I suspect, will want to defend the Lefebvrist claim that the Council taught falsely when it defined religious freedom as a fundamental human right.

Thus if Benedict XVI’s attempt to reconcile dissidents on the far starboard edge of world Catholicism is to contribute to the Church’s unity, his gestures of reconciliation must be met from the Lefebvrist side by a clear rejection of the rupture theory of Vatican II. That means an unambiguous acknowledgment from the Lefebvrist bishops that the Council taught the truth of Catholic faith in affirming religious freedom and condemning anti-Semitism. Until that happens, the absurd Lefebvrist claim that their movement is “the Tradition” (most recently made by the leading Lefebvrist bishop, Bernard Fellay) will remain an insuperable obstacle to the restoration of full communion.


COMING UP: Did Christians ban the Games? Tales, myths and other fun facts about the ancient Olympics

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The 2020 Summer Olympics began less than a week ago, and as is usually the case, there’s been enough stunning athleticism, shocking upsets and yes, even a little bit of drama on display to keep the water cooler chatter abuzz until at least the 2022 games.

At their best, the Olympic games bridge cultural divides and unite countries around the world as the greatest living athletes around the globe compete for the coveted gold medal in their respective events. There’s a spirit of global camaraderie that welcomely comes about during every Olympiad; whether watching the Games at home with the family or going to a local bar to cheer on your favorite country, the Olympics bring people together in a way that most other sporting events do not.

Another astounding thing about the Olympics is how they’ve endured over the millennia. Indeed, they provide a special glimpse into the history of the world and those common qualities of humanity that will never die; namely, the need for both unitive, universal community and friendly but fierce competition.

The first recorded Olympic games took place in 776 B.C., though some historians speculate that they could have began as early as the 10th century B.C. The games were held every four years in Olympia to honor the greek god Zeus as one of four Panhellenic festivals, this one coinciding with the second full moon following the summer solstice, usually at the end of July or early August. The Olympics became so significant that the term Olympiad was used to mark a year the games took place, and became a common unit of historical time measurement.

Now, the ancient world wasn’t exactly known for its amicability or even peacefulness, as indicated by the countless wars and power usurpations that took place throughout its history. However, Olympic festivals were marked by a truce among the Greeks called ekecheiria, which roughly means “holding of hands.” This ensured safe travels for athletes and spectators as they made their way to the festival and was a common basis for peace among the Greeks. That the Olympic games could get even the constantly feuding Greeks to lay down their arms and come together in a spirit of solidarity speaks to their significance in ancient history.

Early Olympic events included the footrace, wrestling, the long jump, the javelin throw, the discus throw and boxing. Of course, it’s nigh impossible to read about the ancient Olympics and not come across epic tales of chariot racing, an event which was briefly banned early on but was reinstated by the first century B.C. and drew the interest of several key Roman figures (more on that later).

By the fifth century B.C., athletes from all over the Greek-speaking world came to Olympia for the games. The footrace, also called the Stade or Stadion, was considered the most prestigious event, and is where the english word “stadium” is derived from. Stade was a unit of measurement in ancient Greece which modern historians say is the rough equivalent to 600 feet or 200 yards, though the actual length has been a subject of debate for many years. Either way, it represents the length which runners in the Stadion ran to prove themselves as the fastest sprinters in the ancient world.

Interestingly, very little record about the Olympics games during the time of Christ exists. History tells us that the Roman emperor Tiberius, who was emperor during Christ’s life, won the chariot races during the 194th Olympiad in 4 B.C. In 17 A.D., the popular Roman general Germanicus, who was Tiberius’ adopted son and the future father of the third Roman Emperor Caligula, won the chariot races in 17 A.D., presumably around the time Christ was a teenager.

About those chariot races: they were known to attract elite political figures, some of whom won based on true skill, and others who only wanted the appearance of winning to further exert their power and status. During the 211th Olympiad, Emperor Nero, known for his fierce persecution of Christians and rather narcissistic personality, forcibly moved the Olympic games set to take place in 65 A.D. to 67 A.D. so he could compete while on a tour of Greece. He participated in the chariot races (with six more horses than the other competitors), and declared himself the greatest Olympic victor of all time, though historical eyewitness accounts tell a different story. Nero actually nearly died after a severe wreck, but Nero being Nero, he was still declared the winner.

Thankfully, Nero’s title as an Olympic victor and the Olympiad he “won,” which did not adhere to the established chronology of the games, were subsequently stricken from the official Olympic records after his death.

The Olympics grew over the course of 1,200 years until 393 A.D., when Emperor Theodosius I banned all Pagan festivals from the Roman emperor after Christianity became adopted as the state religion. Popular culture and history has long maintained this story of Christianity being to blame for the halt of the Olympic games. However, in recent years, some historians have disputed this account, saying that it was not for religious reasons but rather economic reasons that the games ended when they did. In fact, even after Theodosius’ death, there are still records of Olympic games taking place up until the fifth century. As the administration of Roman Empire evolved, the Olympics could no longer be sponsored by civil funds and instead became sponsored more and more by rich elites of the time. Simply put, the games became too expensive, and no one wanted to pay for them anymore.

The Olympics did not make a return for 1,500 years, until the Athens Olympics in 1896. Over the last 125 years since their reinstatement, the Games have become an integral piece of modern culture and a remnant of ancient history that was revived to great avail. As the Olympics in Tokyo continue over the next week and athletes compete for the gold, the words of St. Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians serve as a pertinent reminder of how the spirit of an Olympian imitates closely that of a Christian:

“Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified” (1 Cor 9:24-27).

So let the Games continue! And may the race be run not for a perishable prize, but an imperishable one.

Featured photo: Met Museum, Terracotta Panathenaic prize amphora (jar), ca. 510 B.C. Attributed to the Leagros Group.