Monday, March 2, 2009

Inquisition Redux?

(I also posted this on my main blog: The Emperor's New Clothes.)
Now, this really scares me:

"Williamson apologized for his remarks Thursday. But he did not say his comments had been erroneous, or that he no longer believed them.

He had denied 6 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, and maintained that no Jew was gassed.

The Vatican on Feb. 4 said Williamson must "absolutely and unequivocally distance himself" from his remarks if he wants to be admitted as a prelate in the church."

The reference, of course, is to the SSPX Bishop Williamson, who was foolish enough to answer questions about his attitudes toward the Holocaust during a television interview.

Of course, the history of the Holocaust has absolutely nothing to do with his work as a priest. While some are trying to suggest that his read of history demonstrates that he is anti-Semitic, and that that is somehow going against his Church and its teachings, in point of fact, he is free to hold all manner of private opinions about history, art, music, food, etc., and not be in violation of his duties as a Catholic priest.

He was ordered to make a public apology, which he did.

This was not enough.

So here's what bothers me: we are ordering someone to say he believes something he does not believe. He does not believe the Holocaust took place. Why is an admission that it happened the only acceptable thing for him to say?

I assume it did, but here's a confession: I wasn't there. I don't know. I am told that it did by reputable historians, though it is true that nobody has a verifiable count for how many people perished. But likewise, I was not there for the Inquisition. I am told that it took place, even though there is a great deal of dispute over how many people were killed, how and why. I assume I am being told the truth. I wasn't there for the Crusades, and while I have been told that it was an aggressive move by the Church on the middle east, recent historians have disputed that, and suggested that it was not as one-sided a dispute as we have been led to believe.

My point is this: history, as we know, is written by the victors. Often, things are written in the light most favorable to those victors. Much later, we may revise that history in what we assume is a more honest fashion, but in truth, that revision may be as faulty as the original because it is written through yet another distorting prism. History is constantly being rewritten, questioned, poked at and prodded to evaluate it in the light of new ideas, attitudes, and discoveries. Historians know full well that what has been written into the history books is not necessarily what "really" happened.

I'm not suggesting that the Holocaust didn't happen. I believe it did, and it is a shameful chapter in human history. What I am defending the is the right of historians, professional and amateur, for whatever  motivation, to re-examine the record as often, and as apparently foolishly as they wish. It is our obligation as free people to revisit history, to question the record, and to try to get the facts straight. So while we may not like the motivations for, or the outcome of, such an investigation, we should never forbid it.

Back to Williamson: How is forcing this man to make a public recantation any different from what was done to Galileo - a thing for which the Church has been castigated for hundreds of years? We say, "Oh, because Galileo was right!" But nobody - or at least, very few - knew that at the time. The evil was not what was said, but that he was forced to acknowledge something as true that he did not believe. Therefore, he was being forced to lie, publicly (which of course, Williamson is going to have a problem with as a Catholic priest) in order to save his skin.

Talk about the Inquisition! Aren't these the very tactics of that august body - let's just put you on the rack and torture you until you admit that you did something you didn't, or that you believe something you don't.

Williamson made a public apology for causing a scandal and embarassing his Church. That's as far as it needs to go. You can still think he's a crank for his beliefs, but unless we want to succumb to rule by the Thought Police, that ought to be enough.

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