We all know that Galileo, after being forced by the Inquisition to deny that the earth orbits the sun, is supposed to have said, under his breath, "Nevertheless, it moves.”
The story doesn't make much sense and is undoubtedly false, but it does underscore the point that Galileo remained free to believe whatever he wanted about earth's behavior in the privacy of his own skull. The recantation and imprisonment the Church forced on him did nothing to change his mind, and nothing to reconcile church dogma with astronomy. (You may applaud here, feebly and briefly.)
On the other hand, it did prove, once again, that you can get people to say almost anything if you threaten to kill them.
Now, the Vatican is asking the ex-excommunicated Bishop Richard Williamson to recant his belief that the Holocaust didn't happen. They're not going to kill him if he doesn't; they're going to reward him if he does, by readmitting him fully into the Church. As soon as Williamson says that Hitler did so kill Teh Jews, his public utterances will once again be backed by the full faith and credit of the institution that coaxed this apology from him by dangling the bauble of Worldly Power before his eyes. As for the Holocaust, it will be no more reasonable to deny that than it is to deny the Holy Trinity, or the evils of contraception.
The Pope's stance amounts to nothing more than a flexing of muscle. For some, it'll prove the power of the Church. For others, it'll prove the power of the Jews over the Church. But no one, I hope, actually believes that when Williamson says what he must in order to get what he wants (and what the Pope, significantly, wants to give him), there will be one less Holocaust denier in the world. While I don't doubt that race-obsessed lunatics can change, I'm not convinced you can reliably get them to do so by promising them spiritual authority and a funny hat.
If I had a million dollars to spare, I'm sure I could get almost any white supremacist on earth to publicly recant his or her views. The problem is, what I'd probably end up with, for all my trouble and expense, is a white supremacist with a million dollars in the bank.
Granting that the only real forgiveness is forgiveness of the unforgivable, what we're talking about here seems to be a sort of perpetually dispensed forgiveness that begins to look almost like like collusion...especially when you read the odd phrasing of the Vatican's demands:
"Bishop Williamson, in order to be admitted to episcopal functions within the church, will have to take his distance, in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion, from his position on the Shoah...."So Williamson must distance himself from his position. Or to put it another way, he must distance himself from himself, as certain priests do when they present themselves as the shepherds of the children they're molesting, and certain gays do when they marry people of the opposite sex in order to keep up appearances. Perhaps Williamson can affirm the reality of the Holocaust, while reminding the faithful that God has His reasons.
Ultimately, the Church is in the same position it was vis a vis Galileo, and that position is not made any more tolerable, morally speaking, by the fact that in this case, it's defending the truth against a lie.
(Illustration: Galileo facing the Roman Inquisition by Cristiano Banti, 1857.)