By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 28, 2009 9:37 AM
Pope Benedict's decision to lift the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist bishops, including one who has denied the Holocaust, has angered many Jews and Catholics who say the bishops represent repressive and anti-Semitic currents in Catholicism that they want the pope to now explicitly repudiate.
Church officials have been scrambling to downplay the decision announced over the weekend and portray it as a first step in ending the only formal schism in modern Catholicism. But Jewish leaders said the move threatens decades of interfaith dialogue and could harm plans for Benedict's planned trip to the Holy Land later this year. The dispute adds to growing concerns among leaders of other faiths about Benedict's view of interfaith cooperation.
This morning, Benedict made his first public comments on the controversy, telling pilgrims in his weekly audience in Vatican City that he feels "full and indisputable" solidarity with Jews and repudiating the idea of denying the Holocaust.
According to an Associated Press account of his remarks, Benedict said the memory of the Holocaust should "prompt humanity to reflect on the unpredictable power of evil when it conquers the hearts of men."
The bishops who were reinstated are members of the conservative Society of Saint Pius X and have all resisted the reforms of Vatican II, the worldwide 1960s meeting that opened new dialogue between Catholics and other faiths. They were excommunicated two decades ago.
The biggest furor since the decision to reinstate them, however, has focused on one of the bishops, British-born Richard Williamson. In recent weeks, he has denied that the Holocaust occurred, and in the past has written that women should not attend universities, empathized with the Unabomber's views on modern technology and suggested that the U.S. government staged the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as an excuse to invade Afghanistan.
"I believe that the historical evidence . . . is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed," Williamson said on Swedish television this month. "I believe there were no gas chambers."
Yesterday, the Society of Saint Pius X ordered Williamson not to speak on public or historical issues and apologized to Benedict for Williamson's "ill-advised" statements.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican's ecumenical and Jewish outreach, also called Williamson's comments "gibberish" and said his views on the Holocaust don't reflect those of the church.
But many faith leaders say the Vatican has stated for decades that anti-Semitism is a sin and that the episode questions Catholic thought on the validity of other faiths. "These things are inextricably tied together," said Rabbi Gary Greenebaum, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
The Jerusalem Post's editorial page yesterday called for suspending official relations between Jewish groups and the Vatican. Interfaith leaders close to those planning Benedict's spring trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories said the Vatican was "putting out feelers" about whether to postpone.
In his short tenure as pope, Benedict has caused concerns among other faith leaders before. He sparked deadly riots across the Muslim world in 2006 by citing a 14th-century characterization of the prophet Muhammad as "evil and inhuman." Jewish groups protested in 2007 when he expanded use of traditional liturgy -- a priority among groups such as Saint Pius X -- that on Good Friday called for Catholics to pray for "the faithless Jews." After protests, the next year he required all Catholics to remove the word "faithless."
Williamson, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, Alfonso de Galarreta and Bishop Bernard Fellay -- leader of the Society of Saint Pius X -- were excommunicated in 1988 by Pope John Paul II after they were ordained as bishops over the objections of the Vatican by conservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
In recent days, Catholic officials and many Catholics praised Benedict for reaching out to the hundreds of thousands of members of the Society of Saint Pius X, a small number of whom are American, who adhere to a traditionalist view of Catholicism, including wanting only the Latin Mass. They say anti-Semitic comments by any of the bishops, while possibly abhorrent, are not heretical.
Still, some church analysts -- including those who are typically defenders of the pope -- said they were concerned that a group that had clearly rejected the authority of the church and its teachings through Vatican II was being wooed back.
"This raises all sorts of questions about the consistency of the church's own self-understanding," said George Weigel, author of several books about Benedict and John Paul II. "How does this advance the unity of the church if they are reconciled [without embracing church positions on religious freedom and anti-Semitism?] This really has the possibility of unraveling a lot of the accomplishments of the John Paul and Benedict periods if not handled well."