The World from Berlin: Pope Benedict 'Is Sabotaging Christian-Jewish Dialogue'

The Vatican's decison to lift the excommunication of a bishop who denies that the Holocaust took place has angered Jews across the world. German papers on Monday argue that the pope is ruining decades of work aimed at improving relations between Jews and Catholics.

Pope Benedict XVI insists that his only concern was that of eliminating a schism within the Catholic Church. But his decision to mend ties with the far-right Society of Saint Pius X (SPPX) by overturning the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist bishops has outraged Jewish communities across the world. The reason for their anger is clear: One of those brought back into the fold is an unrepentant Holocaust denier.

Pope Benedict XVI.
DPA

Pope Benedict XVI.

In comments made to Swedish television and broadcast last Wednesday, British-born Richard Williamson said "I believe there were no gas chambers." He claimed that only 300,000 Jews perished in the Nazi concentration camps, instead of the 6 million figure that is widely accepted by historians. Despite these extreme views, Williamson was included in a group of supporters of the late ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre who were returned to the fold on Saturday after the Vatican issued a decree lifting their excommunication.

The men were thrown out of the Catholic Church in 1988 for being ordained without permission. They and the 600,000 members of their society reject the modernization of the Catholic Church that came about after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which included priests facing the congregation and speaking in the vernacular instead of in Latin.

Jewish organizations have been quick to condemn the move by German-born Pope Benedict XVI, who has long sought to end the schism in the Catholic Church. Rabbi David Rosen, head of the American Jewish Committee, contrasted the pope's actions with those of his predecessor. "In welcoming an open Holocaust denier into the Catholic Church without any recantation on his part, the Vatican has made a mockery of John Paul II's moving and impressive repudiation and condemnation of anti-Semitism," he told Reuters.

On Saturday, Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris said that he understood the Vatican's desire for Christian unity but said that the pope could still have excluded Williamson. "I'm certain as a man who has known the Nazi regime in his own flesh, he understands that you have to be very careful and very selective."

"We have no intention of interfering in the internal workings of the Catholic Church," Israel's Ambassador to the Vatican Mordechai Lewy told Reuters. "However, the eagerness to bring a Holocaust denier back into the Church will cast a shadow between Jews and the Catholic Church."

Meanwhile in Germany, the vice president of the Central Council of Jews, Dieter Graumann, has accused the pope of an "incomprehensible act of provocation." Speaking to the Handelsblatt newspaper on Sunday, Graumann said: "The fact that it is of all things a German pope who conjured up this new ice age between Jews and the Catholic Church … that is something particularly painful, astonishing and deplorable."

The Vatican has said that Williamson's comments on the Holocaust had no bearing on the excommunication issue. "This act regards the lifting of the excommunications, period," Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi told reporters. "It has nothing to do with the personal opinions of one person, which are open to criticism, but are not pertinent to this decree."

This apparent tin ear on the part of the Vatican comes at a time when relations are already strained with the Jewish community due to moves to have the war-time Pope Pius XII, who is accused by some of having turned a blind eye to the mass deportation and murder of Jews, named a saint.

Despite warnings that this decision to rehabilitate a Holocaust denier could damage ties between Jews and the Vatican, the Israeli government said that it would not affect the pope's planned visit to Israel in May. Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Plamor told the Associated Press that this was "not a matter that concerns the interaction between the states."

German newspapers on Monday take a look at the sensitive issue, with many wondering why Benedict XVI is so intent on undoing the work of his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.

The center-left Süddeutsche Zeitung writes:

"The pope's reconciliation with an offensive anti-Semite is shocking. Benedict points to the fact that the bishop's tirades had nothing to do with his ex-communication more than 20 years ago. By doing this, the pope is not recognizing the fact that, as the head of more than 1 billion Catholics, he is not operating in a vacuum of dogmas and canon law. With the rehabilitation of the bishop, Benedict XVI is sabotaging the Christian-Jewish dialogue while endorsing those who have sharply criticized his papacy."

"Even without the issue of the Holocaust denial, the reconciliation with the Lefebrivists would be a mistake. Of course the pope has to be concerned with the unity of the church. However, that which Benedict XVI is winning back on the right wing of the church, he could lose in the center. Many Catholics see it as the church's duty to work toward a humane world alongside other faiths. They want their pope to build bridges with the Protestant churches and with Judaism. However, Benedict seems to lack the magnanimity here that he is now showing to the reactionaries."

"Pope John Paul II, a conservative man, was particularly concerned with reconciliation with Judaism and dialogue between the religions. … Now it seems as if Benedict XVI wants to undo that work."

The conservative Die Welt writes:

"Anti-Semitism is not only reprehensible, it is also social suicide when it is openly celebrated. Holocaust denial is a criminal offense in Germany. Therefore Bishop Richard Williamson knew exactly what he was doing when he recently gave an interview in which … he denied the Holocaust."

"The pope's dramatic gesture of reconciliation is completely abhorrent to (Williamson). That is why his interview should be seen as a suicide attack by a callous old man, who wanted to torpedo this reconciliation at the last moment. He has harmed the pope, the other three bishops, many of the faithful, as well as Jewish communities across the world. The only thing he couldn't do is prevent the lifting of the excommunication. That is still purely a matter of canon law, by which the pope is trying to get rid of sects which allow these kind of pathologies to thrive. It has nothing to do with the madness of this destructive bishop."

The center-right Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung writes:

"The rehabilitation of the Society of Saint Pius X bishops was not completely unexpected. Benedict XVI has made it known since the beginning of his papacy that he wished for reconciliation with the supporters of the French Archbishop Lefebvre. However, it remains a mystery why the pope is now making such concessions to the fanatical opponents of the Second Vatican Council, that he is making a mockery of his predecessor John Paul II's insistence on obedience to the teachings of the church and to the pope. Benedict's wish to leave his successor a united church is commendable. However, what is not commendable is that he is lifting an excommunication that they brought upon themselves -- according to canon law. When it comes to the question of teachings and discipline, which caused the break with Rome, then the members of the Society of Saint Pius X are still sticking to their schismatic points of view."

-- Siobhán Dowling, 12:55 p.m. CET

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