Since Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of a Holocaust denier in late January, worldwide criticism has grown. The Vatican on Wednesday said Bishop Robert Williamson must recant his views before he can serve as a bishop.
After days of internal dispute that seemed to pit many senior Catholic Church officials against the Pope, the Vatican on Wednesday demanded that a Holocaust-denying bishop will have to "take his distance ... in an absolutely unequivocal and public fashion" from recent statements before he can be "admitted to episcopal functions within the church." The Vatican also said Pope Benedict XVI had been unaware of Robert Williamson's views when he lifted the bishop's excommunication on Jan. 24.
British-born Bishop Richard Williamson must "take his distance" from Holocaust-denying statements.
The move came one day after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in an unusually sharp rebuke, demanded that Pope Benedict XVI clarify the Vatican's opposition to any effort to deny the Holocaust.
After the scandal broke, Benedict did condemn Holocaust denial during his weekly audience at St. Peter's Square and declared his solidarity with Jews. Merkel, however, said it wasn't enough.
"In my opinion, this isn't just an issue affecting the Christian, Catholic and Jewish Communities in Germany," she said Tuesday. It is important for the pope to clarify "that Holocaust denial cannot be accepted and that, in general, there must be a positive association with Judaism as a whole. ... I do not believe that sufficient clarification has been made."
Merkel was widely supported by religious leaders in Germany for her tough stance against the Vatican, but she drew criticism from Georg Ratzinger, the German pope's brother and also a Catholic priest.
"I always considered her to be a reasonable woman," Ratzinger told the Leipziger Volksszeitung newspaper. "But perhaps she's under so much pressure at the moment that she is no longer to able to express herself in a reasonable way." He said criticism of his brother was unreasonable and badly informed.
Sharp words for Merkel also came from the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union. Bernd Posselt, a CSU member of the European Parliament, warned Merkel not to become the pope's "taskmaster." And Bishop Walter Mixa, from the Bavarian city of Augsburg, said on Wednesday that Merkel had made a mistake.
"The position of the pope on the matter of the Holocaust and his unquestioned sympathy for Jews as the older brothers of Christians has been very clearly expressed," Mixa said. "In this respect the Holy Father needs no tutoring from the German chancellor."
The Ratzinger family has deep roots in Bavaria.
Merkel did receive support from Rita Süssmuth, a prominent member of her party, as well as Ingrid Fischbach, the CDU's leader on religious issues in parliament. "At issue here is our country's reputation," said Fischbach, "and it was important that the chancellor say something."
Meanwhile, Franz Müntefering of the center-left Social Democrats, who are part of Merkel's coalition government, also backed the chancellor. "I consider the rehabilitation of a bishop who denies the Holocaust to be unacceptable," Müntefering told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper. The SPD party chief went even further than Merkel in assailing the pontiff, describing the Vatican's action as a "serious historical error that the Church must correct as quickly as possible."
The incident, he said, showed that even the pope was not infallible.
Bishop Robert Williamson is one of four bishops belonging to the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) whose excommunication was lifted by the pope. They were excommunicated in 1988 for being ordained without permission. The pope reinstated them -- as Catholics, though not yet as bishops -- on January 24, provided they toe the Vatican line.
The decision to lift Williamson's excommunication not only drew the ire of German Jews and politicians, but also outrage in other countries around Europe and the world because of his reputation as a Holocaust denier. In recent interviews Williamson had said historical evidence was "hugely against" 6 million Jews having been "deliberately gassed" during World War II. He also denied that gas chambers were used to kill Jews at all.
The Society of St. Pius X, which has about 600,000 members, was founded by the French archibishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970 to protest modern reforms in the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. "Vatican II," as it's called, allowed priests to face the congregation during Mass and changed the liturgy to use less Latin.
Lefebvre made Williamson and the other three men bishops in an unsanctioned ceremony in 1988. He and the four bishops were promptly excommunicated by then-Pope John Paul II. Bringing the "Lefebvrists" back to the Church has long been a personal cause for Pope Benedict XVI, and his demand for a retraction on Wednesday may be Williamson's first test of loyalty to Rome.
dsl -- with wire reports
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