Pope Benedict XVI made it clear on Wednesday that he regrets the uproar caused by bringing a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson, back into the fold. Indeed, the Vatican has demanded that Williamson distance himself from his views before he can be fully rehabilitated.
Still, according to a German politician who met with Benedict following the papal audience on Wednesday, the pope is angry at the tone of German criticism. "The Vatican is horrified by the discussion in Germany," Georg Brunnhuber, a parliamentarian from Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU), told the Financial Times Deutschland. "The impression there is that all of the anti-Catholic resentments hiding under the surface in Germany are now coming to the surface."
The comments from Merkel, in particular, have raised eyebrows both in the Vatican and elsewhere. On Tuesday the German chancellor said Holocaust denial was unacceptable and that Pope Benedict XVI hadn't made a "sufficient clarification" regarding the church's attitude toward Williamson's Holocaust remarks. Some have credited Merkel with spurring Wednesday's demand by the Vatican that Williamson publicly retract his views. Many, though, see her comments as unacceptable interference into an internal church matter.
Reinhard Marx, the Archbishop of Munich and Freising, said he was "astonished" by Merkel's chutzpah. "I am amazed at these political comments in this context," he told German television on Wednesday evening. European parliamentarian Bernd Posselt, of the Christian Social Union (CSU) -- the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's CDU -- warned the chancellor against posing as the pope's "taskmaster." Posselt's party colleague, German parliamentarian Norbert Geis, told the Mitteldeutsche Zeitung that Merkel's comments were "off the mark."
Commenting on the debate in general, President of the German Parliament Norbert Lammert said that "much of what the pope has been accused of is malicious, and certainly not fair," in an interview with the Hamburger Abendblatt. He said the debate had developed into a kind of "rhetorical contest that is neither reasonable nor helpful."
The controversy centers on the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX). On Jan. 24, the Vatican announced that it would revoke the excommunications of four SSPX bishops, including Williamson. The Vatican said Wednesday that Benedict hadn't known about Williamson's reputation as a Holocaust denier. Williamson had appeared on Swedish television just days earlier, though, saying -- in an interview recorded in November 2008 -- that he didn't believe the Nazis had used gas chambers or killed 6 million Jews as a "deliberate policy." He only allowed that 200,000 to 300,000 European Jews had died in Nazi concentration camps, and he made reference to well-known Holocaust denial literature to back up his claim.
It didn't take long for the scandal to hit front pages across Europe, but the critique has been particularly intense from Benedict's home country of Germany. Franz Müntefering, the head of the center-left Social Democrats and himself a Catholic, said "it is a bad historical error that the church needs to correct as quickly as it can." He said a statement from the Vatican won't be enough. The head of the Catholic Church, he said, "has just clearly demonstrated that even a pope isn't infallible."
The Central Council of Jews in Germany now says the Catholic Church should turn its back on SSPX altogether, saying that it can't continue a dialogue if the church accepts the ultra-conservative group as formal members. Williamson isn't the only Holocaust denier among the St. Pius X followers, and the Web site argues that Jews are guilty of "deicide" for crucifying Jesus.
As frustrated as the pope may be about the continuing debate, at least one Vatican insider thinks Benedict may even consider turning in his resignation. Father Eberhard von Gemmingen, head of the German language staff at Radio Vatican, said the pope "has his back to the wall," in comments to German radio. "As I know the pope," he said, "then it is certainly possible that he has thought to himself: 'At some point I might have to step down so that the papacy is respected.'"