Another week, another public relations disaster for the Catholic Church. While the furor continues swirling around the pope's decision to reinstate an ultra-conservative bishop who denies the Holocaust, the Vatican has once again raised hackles by promoting a controversial pastor to be a bishop in Austria.
On Saturday Rome announced that Rev. Gerhard Maria Wagner would be auxiliary bishop in Linz, the capital of Upper Austria, a decision that has angered many within the Austrian church and beyond. The priest has a knack for inappropriate comments, writing back in 2005 in a parish newsletter that Hurricane Katrina was an act of "divine retribution" for New Orleans' permissive ways. "This was not the sinking of any city but that of a people's dream city with the 'best brothels and prettiest prostitutes,'" he wrote.
The same man warned children in 2001 against reading J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books because the tales of a boy wizard were "spreading Satanism." Then in 2004 Wagner said that it was no coincidence that the Tsunami disaster had occurred at Christmas, inferring that it was punishment for "rich Western tourists" who had fled to "poor Thailand."
News of his planned ordination on March 22 has unleashed a storm of criticism from other Austrian clergy, with many complaining that the selection process was made without consulting them. Hans Padinger, spokesman for the Upper Austrian priests' council, told the Oberoesterreichische Rundschau newspaper he was "not very pleased" by the appointment while Franz Wild, a parish priest in Traun, said that he was "appalled" by the news. "I hope it's clear to the church that we're living in the 21st century and that it also has to live there," he told the ORF channel.
The group "We are Church," which promotes reform, predicted that the appointment could lead to people leaving the church. Liberal Catholics now fear that the pope is steering the church in an ultra-conservative direction and there is increasing concern about his leadership style. In a commentary for the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Catholic theologian Hans Küng said that the pope risked losing the trust of millions of Catholics across the world. Küng said that Pope Benedict XVI is obviously "so shielded and cut off from the real world, that he has no idea how disastrously his actions are received."
Damaged Relations with Jewish Community
The uproar over Wagner's appointment comes while the repercussions about the Vatican's decision to overturn the ex-communication of four bishops who were ordained by the founder of the archconservative Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX) are still being felt. One of the bishops, British-born Richard Williamson, recently told Swedish TV that he did not believe that Jews had died in gas chambers and that only 200,000 to 300,000 Jews had perished in the Nazi concentration camps instead of the figure of six million that is accepted by mainstream historians.
The pope had hoped that re-admitting the men into the church would heal the rift with the ultra-traditionalist society, which rejects the reforms that were implemented after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, including the decision to allow mass to be said in languages other than Latin.
Instead, the lifting of Williamson's excommunication has severely jeopardized relations between the Vatican and the Jewish community, threatening to undo efforts by the late Pope John Paul II to build bridges between different faiths. The Israeli Minister for Religious Affairs Yitzhak Cohen told SPIEGEL that he had recommended "completely cutting off ties to a body in which Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites are members."
In Germany there is widespread astonishment that the German-born Pope Benedict XVI would give the go ahead to rehabilitate Williamson. The vice president of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Salomon Korn told SPIEGEL that Williamson's rehabilitation was "unforgivable." "A German pope of all people ... has pardoned a Holocaust denier. And that just a few days before Holocaust Memorial Day," he said.
Italian Priest Joins in Holocaust Doubt
The Bishop of Hamburg Werner Thissen accused the Vatican of not doing enough research into the SSPX society and Williamson's views before overturning the excommunication. "Rehabilitating a Holocaust denier is always a bad decision," he told the Hamburger Abendblatt on Monday, adding that relations with Jews had been damaged.
The Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart Gebhard Fürst said in a statement: "It saddens me as a bishop and as a pastor that these actions have lead to the external and internal alienation of many believers from the church, to the loss of trust particularly of our Jewish brothers and sisters in the church as well as to a considerable breakdown in the Christian-Jewish dialogue."
The Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schönborn was also scathing. "Whoever denies the Shoah cannot be rehabilitated to a position in the church," he told the Austrian broadcaster ORF on Sunday.
While Williamson posted a letter on his blog apologizing to the pope for the "unnecessary distress" he had caused he did not retract his comments on the Holocaust. And his does not seem to be not an isolated case within the SSPX. The head of the society in northeastern Italy, Florian Abrahamowicz, told the Tribuna di Treviso newspaper last Thursday that he knew "gas chambers existed as a means to disinfect, but I cannot say for sure if they killed anyone."