The New York Times, 9.2.5
By RACHEL DONADIO
ROME -- Responding to an extraordinary burst of global outrage,
especially in Pope Benedict XVI's native Germany, the Vatican for
the first time on Wednesday called on a recently rehabilitated
bishop to take back his statements denying the Holocaust.
Late last month, the pope revoked the excommunications of four
schismatic bishops from the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X,
including Bishop Richard Williamson, a Briton, who in an interview
broadcast last month denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers.
In a statement issued Wednesday, the Vatican Secretariat of State
said that Bishop Williamson "must absolutely, unequivocally and
publicly distance himself from his positions on the Shoah," or
Holocaust, or else he would not be allowed to serve as a bishop in
the Roman Catholic Church.
The statement said that the bishop's recent comments denying the
Holocaust had been "unknown to the Holy Father at the time he
revoked the excommunication."
Efforts to reach Bishop Williamson were unsuccessful, and he issued
no public response. The bishop has a history of public statements
denying the Holocaust.
Outside Seminario Nuestra Señora Corredentora, the bishop's bucolic
seminary with its own farm in La Reja, Argentina, a small town near
Buenos Aires, a priest who came to the door said that Bishop
Williamson would not comment until he had spoken with his superiors.
Pope Benedict has stumbled before in his nearly four-year papacy,
most notably when he offended Muslims in 2006 by citing a medieval
scholar who said Islam brought things "evil and inhuman." But the
internal controversy created by Bishop Williamson's rehabilitation
is unlike anything the Vatican has faced in recent decades.
Wednesday's unsigned statement -- a rare case of the Vatican's
diplomatic arm furthering earlier remarks by the pope himself -- not
only showed an age-old institution grappling with the 24-hour news
cycle. It also seemed to be a clear indication that the Vatican was
facing nothing less than an internal and external political crisis.
The day before, in a rare criticism from the head of a government,
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany called on the pope to clarify
his position on the Holocaust, saying his previous remarks had not
Several prominent figures in the German Catholic Church joined in
the criticism, and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
also issued a statement condemning Bishop Williamson.
But the statement from the Vatican Secretariat of State seemed to go
a long way toward calming the uproar. The chairman of the German
Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, praised it, saying
Wednesday that the Vatican had "clarified in an unequivocal way that
every form of anti-Semitism should be condemned."
The Vatican statement noted Benedict's remarks last week in which he
expressed his "full and unequivocal solidarity" with Jews and
condemned all attempts to deny the Holocaust. But it went far beyond
the pope's earlier remarks, which had never mentioned Bishop
Williamson by name.
The four bishops are from the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X,
founded in 1970 by a French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, to protest
the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, or Vatican
II, including liturgical changes, a commitment to ecumenism and
The society's 600 priests and estimated 400,000 followers are on the
far right of the world's one billion Catholics. They are
particularly opposed to a Vatican II document that absolved
contemporary Jews of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus.
The four bishops were excommunicated by Pope John Paul II in 1988
after Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated them without a papal mandate.
The schismatic society has no legal standing within the Catholic
Benedict has said he revoked the excommunications in an effort to
heal a rift within the church. Last week, he called them a gesture
of "compassion" and a first step on a longer path toward the
society's full reconciliation with the church.
The statement from the Vatican on Wednesday also addressed questions
about what conditions the society would have to meet before being
fully welcomed back into the fold, saying it would have to offer its
"full recognition of the Second Vatican Council" to receive
"recognition" by the church.
Jewish groups on Wednesday welcomed the statement by the Secretariat
"This was the sign the Jewish world has been waiting for," Ronald S.
Lauder, the president of the World Jewish Congress, said in a
He noted that Bishop Williamson's anti-Semitism was not "an isolated
case" in the Society of St. Pius X, and he called on the pope "to
ensure that the achievements of four decades of Catholic-Jewish
dialogue are not being damaged by a small minority of people who
want to divide rather than unite."
Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee's international
director of interreligious affairs, said the Vatican's "clear
reiteration" that the Society of St. Pius X would be allowed back
into the church only if it accepted the teachings of Vatican II was
"Had all this been expressed at the outset," he added, "we could
have avoided the unnecessary damage and distress."
An internal doctrinal issue exploded into a firestorm after a
Swedish television channel broadcast an interview days before the
revocations were announced on Jan. 24, in which Bishop Williamson
said he believed that no more than 300,000 Jews died in the
Holocaust and that "there were no gas chambers."
Nowhere was outrage at the pope's decision to rehabilitate Bishop
Williamson stronger than in Germany, where Holocaust denial is a
Mrs. Merkel's remarks on Tuesday tapped into a growing well of
German discontent with the Vatican, including within the German
In a broadcast on German television on Monday, the bishop of Mainz,
Cardinal Karl Lehmann, a former chairman of the German bishops'
conference and an influential and respected figure, said that the
pope's decision to rehabilitate Bishop Williamson had been "a
disaster for all Holocaust survivors."
Cardinal Lehmann singled out Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos, the
president of the Vatican commission in charge of relations with the
Society of St. Pius X, who said last week that the commission had
not been aware of Bishop Williamson's comments before revoking the
excommunications. Cardinal Lehmann said that there "had to be
consequences for those who are responsible here."
On Wednesday, the archbishop of Berlin, Cardinal Georg Sterzinsky,
called for a review of Bishop Williamson's reinstatement. "My sense
is that a different outcome would be reached," he told the newspaper
Bild. "And if it is determined that mistakes were made, no matter on
what level, then an apology has to be issued."
In a public declaration issued last weekend, Bishop Gebhard Fuerst
of Rottenburg-Stuttgart in southern Germany said that revoking the
excommunications had led to "external and internal alienation from
the church on the part of many believers, to a betrayal of trust
especially among Jewish sisters and brothers in their relationship
to the church and to a considerable disturbance in the
That the revocation of an excommunication could erupt into such a
crisis speaks to what some see as a failure of leadership within the
Conversations with a variety of people inside and outside the
Vatican portray an intellectual pope increasingly isolated from the
Vatican administration. Many point to a lack of communication
between the handful of cardinals responsible for revoking the
excommunications and other members of the curia who might have
opposed the move.
Writing on his blog, Sandro Magister, a correspondent for the weekly
magazine L'Espresso and one of Italy's most highly respected Vatican
experts, pointed to a "double disaster" of "governance and
communication" within the church.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German who directs the Pontifical Council
for Promoting Christian Unity and who is the liaison for
Vatican-Jewish relations, has said he was not consulted before the
"There were certainly management errors on the part of the curia, I
want to be clear about that," Cardinal Kasper said in an unusually
direct interview with Vatican Radio's German service on Monday.
In the statement from the Secretariat of State on Wednesday, the
pope asked the clergy and all the faithful "to support the very
delicate and weighty mission of the successor of the Apostle Peter,
who is custodian of the unity of the church."
Judy Dempsey contributed reporting from Berlin, and Vinod Sreeharsha
from La Reja, Argentina.