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Vatican Orders Bishop to Recant Holocaust Denial

February 5, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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After encountering international criticism, the Vatican has demanded that a bishop whose excommunication was lifted last month by Pope Benedict XVI recant his denial of the Holocaust. A National Catholic reporter gives an update.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the Vatican’s demand that a bishop recant his statements about the Holocaust. The action yesterday followed Pope Benedict’s reinstatement last month of the ex-communicated Bishop Richard Williamson. The pope’s decision triggered much criticism among Catholics, as well as Jewish groups and others.

Williamson has repeatedly denied the existence of Nazi gas chambers. And here is what he said to a Swedish television interviewer two weeks ago.

BISHOP RICHARD WILLIAMSON: I believe that the historical evidence, the historical evidence is strongly against — is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler.

JOURNALIST: But you say not one Jew was killed?


JOURNALIST: So there was no gas chambers?

BISHOP RICHARD WILLIAMSON: I believe there were no gas chambers.

Bishop has no official church role

JIM LEHRER: We get more on the story now from John Allen, a senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter. He's in Denver this evening.

John Allen, good to see you again.

JOHN ALLEN, National Catholic Reporter: Hi, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what we just heard on that tape is what the Vatican said today Bishop Williamson must recant. Is that correct?

JOHN ALLEN: Yes, that's right. The Vatican put out a statement today indicating that Bishop Williamson, although his excommunication has been lifted, has no official role at all in the Catholic Church and that, if he wants one, he's going to have to recant those views in what it called a public and unequivocal fashion.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what does that actually mean? What would constitute a recant under this edict?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, the edict doesn't spell that out, but I think clearly what they have in mind is that he would make some kind of public statement -- that is a lecture, an article, perhaps posting on his blog -- he does operate a blog -- in which he disavowed what he had earlier said, that is, the expectation would be that he would clearly acknowledge the reality of the Holocaust and pledge his support for the church's efforts to fight anti-Semitism.

JIM LEHRER: He would essentially have to say, "What I just said two weeks ago is not true. Something has happened to cause me to now believe it didn't happen"?

JOHN ALLEN: Jim, I think that's about it, yes.

Bishop apologizes for global uproar

JIM LEHRER: All right. Have we heard anything from the bishop since the Vatican issued its statement?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, not since the statement yesterday. Now, a few days ago, Bishop Williamson posted a comment on his blog -- and this will tell you something about a 21st-century world, that even an ultra-traditionalist bishop operates his own blog -- in which he said that he apologized to the Pope, but apologized for the uproar that he had caused as opposed to the substance of his comments.

Clearly, the Vatican statement today indicates that's not going to cut it. They're looking for him to recant the substance of what he said.

JIM LEHRER: But as we sit here tonight, we've heard nothing back from Bishop Williamson about whether or not he intends to recant, right?

JOHN ALLEN: No, that's right. Now, complicating the situation is that, several days ago, the superior of the traditionalist society to which Bishop Williamson belongs, the Society of Saint Pius X, actually put a gag order on him, barring him from further comment on these subjects. So, you know, procedurally, even if Bishop Williamson wanted to apologize, he would actually have to get permission to do so, at least publicly.

But indications from the traditionalist Catholic world are that, while he is genuinely sorry for the kind of furor that he's elicited, that, at least at this point, there aren't any indications that he intends to backtrack on the content of what he said.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Let's say, if he doesn't do that, what happens?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I mean, basically he remains in a sort of church version of a deep freeze. I mean, the reality is that, when this excommunication was lifted, that wasn't the end game, in terms of reconciling him with the church. It was merely the beginning.

I mean, even though he is no longer considered out of communion with the church, he still has no authority to act as a bishop. That is, he can't -- with the pope's permission, at least, he can't celebrate the sacraments, he can't ordain priests, and so on.

And until and unless he recants, he is going to remain in this kind of limbo, where he, you know, neither fish nor foul, that is, no longer excommunicated, but certainly not a bishop in good standing.

A public relations disaster

JIM LEHRER: When we talked about this here on the NewsHour with you a couple of weeks ago, the big question was, "how in the world did the pope or somebody at the Vatican not know about these views that were so held by -- firmly held by Bishop Williamson?" Anything new on that since we last talked?

JOHN ALLEN: Nothing new, except that this question is now being asked not just by journalists or external observers, but by very senior churchmen. And we have seen cardinals in the United States, in Austria, in Germany, even within the Vatican itself raise this very question: "How could the Vatican not have anticipated this response and prepared for it?"

In other words, why wasn't this statement that came out just yesterday, why wasn't it issued from the beginning so that at least the more extreme forms of this crisis could have been averted? So that question is clearly being asked at the most senior levels of the church. What answer the pope and the Vatican intend to give to it, however, is not yet clear.

JIM LEHRER: You've covered these kinds of stories for many years now. If the statement of today had been, as you suggested, had been part of the original decision to reinstate Bishop Williamson, would we have had this storm? What do you think?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, Jim, I think there still would have been protest. I mean, there would have been protest inside the church from Catholics who don't think that bringing the traditionalists who reject some of the more modern teachings of the church, that bringing them in from the cold is a good idea.

There probably still would have been some protest in the Jewish world, because this traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X has something of a troubled history with regard to anti-Semitism.

But, you know, the big-ticket question that I think the wider world asked when they heard the news that the pope had lifted the excommunication of this Holocaust-denier bishop was, does this represent a course change from the pope and the Vatican in terms of its commitment to fighting anti-Semitism and to good relations with Jews?

Obviously, had today's statement come out at the beginning, that question wouldn't have needed to be asked because it would already have been answered. And that seems one of the sort of simple no-brainer, if you like, public relations gestures that any global institution should by now have mastered. And that's why people are asking the question as to why the Vatican didn't see this train wreck coming.

Vatican attempts an 'act of peace'

JIM LEHRER: And, finally, just to refresh our memories here, what was said two weeks ago as to why the reinstatement was ordered?

JOHN ALLEN: When this happened on Jan. 21, it was in the form of a decree from an agency within the Vatican. And it was presented as -- the sound bite was, "An Act of Peace," that is, an effort on the part of Pope Benedict XVI to promote unity by healing the only formal schism -- that is, a rupture -- inside the Catholic Church in the last 100 years.

And so far as it goes, I mean, that's absolutely right. That, in fact, was the pope's motive for taking this step. But, obviously, given Bishop Williamson's track record, in retrospect, I think most people -- including officials in the Vatican itself -- would say you can't simply leave it at that. You have to go on to say that this clearly is not an endorsement of all the views of Bishop Williamson, including, obviously, his views on the Holocaust.

JIM LEHRER: All right. John Allen, thank you very much. Good to see you again.

JOHN ALLEN: You're welcome.