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Pope Draws Criticism for Pardoning Bishop

January 28, 2009 at 6:45 PM EST
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Pope Benedict XVI's decision to reinstate Bishop Richard Williamson, who has made comments denying the full extent of the Holocaust and the existence of gas chambers during World War II, has drawn sharp criticism. A reporter discusses the controversy.
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JIM LEHRER: Finally, the pope and the Holocaust story. And to Ray Suarez.

RAY SUAREZ: A decision this past Saturday by Pope Benedict XVI to reinstate four bishops has sparked controversy in the Catholic Church and beyond.

All four are members of a conservative catholic sect and were excommunicated by Pope John Paul II. One of the clergymen, Bishop Richard Williamson, is also a Holocaust denier. Last week, he spoke to Swedish television.

BISHOP RICHARD WILLIAMSON: I believe that the historical evidence is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler. I believe there were no gas chambers.

RAY SUAREZ: Despite those comments, Pope Benedict decreed that Williamson and his three fellow members of the splinter sect would be “rehabilitated,” the formal term for rescinding excommunication.

The timing heightens the controversy: Yesterday was the 64th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz. Today, Pope Benedict highlighted his efforts at inter-faith dialogue.

POPE BENEDICT XVI, Vatican City (through translator): I remember the images collected in my repeated visits to Auschwitz, one of the largest camps in which were committed the massacres and cruelties towards millions of Jews, victims of blind racial and religious hatred. As I renew with affection the expression of my full and indisputable solidarity towards our brothers.

RAY SUAREZ: But his actions are getting more attention than his words. Today, the top religious authority in Israel, the rabbinate, severed ties with the Vatican and canceled an upcoming visit to Rome. The decision of that body doesn’t affect relations between the state of Israel and the Vatican.

Unifying the Church

RAY SUAREZ: To help us understand more about what happened, we turn to John Allen. He's a senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter and joins us tonight from Denver.

John, why were these bishops separated from the church in the first place?

JOHN ALLEN, National Catholic Reporter: Well, Ray, as your setup indicated, these four bishops were followers of the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who was the leader of the conservative opposition at the Second Vatican Council, a gathering of bishops from all over the world in the mid-1960s that launched a program of modernization in the Catholic Church to which Lefebvre and his followers objected.

In 1988, Lefebvre, sensing that he was nearing the end of his life, decided to ordain these four men as bishops to carry on his work. He did that in defiance of the late Pope John Paul II. That act triggered an excommunication both of Lefebvre and these four bishops.

Now, Lefebvre himself died in 1991, but obviously these four bishops are still around, and they are the ones whose excommunication has now been lifted.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, what did Pope Benedict say he was trying to accomplish by bringing them back into union with the church?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think the first thing to say is that clearly the motive here, at least in the pope's mind, was not to promote Holocaust denial and not to promote anti-Semitism. The Vatican has actually said it was unaware of Bishop Williamson's track record on those issues.

Instead, in the pope's mind, the motive was to restore unity in the church by ending the only formal schism that followed the Second Vatican Council. And it's important to note that schism is different than just dissent or disagreement.

 Schism is a situation in which you have bishops and priests, along with ordinary rank-and-file believers, who have cut ties with Rome and, in effect, set up their own parallel church. And over the centuries, the Vatican has feared schism like almost nothing else, because it's a principle of Catholic theology that any legitimately ordained bishop can ordain other bishops, which gives the schism the opportunity to replicate itself and, in effect, to sort of metastasize.

And so the pope's intent here was to bring an end to that schism. Obviously, the irony is that this effort to promote unity has, in fact, in many other ways created new divisions.

Bishop's Holocaust comments

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Israel's chief rabbinate has cut its ties to the Vatican. Jewish leaders around the world have denounced the move. Does this reaction come as a surprise to the pope and to senior Vatican officials?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, at least publicly they are saying that it does. The Vatican has said that it did not know about Bishop Williamson's comments on the Holocaust, although some observers have found that a bit disingenuous, given that his recent comments to Swedish television were hardly the first time that he's addressed the subject.

In the late 1980s, actually, he was almost prosecuted in Canada for a speech he gave there in which he praised the work of a Holocaust denier. He put out a public letter in 1991 in which he repeated these views, and so on.

So while the Vatican says that it has been caught off-guard, I think a number of observers would make the argument that it should have anticipated this reaction and should have taken steps to, in effect, to do what the pope did today, which is to assure the global Jewish community that the Catholic Church's commitment to remembrance of the Holocaust and to fighting anti-Semitism has not been diminished by this act.

Pope to visit Israel

RAY SUAREZ: The pope was very strong in reasserting his own belief that the Holocaust did, in fact, happen, reminding people of his own visits to death camps. Are the Pope's words going to be enough to satisfy those Jewish leaders who've had contacts with the Roman Catholic Church over the years?

JOHN ALLEN: Well, I think eventually dialogue will get back on track. I think both sides have a very strong commitment to wanting to keep lines of communication open.

And we have seen Jewish leaders today who have voiced gratitude that Benedict did confirm the Catholic Church's commitment to remembrance of the Holocaust today.

But on the other hand, you know, this certainly is a serious crisis in Jewish-Catholic relations. And I think it will probably leave behind a residue of ambivalence and doubt about where exactly the pope comes down that will not be easy to erase.

Probably the next major test of what the future of the relationship will be will come in May when Benedict XVI is scheduled to visit Israel. I think, in some ways, this will be analogous to the trip he took in late November and early December 2006, which -- to Turkey, which came three months after he had given a very controversial lecture in which he quoted a 14th-century Byzantine emperor to the effect that Muhammad, the founder of Islam, had brought things only evil and inhuman. That set off a firestorm of protest in the Islamic world.

Benedict's trip to Turkey gave him an opportunity to exercise some damage control. And by all accounts, he did that quite artfully.

Clearly, assuming it goes ahead, his trip to Israel this May will be another chapter in his attempt to heal what is right now a very badly fractured relationship with another religious community, in this case, Judaism.

RAY SUAREZ: John Allen from the National Catholic Reporter, thanks for joining us.

JOHN ALLEN: You're welcome, Ray.