By Rachel Donadio
January 25, 2009
VATICAN CITY: Pope Benedict XVI, acceding to the far right of the Catholic Church, has revoked the excommunications of four schismatic bishops, including one whose comments denying the Holocaust have provoked outrage.
The decision announced Saturday provided fresh fuel for critics who charge that Benedict’s 4-year-old papacy has proven increasingly hostile to moderates and to the sweeping reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that sought to create a more modern and open church.
A theologian resigned to the church’s diminished status in a secular world, Benedict has favored a smaller church of more ardent believers over a larger one with looser faith. But his focus on doctrinal debates has come at a cost. As in 2006, when Benedict offended Muslims by citing a medieval scholar who called Islam “evil and inhuman,” the revocation may help heal an internal rift, but it opens a broader wound.
A particularly contentious part of the reinstatement on Saturday was the inclusion of Richard Williamson, a British-born cleric who in an interview last week said he did not believe that six million Jews died in the Nazi gas chambers.
He has also given interviews saying that the U.S. government staged the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a pretext to invade Afghanistan.
The four reinstated men are members of the Society of St. Pius X, which was founded by a French archbishop, Marcel Lefebvre, in 1970 as a protest against the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Lefebvre made the four bishops in unsanctioned consecrations in Switzerland in 1988, prompting the immediate excommunication of all five by Pope John Paul II.
Later that year, Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, sought to regularize the church’s relationship with the society. Lefebvre died in 1991.
In a statement Saturday, the Vatican said that the pope would “reconsider” whether to formally affirm the four as full bishops, but referred to the men by that title.
In recent years, Benedict has made other concessions to the Lefebvrists, including allowing the broader recitation of the Latin Mass, which was made optional in the 1960s Vatican reforms and includes a Good Friday prayer calling for the conversion of Jews.
Chester Gillis, the Amaturo chair in Catholic studies at Georgetown University, said that both Benedict and John Paul II before him had tried for years to bring these traditionalists back into the church, out of concern that their movement might grow and create an entrenched parallel church.
“I don’t think the Vatican doesn’t care about Jewish-Christian relations, but at least it appears that internal church matters trump external relations,” he said. “They’re thinking, let’s heal our own house whatever the consequences are externally.”
The recent comments by Williamson, who led a traditionalist seminary in Ridgefield, Connecticut, at the time he was made bishop and later moved to a seminary in Argentina, inevitably overshadowed the debate about traditional and liberal strains in the Roman Catholic Church.
In a November interview broadcast on Swedish television last week and widely available on the Internet, Williamson said he believed that “the historical evidence” was hugely against the conclusion that millions of Jews had been “deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler.”
The Vatican spokesman, the Reverend Federico Lombardi, said Saturday that Williamson’s comments had “nothing to do with” the pope’s decision to welcome the schismatic bishops back into the fold. He added, “These are declarations that we don’t share in any way.”
Lombardi called the revocation of the excommunications a fundamental step toward the unity of the church, after two decades of rift. “We have to consider it very positive news,” he added.
Jewish groups criticized the decision to reinstate the men.
In a statement released Saturday, the Anti-Defamation League said that lifting Williamson’s excommunication “undermines the strong relationship between Catholics and Jews that flourished under Pope John Paul II and which Pope Benedict XVI said he would continue when he came into his papacy.”