Pope Demands Bishop Recant Holocaust Position

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The controversy over a bishop who doesn't believe in the Holocaust has taken another turn. On Wednesday, Pope Benedict demanded that the bishop recant his position if he is to be readmitted to the church. The Vatican said in a statement that the pope was not aware of Bishop Richard Williamson's denial of the Holocaust when the pontiff lifted excommunications on him and three other traditionalist bishops last month.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The controversy over a bishop who doesn't believe in the Holocaust has taken another turn today. Pope Benedict XVI has demanded that the bishop recant his position if he is to be readmitted to the church. With us now to talk about that is NPR's Sylvia Poggioli in Rome, who's been following this story. Good morning, Sylvia.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: So tell us about this latest development involving Bishop Richard Williamson. He's the Holocaust denier.

POGGIOLI: Yes. Just about a little bit after midday today, the Vatican issued a statement in which it said, basically, that Bishop Williamson must unequivocally and publicly recant his statement if he wants to serve as a prelate in the Roman Catholic Church. Now this comes at the end of a rather long statement in which the Vatican clarifies the reasons why Pope Benedict lifted the excommunication against Bishop Williamson and three other bishops who are members of an ultra-traditionalist group called the Society of St. Pius X. And - but it certainly comes right after a very, very strong statement from German Chancellor Angela Merkel who had called on the pope also to clarify that the Vatican does not tolerate any denial of the Holocaust. There's been international outcry, but the strongest criticism has come from Germany, where, in fact, Holocaust denial is a crime punishable by prison terms.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia, why has this controversy heated up so much and sparked what you, as you describe it - an international outcry?

POGGIOLI: Well, there are two aspects. First of all, there's been - it totally undermines, jeopardizes the Jewish-Catholic dialogue. Jewish leaders all over the world were outraged at the idea that the Catholic Church would bring back into its fold a bishop who openly denies the Holocaust. Secondly, among Catholics all over the world, there was a concern that this lifting of the excommunication brings back into the fold a very ultra-traditionalist group of Catholics who reject the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

MONTAGNE: The Vatican also had said this morning that the pope didn't know about Bishop Williamson's stance when he agreed to reinstate him. What do you make of that?

POGGIOLI: Well, we have to take that at face value. And at the very least, it shows that the top Vatican officials, who certainly should have been doing some screening efforts before this excommunication was lifted, didn't do their job very well. Bishop Williamson's infamous interview with Swedish radio had been circulating on the Internet, on YouTube for several days before the announcement was made. So, clearly, something is very wrong, at the very least, in the management of the Vatican administration. The question now remains whether the Society of St. Pius X will fully embrace the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. That is in today's statement. They have, up to now, refused that. In fact, on the Web site of the US district of the society, it states the belief that Jews are evil and that Judaism is inimical to Christian nations. The Vatican today has asked them to fully embrace the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. We'll have to see if that will happen now.

MONTAGNE: Sylvia, thanks very much.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Sylvia Poggioli, speaking to us from Rome.

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