In a highly unusual and personal letter to his bishops, Pope Benedict XVI acknowledged Vatican mishandling and failure to explain his January decision to lift the excommunication of four ultratraditionalist bishops.
The pope said in his letter that he regretted that a gesture of mercy led to what he called "a discussion more heated than any we have seen for a long time." The letter is seen as the latest effort at damage control following the pope's decision to reach out to four schismatic bishops — including Richard Williamson, who had publicly cast doubt on the Holocaust.
The decision strained Catholic-Jewish relations and also caused dismay among many Roman Catholics who saw the move to welcome ultratraditionalists back into the fold as a repudiation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.
The Vatican has maintained it was unaware of Williamson's views, even though an interview with the bishop had been circulating widely on YouTube. In it, Williamson said there were no gas chambers and that no more than 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, rather than the 6 million accepted by most historians.
In his letter, the pope described the Williamson affair as an "unforeseen mishap" and said he learned the lesson to be more attentive to the Internet as a source of information.
But most of the letter focuses on Catholic reaction to the affair. Benedict said he felt deep pain over what he called the "hostility and hate" some Catholics directed at him. And, quoting St. Paul, the pope warned that the church risks "biting and devouring itself" over internal disputes.
"At times," the pope wrote, it appears that "our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown, which one can easily attack and hate. And," Benedict continued, "should someone dare to approach them — in this case the pope — he too loses any right to tolerance; he too can be treated hatefully, without misgiving or restraint."
At a briefing today, a Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, was clearly ill at ease when reporters asked questions about the pope's tone.
"To tell the pope that he is trying to push back the clock and cancel the Second Vatican Council is not exactly a sugarcoated remark," Lombardi said. "But, no, I don't think he sounds offended or wants to stifle debate within the church. He wants the terms of the debate to be clear and respectful."
But many Vatican watchers were not convinced. Marco Politi, author of several books about the Vatican and the Catholic Church, said, "The harsh tone against Catholics is a sign of weakness. If he speaks about hostility after bishops of some countries criticized the Vatican, this means the Williamson issue and the excommunication issue [have] opened the first real crisis of consensus within the Catholic Church after the election of Benedict XVI."
In his letter to the bishops, Benedict thanked "all the more our Jewish friends who quickly helped clear up the misunderstanding and restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust."
The letter was released on the same day the Vatican resumed its dialogue with Israel's religious leaders, who later expressed great satisfaction with their audience with the pope and said the crisis is over.