Pope Benedict XVI has revoked the excommunications of four conservative bishops — hoping to heal a bitter internal wound in the Catholic Church. But the move threatens to open a new rift between Catholics and Jews. One of the bishops, Richard Williamson of Great Britain, is a Holocaust denier.
"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," Williamson said in an interview that aired on Swedish television Wednesday — the day the Vatican made its decree to rehabilitate him.
John Allen, a senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter, says, at least in the short term, the decision is a "catastrophe in terms of Catholic-Jewish relations."
"At the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church made clear its respect for Judaism," he says. "In the years since, John Paul II was, in many ways, a historic pioneer of Catholic-Jewish relations. Benedict XVI has continued that work. ... But at the same time, you know, I think the Vatican, like any global institution, has to be sensitive, not merely to internal reality, but also to external perception. In terms of those external perceptions, this decision is a disaster for Catholic-Jewish relations."
Allen says the spin coming from the Vatican is that the decision to revoke the excommunications does not signal anything broader about the church's direction.
"This has been presented as an act of peace on the part of Benedict XVI to heal this internal wound," Allen tells NPR's Jacki Lyden.
The four bishops' split with the church arose from a conflict that began with the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, which, Allen says, "had the effect of sort of dragging the Catholic Church kicking and screaming into the modern age."
"In reaction to that, a number of camps grew up in the church that had different opinions about the way things were going, but only one of them went into formal schism — that is, you had a group of bishops, priests and rank-and-file Catholics who sort of lock, stock and barrel cut their ties with Rome and set up, in effect, a parallel church," Allen says.
These traditionalists grouped around French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and came to be known as the Lefebvrites. Williamson and the other three bishops were the four men that Lefebvre ordained to carry on his work, Allen says.
"The Vatican fears schism like almost nothing else," Allen explains, "because you have legitimate bishops who are able to ordain other legitimate bishops and, in effect, kind of reproduce the schism. Over the centuries, popes have moved heaven and earth ... to heal these wounds in the body of the church."
Even though the pope's decision has been portrayed as bringing peace to the church, "a lot of even moderate and even some conservative Catholics would look at this as symbolic of a kind of course change in Catholicism."
The traditionalist Lefebvrites reject celebrating Mass in languages other than Latin, Allen says, and they oppose moves the church has made to recognize religious freedom and the separation of church and state, as well as to promote unity with other religions.
Allen says many would see the move as an overly permissive outreach to a group of traditionalists who have deep objections to a lot of what the Catholic Church has come to stand for in the last 50 years.