Pope's Stance On Bishops Draws Critics

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Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful during a Vesper prayer in Rome. i

Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful during a vesper prayer at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, in Rome, Jan. 25. Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images
Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful during a Vesper prayer in Rome.

Pope Benedict XVI blesses the faithful during a vesper prayer at the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, in Rome, Jan. 25.

Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images

Pope Benedict XVI's decision to rehabilitate four excommunicated bishops — including a Holocaust denier — has caused dismay among Jewish leaders. But the move also has shocked many Roman Catholics, who fear it may point to a repudiation of the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.

Just days before the pope revoked the excommunication of the four bishops, one of them, Richard Williamson, again denied the Holocaust.

"The historical evidence is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler," he said in an interview that aired on Swedish television.

When his interview began circulating on the Internet, the Vatican was quick to try to dampen the controversy.

The Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, said Williamson's views are in no way linked to the pope's decision. Lifting his excommunication, Lombardi added, does not imply sharing his ideas.

And the official daily L'Osservatore Romano stressed that the pope deplores all forms of anti-Semitism.

But for many Jewish leaders, efforts to distance the Vatican from Williamson's revisionist views sounded hollow.

Rabbi David Rosen, the director of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, said that without Williamson's full recantation and apology, the Catholic-Jewish dialogue is in jeopardy.

"It raises a question mark on the Catholic Church's own commitment to combat anti-Semitism, which Pope John Paul II described as a sin against God and man. If an individual is a Holocaust denier, which is a blatant anti-Semitic position, then how do you accept an individual as a bishop if he is in complete conflict with your official teachings?" Rosen says.

Pope John Paul II excommunicated the four bishops in 1988. They are members of the Society of St. Pius X, which was founded in opposition to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, such as opening the dialogue with Jews and recognizing religious freedom.

Pope Benedict has always made clear he wanted to end the schism. But his decision is causing great anxiety inside the Catholic Church.

Alberto Melloni, director of the Pope John XXIII Foundation, is dumbfounded by the current pope's decision.

"It undermines the Catholic Church's credibility. It legitimizes a faction whose tenets include anti-Semitism. These ultraconservatives still uphold the idea that the Jews killed Jesus, an infamy rejected by the Second Vatican Council. Their rehabilitation makes it optional to adhere to Vatican II reforms," Melloni says.

In Germany, the head of the National Bishops' Conference, Matthias Kopp, said Williamson's statements are unacceptable because they are in total contradiction to the teachings of the Catholic Church.

One of the most critical voices is that of Swiss theologian Hans Kung.

Kung was disciplined during the papacy of John Paul II.

Kung says Pope Benedict is gradually sapping the essential substance out of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

"He has an idea of the liturgy which is more similar to the liturgy of the Middle Ages, of the anti-Reformation time. He tries to interpret the council not forward, for having a popular liturgy, with new elements. He uses Vatican II just as a text to go backwards," Kung says.

This is not what Kung had expected when, a few months after Benedict became pope, he invited his old colleague to the papal summer residence. Their talks lasted four hours.

But Kung says his hopes for change at the Vatican were dashed. This is a pope, Kung says, who has lost touch with his flock.

"It's just a Potemkin church, with a nice facade. But behind, there is a great deal of complaint that this pope has done nothing to help them in the parishes. We have less and less priests, every year we lose hundreds of priests, and I think the celibate clergy is just dying," he says.

Pope Benedict's rigid stance on what Catholics call "life issues" — from abortion to embryonic stem-cell research to euthanasia — already has earned him the title "Father No."

And many faithful believe the church of Benedict cares more about Christian unity with conservatives than seeking dialogue with progressive Catholics and other religions.

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