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Jewish leaders met today with a top Vatican official to try to ease Jewish-Catholic tensions over a bishop who denies the Holocaust. The issue flared up when the bishop was one of four men Pope Benedict welcomed back into the church. There has been a global outcry from Jews and, now, unprecedented criticism of the Pope from Catholics.

NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The Vatican has said the pope was unaware that Bishop Richard Williamson is a Holocaust denier. Its YouTube channel has several clips of the pope condemning Holocaust denial, and upholding good relations with Judaism. And on Thursday, Benedict will meet the presidents of major American Jewish organizations.

Mr. MALCOLM HOENLEIN (Executive Vice Chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations): We are hoping to hear more from his holiness during the meeting, and I expect that we will.

POGGIOLI: Malcolm Hoenlein of the Jewish umbrella group says the Vatican must be very clear about the Holocaust and those who deny it.

Mr. HOENLEIN: The message to the church is that you can't ignore it, you can't sweep them under the rug or put them in a corner and isolate them. You really have to eradicate these views that - it is like a cancer, that once you give it any kind of legitimacy, then it can spread.

POGGIOLI: At the center of the storm is the Society of St. Pius X, the SSPX. It opposes the Second Vatican Council's reforms, including the one rejecting the centuries-old accusation that Jews were responsible for Christ's death.

(Soundbite of Latin Mass)

Don CURZIO NITOGLIA (Priest): (Foreign language chanted)

POGGIOLI: At the society's small chapel in Rome, a priest has his back to the faithful as he celebrates the traditional Latin Mass. In his sermon, Don Curzio makes no mention of the Vatican's demand that the group embrace the teachings of Vatican II.

(Soundbite of Latin Mass)

Don NITOGLIA: (Foreign language spoken)

POGGIOLI: (Foreign language spoken) he says - it's time to be silent. We're in the midst of a tempest. We must remain faithful to our credo, and we'll be rewarded with paradise. The SSPX has begun to clean up its act. It fired Holocaust denier Bishop Williamson from his seminary. It removed a virulently anti-Semitic tract from its Web site, and banished an Italian Holocaust-denying priest. But Notre Dame theology professor Father Richard McBrien doubts the society will suddenly embrace ideas it has always rejected.

Father RICHARD MCBRIEN (Notre Dame Theology Professor): There are more Holocaust deniers in the movement than those two, and there's more anti-Semitism than those two. So, I think it's only skin-deep, this effort to sanitize their image.

POGGIOLI: The question for many Catholics is why Pope Benedict reached out to such an ultra-conservative movement. There's turmoil at the grassroots level. Vatican Radio and other Catholic outlets are inundated with e-mails from angry members of the flock, defending the Second Vatican Council reforms. Nowhere is the outrage more intense than in the pope's native Germany and in Austria, where Holocaust denial is a crime punishable with jail. The magazine Der Spiegel reports a wave of Germans literally taking their names off Catholic Church rolls.

And even Christoph Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna, who helped Joseph Ratzinger become Pope Benedict, said there's no place in the church for Holocaust deniers. Father Hans Maier, a theologian and former president of the German Catholic Association, was scathing in his comments in an interview with Vatican Radio.

Father HANS MAIER (Former German Catholic Association President): (Through Translator) It's unforgivable bishops were not consulted. The Vatican needs a system of checks and balances, just like any government.

POGGIOLI: Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University says there's a fatal systemic flaw in the decision-making process in the Vatican.

Father THOMAS REESE (Georgetown University): You need people with different ideas, not just loyalists, not just people who are yes men, but people who will actually argue and give different perspectives on a problem when it arises.

POGGIOLI: Conservative columnist George Weigel says the Vatican can no longer act as if this were still the world of the 1815 Congress of Vienna.

Mr. GEORGE WEIGEL (Conservative Columnist): This is a 24/7 news environment. It's 24/7 information environment. And an institution which proclaims that the truth will make you free had better be in touch with the truth, no matter how unpleasant that truth may be.

Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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