JACKI LYDEN, host:
From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Jacki Lyden. Pope Benedict XVI revoked the excommunications of four conservative bishops Wednesday, hoping to heal a bitter, internal wound in the church. But the move threatens to open a new rift between Catholics and Jews. The British bishop, Richard Williamson, is a Holocaust denier.
Bishop RICHARD WILLIAMSON: 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.
LYDEN: That's Richard Williamson in an interview that aired Wednesday on Swedish television, the day the Vatican made its decree to rehabilitate him. For more on the controversy, we've called John Allen. He's a senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter, and he joins me now. Welcome, John Allen.
Mr. JOHN ALLEN (Senior Correspondent, The National Catholic Reporter): Hello, Jacki.
LYDEN: Could you tell us a bit more, please, about these bishops and why they were excommunicated to begin with, in 1988?
Mr. ALLEN: Well, this goes back to the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s, which had the effect of sort of dragging the Catholic Church, kicking and screaming into the modern age. And 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. And these were the traditionalists who grouped around a French archbishop by the name of Marcel Lefebvre, and they came to be known as the Lefebvrites.
And Bishop Williamson and the other three bishops were the four men that Archbishop Lefebvre ordained as bishops to carry on his work. And this is, it has to be said, something of a nightmare scenario for the Vatican. The Vatican fears schism like almost nothing else 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, literally, to heal these wounds in the body of the church. And I think Benedict XVI's decision to lift the excommunication of these four would be a case in point.
LYDEN: Does the reinstatement signal that the church itself may be moving away from Vatican II, which was when the Vatican absolved Jews from the guilt of killing Jesus?
Mr. ALLEN: The spin coming from the Vatican in these days clearly is that this decision does not betoken anything broader about the direction of the church. This has been presented as an act of peace on the part of Benedict XVI to heal this internal wound. But I think a lot of even moderate and even some conservative Catholics would look at this as symbolic of a kind of course change in Catholicism.
And what many would see is an overly kind of permissive outreach to a group of traditionalists who not only reject the celebration of the Mass in the vernacular languages as opposed to the older Latin, but who have much deeper objections to a lot of what the Catholic Church in the last 50 years has come to stand for - one of those things being the effort to promote unity with other Christian churches and other religions, the other being the recognition of religious freedom and a separation between church and state. These Lefebvrites, or traditionalists, tend to, on principal, reject all of that.
LYDEN: Well, reaction to this from various Jewish groups has been pretty forceful. In the United States, the Anti-Defamation League said it was obscene. And so it would seem that it could have disastrous implications for relations between the two groups.
Mr. ALLEN: Clearly, this move, at least in the short term, is a catastrophe in terms of Catholic-Jewish relations. Now, you know, let's be clear - I mean, at the Second Vatican Council, the Catholic Church made clear its respect for Judaism. In the years since, John Paul II was in many ways a historic pioneer of Catholic-Jewish relations. Benedict XVI has continued that work. When he was in the United States last April, he went to the Park East Synagogue in New York.
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. And in terms of those external perceptions, this decision is a disaster for Catholic-Jewish relations.
LYDEN: John Allen is a senior correspondent with The National Catholic Reporter, and he joined us from Denver. Thanks very much.
Mr. ALLEN: A great pleasure.