LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And now we'll hear about a controversy in the Catholic Church. Pope Benedict XVI's decision to rehabilitate four excommunicated bishops - including a Holocaust denier - is causing dismay among Jewish leaders. And the move has also troubled many Catholics. They fear it may point to a repudiation of the changes brought about by the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Just days before the pope revoked the excommunication of the four bishops, one of them, Richard Williamson, again denied the Holocaust.
Bishop RICHARD WILLIAMSON (Catholic Bishop): The historical evidence is hugely against six million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler.
POGGIOLI: When his interview began circulating on the Internet, the Vatican was quick to try to dampen the controversy.
Father FEDERICO LOMBARDI (Vatican Spokesman): (Italian spoken)
POGGIOLI: Spokesman Father Federico Lombardi says 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.
Rabbi DAVID ROSEN (Director, International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations): It raises a question mark indeed on the Catholic Church's own commitment to combat anti-Semitism, which John Paul II described as a sin against God and man. I mean, 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 it's in complete conflict with your official teaching?
POGGIOLI: The four bishops were excommunicated in 1988 by Pope John Paul II. 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 the dialogue with Jews and religious freedom. Pope Benedict has always made clear he wanted to end this schism. But his decision is causing great anxiety inside the Catholic Church. Alberto Melloni, director of the Pope John XXIII Foundation, is dumbfounded by Benedict's decision.
Professor ALBERTO MELLONI (Director, Pope John XXIII Foundation): (Through Translator) 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.
POGGIOLI: In Germany, the head of the National Bishops' Conference, Matthias Kopp, said Williamson's statements are unacceptable because they are in total contradiction with 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 claims Pope Benedict is gradually sapping the essential substance out of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Reverend Father HANS KUNG (Catholic Priest; Swiss Theologian; Author): He has an idea of the liturgy, for instance, which is much 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.
POGGIOLI: This is not what Kung had expected when a few months after he became pope, Benedict invited him 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.
Reverend Father KUNG: It's just Potemkin church, with a nice facade. But behind, there is a great deal of complaints 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.
POGGIOLI: Pope Benedict's rigid stance on what Catholics call life issues - from abortion to embryonic stem cell research to euthanasia - has already 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. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
WERTHEIMER: In developments this morning, Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel joined the fray. The death camp survivor told Reuters that rehabilitating the bishop gives credence to, quote, the most vulgar aspect of anti-Semitism. And the pope also issued a statement affirming his, quote, "full and unquestionable solidarity with Jews."
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.