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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Michele Norris.
The pope has acknowledged mistakes in his decision to welcome a Holocaust denier back into the Catholic Church. In an unusual letter to bishops, Benedict XVI said the Vatican had failed to explain why he lifted the excommunication of four ultra-traditionalist bishops in January.
NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports from Rome.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: The pope said in his letter that he regretted that a gesture of mercy led to what he called a discussion more heated than any we have seen for a long time. The letter is seen as the latest effort at damage control following the pope's decision to reach out to four schismatic bishops — including Richard Williamson, who had publicly cast doubt on the Holocaust.
The decision strained Catholic-Jewish relations, and also caused dismay among many Catholics who saw the move to welcome ultra-traditionalists back into the fold as a repudiation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.
The Vatican has maintained it was unaware of Williamson's views, even though an interview with the bishop had been circulating widely on the Internet.
Bishop RICHARD WILLIAMSON: I believe there were no gas chambers. Yes.
POGGIOLI: In his letter, the pope described the Williamson affair as an unforeseen mishap, and said he learned the lesson to be more attentive to the Internet as a source of information.
But most of the letter focuses on Catholic reaction to the affair. Benedict said he felt deep pain over what he called the hostility and hate some Catholics directed at him. And quoting St. Paul, the pope warned that the church risks biting and devouring itself over internal disputes.
At times, the pope wrote, it appears that our society needs to have at least one group to which no tolerance may be shown, which one can easily attack and hate. And, Benedict continued, should someone dare to approach them — in this case the pope — he, too, loses any right to tolerance; he, too, can be treated hatefully without misgiving or restraint.
At a briefing today, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi was clearly ill at ease when reporters asked questions about the pope's tone.
Father FEDERICO LOMBARDI (Vatican Spokesman): (Through translator) To tell the pope that he is trying to push back the clock and cancel the Second Vatican Council is not exactly a sugarcoated remark. But no, I don't think he sounds offended or wants to stifle debate within the church. He wants the terms of the debate to be clear and respectful.
POGGIOLI: But many Vatican watchers were not convinced.
Mr. MARCO POLITI (Author): The harsh tone against Catholics is a sign of weakness.
POGGIOLI: Marco Politi has written several books about the Vatican and the Catholic Church.
Mr. POLITI: If he speaks about hostility after the bishops of some countries criticized the Vatican, this means the Williamson issue and the excommunication issue has opened the first real crisis of consensus within the Catholic Church after the election of Benedict XVI.
POGGIOLI: In his letter to the bishops, Benedict thanked all the more our Jewish friends, who quickly helped clear up the misunderstanding and to restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust.
The letter was released on the same day the Vatican resumed its dialogue with Israel's religious leaders, who later expressed great satisfaction with their audience with the pope, and said the crisis is over.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.
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