VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict decided to rehabilitate a bishop who denies the Holocaust with little consultation inside the Vatican, where some prelates fear his action will have a lasting impact on relations with Jews.
The move outraged Jews and progressive Catholics, and Church sources said it reflected Benedict’s autocratic style in running the 1.1 billion-member Church, unlike his predecessor John Paul II who consulted widely.
“The pope obviously did not tell the people he knew would likely oppose it,” said one Church source.
British-born Richard Williamson, one of four traditionalist bishops whose excommunications were lifted on Saturday, has made statements denying the full extent of the Holocaust of European Jews as accepted by mainstream historians.
Williamson told Swedish television: “I believe there were no gas chambers” and no more than 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, instead of 6 million.
“...only a handful of people knew this was coming,” the source said, talking on condition of anonymity.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the German in charge of the Vatican department that deals with Christian unity and Jewish relations, was one of the many who were not consulted in advance.
Williamson had made similar remarks in sermons in the past and has also said God did not intend women to wear trousers or attend universities and that the September 11 attacks were actually a U.S. government conspiracy.
Off-the-record chats with a number of Church sources showed that hardly anyone in the Vatican knew that Williamson had denied the reality of the Holocaust.
“Everyone I know found out about it from the media,” said one source. “They did not do all their homework on this one.”
It was clear that Vatican spokesmen were not ready for the storm of criticism that followed Williamson’s reinstatement. Some Jews said it could wipe out half a century of dialogue.
“The Vatican’s damage control machine has gone into high gear,” said one source. “It recalls the post-Regensburg period,” he added, referring the controversial 2006 papal speech which Muslims saw as an insult to their religion.
Catholic opinion makers tried to explain the distinction between the lifting of the excommunication — an internal Church matter — and Williamson’s views, but were clearly worried.
“Every denial of the Holocaust must be punished harshly,” said Munich Archbishop Reinhard Marx. Swiss bishops apologized to Swiss Jews and Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn said Williamson’s words were “shameful and frightening.”
The Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano said Williamson’s comments were “grave, upsetting (and) unacceptable.” The paper also repeated the Church’s teachings against anti-Semitism.
Jewish leaders said the editorial was not enough.
“In rejecting Williamson’s views, the Vatican has taken a necessary but insufficient step to heal the wound it caused to the Catholic-Jewish dialogue. The breach has not been repaired,” said Elan Steinberg, vice-president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
Additional reporting by Tom Heneghan in Paris; editing by Tim Pearce