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Pope, in new setback, retreats over bishop

VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Benedict suffered another embarrassing setback on Monday when he was forced to cancel the promotion of a conservative Austrian priest whose appointment had polarised the Catholic Church.

Pope Benedict XVI waves as he leads his Angelus prayer from the window of his private apartments at the Vatican March 1, 2009. REUTERS/Max Rossi

The Vatican said the pope had waived Father Gerhard Maria Wagner from his obligation under church law to accept the promotion to bishop, effectively revoking the appointment that had caused an uproar in Austria and beyond last month.

It is virtually unheard of in the church for the pope to be forced to retract an appointment of a bishop. The affair again put a spotlight on the Vatican’s vetting process and what critics say is insufficient consultation in the church.

The pope’s embarrassment over the nomination of Wagner as auxiliary (assistant) bishop of Linz came in the midst of an ongoing crisis concerning his style of governance, which critics say is too isolated.

In January he caused a furore by lifting the excommunication of four traditionalist bishops, including Holocaust denier Richard Williamson. A number of Vatican officials complained that they had not been consulted.

Critics have attacked Wagner for numerous statements he made in the past, including one in which he said Hurricane Katrina in 2005 was God’s way punishing the city of New Orleans for its sins.

He also condemned the Harry Potter books as satanic, said homosexuality was curable, refused to allow women ministers in his church and ruled out lay participation in church affairs.

Soon after Wagner was appointed, 31 of the 39 deans (senior priests) in the Linz diocese passed a declaration of no confidence in Wagner, a rare event in the tightly governed Catholic Church and effectively an open revolt against the pope.

Austrian church leaders said the decision to appoint him bishop was taken without consultation.

Wagner last month had himself asked the pope to revoke the promotion because of what he called “merciless resistance” against him, and for the good of the church.

Faced with rising numbers of Austrian Catholics quitting the church and protests from clergy, Vienna Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn was forced to call an emergency meeting of Austrian bishops to overcome the crisis of confidence with the Vatican.

The Williamson and Wagner affairs have sparked concerns that the pope was acting in isolation and that the church was taking an increasingly conservative turn.

The Vatican has been in damage control mode since late January when the Williamson affair exploded. The pope has come in for particularly tough criticism in his native Germany and in Austria.

Williamson told Swedish television in an interview broadcast on Jan. 21 that he believed there were no gas chambers and that no more than 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, rather than the 6 million accepted by mainstream historians.

Among those who condemned Williamson and the pope’s decision were Holocaust survivors, progressive Catholics, members of the U.S. Congress, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate, German Jewish leaders and Jewish writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

On Feb. 12 the pope, in an attempt to defuse the crisis, told Jewish leaders that “any denial or minimisation of this terrible crime is intolerable”, especially from a clergyman.