VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - The Vatican on Wednesday ordered a traditionalist bishop who denies the Holocaust to publicly recant his views if he wants to serve as a prelate in the Roman Catholic Church. The Vatican said Pope Benedict was not aware of Bishop Richard Williamson’s denial of the Holocaust when the pontiff lifted excommunications on him and three other traditionalist bishops last month.
It also said the traditionalist movement the bishop belongs to must accept all teachings of the 1962-1965 Second Vatican Council, which urged respect for Judaism and other religions, as well as all the teachings of popes since 1958.
“Williamson, in order to be admitted to the episcopal functions of the Church, must in an absolutely unequivocal and public way distance himself from his positions regarding the Shoah,” a statement said, using the Hebrew word for Holocaust.
His views on the Holocaust were “absolutely unacceptable and firmly rejected by the Holy Father,” it said.
On January 24, Benedict lifted the excommunications of the four to try to heal a 20-year-old schism that began when they were thrown out of the Church for being ordained without the permission of Pope John Paul II.
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.
Williamson told Swedish television in an interview broadcast on January 21: “I believe there were no gas chambers.” He said no more than 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps, rather than the 6 million accepted by mainstream historians.
Williamson later apologised to the pope “for the unnecessary distress” he caused him but has not yet recanted.
Jewish leaders welcomed the statement but some appeared to question the Vatican’s version of events.
“Finally, the Vatican has taken responsibility for one of the worst blunders in recent history ..., ” said Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre.
“What is particularly astounding is the Vatican assertion that they didn’t know about his Holocaust views. All somebody had to do was Google him and they would have found them,” he added in a statement.
“This is, however, a step in the right direction and if Williamson refuses to recant, the Vatican should excommunicate him - this time permanently.”
Germany’s Central Council of Jews said the move was a positive signal and a reaction to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s demand for clarification, adding it could lead to a resumption of ties with the Church broken off last week.
The row over Williamson has led many to take a closer look at the traditionalist group, the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), its view of Jews and its future in the Church.
Traditionalists reject most of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council. One of its key documents, “Nostra Aetate” (In Our Times) repudiated the concept of collective Jewish guilt for Christ’s death.
Since Williamson made his comments one Italian member of the society said “gas chambers existed at least for disinfecting” and another called the late Pope John Paul a heretic for advancing relations with Jews.
The U.S. Jesuit weekly “America” pointed out that the following phrase was still on the SSPX’s U.S. website a week after the controversy: “Judaism is inimical to all nations in general, and in a special manner to Christian nations.”
The World Jewish Congress (WJC) welcomed the Vatican’s latest move but said the pope had been “badly advised” on the whole matter and that more had to be done.
“Williamson’s blatant anti-Semitism is not an isolated case,” a WJC statement said.
The WJC urged the pope “to urgently address these concerns and to ensure that the achievements of four decades of Catholic-Jewish dialogue are not being damaged by a small minority of people who want to divide rather than unite.”
Editing by Matthew Jones
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