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VATICAN CITY — Acknowledging an “avalanche of protests,” Pope Benedict XVI justified his controversial decision to readmit a Holocaust-denying bishop to the Catholic Church, but acknowledged that mistakes had contributed to the international furor that followed.
Benedict’s remarks appeared in a letter, dated Tuesday (Mar. 10) and addressed to the world’s Catholic bishops, explaining his January decision to lift the 1988 excommunications of four bishops in the ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX).
Jewish organizations were outraged after one of the bishops, Richard Williamson, told Swedish television that no more than 300,000 Jews “perished in Nazi concentration camps…not one of them by gassing in a gas chamber.” The Vatican has said that Benedict did not know of Williamson’s statements before he lifted the excommunications.
“I hear that closely following the news available on the Internet would have made it possible to obtain knowledge of the problem in time,” the pope wrote on Tuesday. “I learn from this that we at the Holy See have to pay more careful attention to this news source in the future.”
As if to underscore that point, Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper posted the full text of Benedict’s letter online Wednesday, one day before it was slated for official release by the Vatican.
(Quotations here are from the letter published by the German newspaper, as translated by the Web site of the New Liturgical Movement, www.newliturgicalmovement.org.)
The pope expressed “deep regret” that Williamson’s readmission had cast doubt on his commitment to “reconciliation between Christians and Jews,” which he described as a consistent “goal of my theological work.”
Benedict wrote that reconciliation of a different sort was his aim in readmitting the SSPX leaders, who were excommunicated when they were consecrated as bishops without the Vatican’s permission.
“Should we really calmly leave them to drift away from the Church?” the pope wrote. “Should we simply exclude them, as representatives of a radical marginal group, from the search for reconciliation and unity?”
Benedict stressed that Williamson and the other SSPX bishops, although no longer excommunicated, “do not exercise in a legitimate way any ministry in the Church” as long as they continue to question the pope’s teaching authority and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which SSPX strenuously opposes.
In the letter, Benedict said he will merge the Vatican office in charge of dealing with the SSPX and other disaffected traditionalists into the church’s highest doctrinal authority, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. That change will put the office, currently run by Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, under the regular scrutiny of some 20 other cardinals and bishops.
Remarkably personal in tone, Benedict’s letter thanked “Jewish friends” for their trust and cooperation during the Williamson affair, while expressing sadness that “even Catholics who could actually have known better have thought it necessary to strike at me with a hostility ready to jump.”
The pope also suggested that the SSPX, despite all its faults, had been treated too harshly by its critics.
“Sometimes one has the impression that our society needs at least one group for which there need not be any tolerance; which one can unperturbedly set upon with hatred,” Benedict wrote. “And who dared to touch them — in this case the Pope — himself lost the right to tolerance and was allowed without fear and restraint to be treated with hatred, too.”
By Francis X. Rocca
c. 2009 Religion News Service
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission
may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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