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VATICAN CITY — When Pope Benedict XVI allowed the leaders of the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX) back into the Catholic fold last week, he must have known that his move would cause controversy inside the church.
The question many are now asking is whether Benedict anticipated the intense backlash his decision would unleash outside the church.
Jewish groups are incensed that one of the bishops welcomed back, Richard Williamson, said last summer (in remarks recently broadcast by Swedish television) that “historical evidence is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler.”
Benedict welcomed Williamson and three other SSPX bishops back into the church on Saturday (Jan. 24), 21 years after they were excommunicated by Pope John Paul II for their role in the breakaway SSPX movement.
For nearly four decades, the movement founded by the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre has been the most militant and vocal resistance group to changes that the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) ushered into the church.
Yet even as he tries to heal the internal wounds opened by the Council more than 40 years ago, those same actions now threaten to derail the decades of progress in Catholic-Jewish relations that also grew out of the 1960s reforms. The controversy may be the most damaging development both to Catholic-Jewish relations and perhaps to Benedict’s own reputation.
The Vatican is confronted with a public relations meltdown of Chernobyl proportions: countless headlines with the basic message, “Pope rehabilitates Holocaust denier.”
“This decree sends a terrible message to Catholics around the world that there is room in the church for those who would undermine the church’s teachings and who would foster disdain and contempt for other religions, particularly Judaism,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League.
For Benedict, who as a boy in his native Germany witnessed and deplored the rise of Nazism, and who has long sought to improve relations between Catholics and Jews, the contretemps must be acutely painful.
The SSPX has long been a thorn in the Vatican’s side as the group refused to accept Vatican II reforms that replaced Latin Mass with local-language liturgy and opened the church to ecumenism and religious tolerance.
Benedict has made reconciliation with SSPX a top priority of his nearly four years on the papal throne. Yet his olive branches to SSPX have nonetheless angered Jewish groups well before Williamson was welcomed back to the church.
In 2007, Benedict lifted restrictions on the old Latin Mass, expressing hope that the move would help mend the breach with Lefebvre’s followers. But Jewish leaders objected to a prayer in the rite’s Good Friday liturgy that calls for Jews’ conversion to Christianity.
Although the pope modified the prayer in an effort to assuage Jewish concerns, Italian rabbis cited it as the main reason they abstained from an annual day of interfaith activities with their Catholic counterparts this month.
Vatican spokesmen have stressed that the pope’s cancellation of Williams’ excommunication implies no endorsement of his views. A front page editorial in the official Vatican newspaper L’Osservatore Romano on Sunday (Jan. 25) denounced the “unacceptable negationist opinions and attitudes toward Judaism of some members of the community to which the
(pope) extends his hand.”
Critics, however, are waiting for stronger words from Benedict himself. If the most comparable interfaith controversy of his pontificate is any indication, such words will be forthcoming.
In September 2006, the pope angered Muslims with a speech in Regensburg, Germany, in which he quoted a medieval Christian emperor describing the teachings of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad as “evil and inhuman” and “spread by the sword.”
After violent protests against the speech broke out in several Muslim countries, Benedict expressed his “regrets” and held a special meeting with representatives of Muslim nations; last November, he hosted an international group of Muslim scholars and clerics at the Vatican for a conference that grew out of responses to the Regensburg lecture.
Williamson’s Holocaust denial was made last summer in Germany, less than 40 miles from Regensburg, where authorities are now considering whether to prosecute him under a German law that makes it a crime to deny the Holocaust.
Either way, the bishop’s words may end up stimulating at least as much interfaith dialogue as anything the pope himself has ever said.
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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