Courtesy SVT/AP
Bishop Richard Williamson

Seminary Ousts Holocaust-Denying Bishop As Vatican Struggles With Its Image

February 09, 2009 12:29 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
The controversy over Bishop Richard Williamson, who denies the extent of the Holocaust, took a new turn Sunday when an Argentinian seminary removed him as director.

Controversial Bishop Reinstatements Prompt Calls for Pope to Step Down

A Roman Catholic seminary in Argentina fired Bishop Richard Williamson as its director on Sunday because of his past statements that Jews were not killed in gas chambers during the Holocaust, and that only between 200,000 and 300,000 Jews died in total. “Monsignor Williamson’s statements do not in any way reflect the position of our congregation,” said Father Christian Bouchacourt, the head of the seminary, according to the BBC. Located in La Reja, the seminary is the Latin American chapter of the Society of St. Pius X.

Also on Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Pope Benedict XVI on the telephone about his actions toward the Holocaust-denier.

The pope had reinstated Bishop Williamson on Jan. 24 along with three other bishops, all of whom had been excommunicated by Pope John Paul II. But international uproar over Williamson led the Vatican to say on Wednesday that Williamson must “unequivocally and publicly” retract his statements about the Holocaust before he could fully regain his position. The Vatican also indicated that the pope was not aware of Williamson’s beliefs when he lifted the excommunication, according to Radio Netherlands.

But Williamson has said he will not renounce his views just yet and it “will take time,” according to the BBC.

Criticism over the reinstatement has been escalating, with one prominent liberal Catholic theologian even calling for him to step down. Hermann Haering told the German daily Tageszeitung, “If the pope wants to do some good for the Church, he should leave his job,” Agence France-Presse reports.

The criticism of the pope has been especially strong in Germany, where denying the Holocaust is a crime punishable with jail time. Last week, Chancellor Merkel called on the pope to explain his reasoning. “I do not believe that sufficient clarification has been made,” Merkel said, according to the Associated Press.

Elan Steinberg, vice president of the New York-based American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, described how meaningful Merkel’s remarks were. “When the German Chancellor admonishes a German-born Pope it is an extraordinary message,” Steinberg told AP.

Also last week, the pope responded to the growing backlash by saying he has “full and and indisputable solidarity” with the Jews, and stressed how serious of an offense Holocaust denial is, according to AP.

A senior Vatican official noted that that the Vatican administration made “management errors” in choosing to lift the excommunications, AFP reports.

The four bishops had founded a sect that opposed the changes to the Church made by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. They are part of the St. Pius X Society, created by French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1970. Pope John Paul II excommunicated the bishops in 1988 after “Archbishop Lefebvre consecrated them in unsanctioned ceremonies,” according to The New York Times.

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Background: Rabbi criticizes Pope Benedict

Elia Enrico Richetti, chief rabbi of Venice, wrote earlier in January in the Jesuit journal Populi that Pope Benedict XVI has damaged Jewish-Catholic relations through the reinstatement of a controversial Good Friday prayer that calls for the conversion of Jews.

Richetti did not attend the church’s annual day of Jewish-Catholic prayers; the Italian Rabbinical Assembly announced in November that it was pulling out because of the Good Friday prayer controversy.

The prayer, which calls for God to “lift the veil from the eyes” of Jews and end “the blindness of that people so that they may acknowledge the light of your truth, which is Christ,” was reinstated in July 2007 when Benedict loosened restrictions on the traditional Latin Mass, also known as the Tridentine Mass. The Second Vatican Council decided in 1962-65 to drop the Latin Mass in favor of vernacular mass, which removed the Good Friday prayer from common use.

The council also permanently removed a reference in the prayer to “perfidis Judaeis,” translated as “faithless Jews,” or more controversially, “perfidious Jews.” Benedict did not reinstate this phrase into the prayer.

Key Player: Pope Benedict XVI

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became pope on April 19, 2005, succeeding Pope John Paul II. Growing up in Germany during the Nazi regime, Ratzinger was forced to join the Hitler Youth. This association with the Nazi regime caused considerable controversy when he was chosen pope, though there was no evidence he supported the ideals of the Nazi Party.

The controversy, wrote Forbes, would, “probably force him to try and overcome such negative sentiments and make him a more perceptive, sensitive participant in Christian-Jewish dialogue.”

Benedict has been a more conservative pope than his predecessor John Paul II, allowing a return to the Latin Mass and favoring a return to more traditional Catholic values. He has not been as hard-line as many expected when he was chosen pope, however.

Related Topic: Muslim anger toward Benedict

Pope Benedict created a controversy in September 2006 with remarks about Muslim violence. In describing a conversion between Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus and a Persian man, Benedict said, “He said, I quote, ‘Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.’”

After criticism by Muslim leaders, the Vatican issued a statement saying that the pope “deeply regretted” that his remarks “sounded offensive to the sensibility of Muslim believers.”

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