Pope Benedict XVI‘s rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop has exposed deep cracks in the Vatican‘s system of governance.
Senior officials failed to brief the pontiff adequately, and the tiny city state’s de facto prime minister was out of town when the crisis sent Catholic-Jewish relations into free fall, prominent clerics in the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy say.
Benedict had a meeting of reconciliation Thursday with American Jewish leaders, who declared Catholic-Jewish relations back “on track” after the pontiff said any denial of the Holocaust is “intolerable,” especially when coming from a clergyman.
However, top Vatican officials, including Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, the Holy See’s powerful secretary of state or de facto prime minister, have been widely criticized in church circles for failing to prevent Benedict from careening into a fiasco.
A Feb. 4 statement from Cardinal Bertone’s office said Benedict had not known of Bishop Richard Williamson‘s remarks before readmitting him to the church.
The pope’s meeting with 51 delegates from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Thursday was his first with Jewish leaders since he lifted the excommunication of four rebel prelates including Bishop Williamson, a British Catholic traditionalist and former Anglican.
Just days before the Jan. 24 rehabilitation, Bishop Williamson said in a television interview that no Jews were gassed by Nazis during World War II and that only 200,000 to 300,000 were killed instead of the widely accepted death toll of 6 million.
“Any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable,” the German pontiff said last week. “The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah [Holocaust] was a crime against humanity. This should be clear to everyone, especially those standing in the tradition of the Holy Scriptures.”
During the meeting, Benedict also confirmed that he plans to visit Israel in the spring. Representatives of the Jewish leaders said later that the pope’s sincerity indicated that the rift over Bishop Williamson is over.
“Catholic-Jewish relations are on track,” Rabbi Arthur Schneier, himself a Holocaust survivor, told a news conference. “It was so reassuring to hear what Benedict had to say about the Shoah.”
While this crisis may have ended, there is still concern among Vatican watchers that Benedict’s pontificate might be losing its way.
The latest issue recalled eerily the crisis the pope set off with the Islamic world in 2006 by giving remarks - apparently not vetted by aides - that referred to Muslims’ bloody past.
What Italian media have dubbed “the latest papal gaffe” has prompted an unprecedented round of recrimination within the pope’s entourage.
German Cardinal Karl Lehmann, a former head of the German bishops conference, lashed out at the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei.
Led by Colombian Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, the commission is responsible for the Holy See’s links to traditionalists such as Bishop Williamson.
“There will have to be consequences for those responsible in the commission for revoking Williamson’s excommunication,” Cardinal Lehmann said, “whether it was a case of ignorance or neglect.”
In response to the furor, Cardinal Castrillon told the “Radio Cadena Nacional” network in Colombia, “The Holy Father completely rejects what was done in Germany to the Jewish people,” the Catholic News Agency (CNA) reported.
Asked whether he took Bishop Williamson’s theories about the Holocaust into account before bringing the excommunication issue to the attention of the Holy Father, Cardinal Castrillon responded: “I have always had truth as a norm. The Holy Father knows this. We are moving forward, trying to rebuild the unity of the Church and put an end completely to this schism,” according to CNA.
The Vatican has told Bishop Williamson to retract his remarks. The bishop says he needs more time to review the historical evidence.
The Vatican press office declined comment on the controversy.
It referred a reporter to remarks by Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi in a recent interview with the French newspaper La Croix, in which he acknowledged that the Vatican communications system is not well equipped to handle “hot issues” because of a lack of communication from different Vatican departments.
In Italy, a Eurispes poll this month found only 38.8 percent of Italians have faith in the Church under Benedict’s leadership compared with 49.7 percent a year ago.
Rome’s L’Espresso magazine said the figures reflect growing concern that Benedict is turning the clock back while the Church is perceived as increasingly removed from the impact of the world economic crisis on ordinary Catholics.
“On the pastoral front, Benedict XVI also has little success,” the magazine wrote. He is “too distant, professorial, preoccupied with the purity of doctrine but inattentive to the faith as lived in everyday struggles.”