A papal decree drew Jewish ire on Saturday because Pope Benedict XVI canceled the excommunication of an English bishop on record as denying the Holocaust.
The bid to heal a 20-year schism with traditionalists in the Roman Catholic Church saw the pontiff cancel the excommunication of four bishops consecrated by rebel French archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.
However, his decision drew immediate condemnation from Italy’s Jewish leaders, with one speaking of a “negative, worrying and incomprehensible signal” just months from a planned visit to Israel already riven by controversial issues. The Church published an edict lifting the 1998 sanction on Lefevre’s successor Bernard Fellay and three other bishops in his breakaway conservative movement, Bernard de Tissier de Mallerais, Alfonso de Gallerata and Richard Williamson.
The English bishop, Williamson, is on record as denying the existence of the gas chambers during the Nazi Holocaust.
“I believe there were no gas chambers ... I think that 200,000 to 300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps but none of them by gas chambers,” Williamson was quoted as saying in an interview with Swedish SVT television.
“There was not one Jew killed by the gas chambers. It was all lies, lies, lies!” he said.
ANSA news agency quoted Renzo Gattegna, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, as saying that the decision sent a “negative, worrying and incomprehensible signal.”
It is “terrible that a bishop who denies the Holocaust, an irrefutable historical fact, should be rehabilitated and legitimized,” he said.
The Grand Rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, said that “dark clouds seem to be gathering over the [ongoing] dialogue between Jews and Christians.”
“If this decision is not simply a pardon, but presages readmission into the corridors of episcopal power, it will become even more problematic,” he said.
Uneasy relations between the Vatican and Israel have been further strained by plans to declare Nazi-era Pope Pius XII a saint, despite widespread criticism of his inaction during the Holocaust.
The controversy, which has lingered for decades, resurfaced in October as the pontiff defended the memory of his wartime predecessor and said he wanted him beatified soon — a first step toward declaring him a saint. Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi said recent controversial statements by Williamson, 68, were a separate issue.
German prosecutors said on Friday they had launched a probe against Williamson on suspicion of inciting racial hatred with his comments.
In a statement on Saturday, Fellay — who also expressed his “brotherly gratitude” to the pope — distanced the Saint Pius X community from Williamson’s opinions, suggesting that Williamson was addressing a “secular” issue rather than one of “faith and morality.”
Lombardi welcomed the papal decree, dated Jan. 21 and signed on behalf of the pope by the head of the Church’s congregation of bishops, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re.
He said the edict, which had been revealed on Thursday by an Italian newspaper, was “good news” and “a very important step towards reconstituting the full communion of the Church.”
He said, however, that the “full communion” had not yet been attained and that the status of the Society of Saint Pius still had to be defined.