Pope welcomes 'holocaust denier' back to the fold
Pope Benedict has outraged Jewish leaders by welcoming back into the Catholic fold a previously excommunicated bishop who is said to be a holocaust denier. Richard Williamson was automaticatically excommunicated in 1988 when he was consecrated a bishop by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (1905-1991) without papal approval.
Update 26 January: Pope Benedict has expressed his solidarity with Jewish people, whom he called "out brothers of the first covenant", and said that the Holocaust "should be a warning for everyone against forgetting, denying or diminishing its significance". He clearly had Bishop Williamson in his sites, but he stopped shop of challenging the bishop by name or more directly.
In a recent television interview (watch here or here), Bishop Williamson denies that six million Jews were killed in the holocaust, and claims that no Jews were killed at all in gas chambers. In fact, he says, there were no gas chambers at Auschwitz. The convicted holocaust-denier David Irving makes the same claims, and the bishop draws on some of the same alleged "evidence" presented in Irving's writings. In this interview, Bishop Williamson acknowledges that making this case "is against the law in Germany". Last year, The Catholic Herald reported that Williamson has "endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic forgery that enjoys widespread currency in neo-Nazi circles." Sermons and addresses by the bishop are available on YouTube in which he defends 9/11 conspiracy theories. You get a sense of the bishop's liturgical style here.
Williamson is one of four bishops consecrated without pontifical mandate in 1988 by Lefebvre. The pope's decision to rescind the excommunication on all four bishops is part of an attempt to rehabilitate Lefebvre's ultra-traditionalist Society of Saint Pius X.
The Vatican is clear that the lifting of the decree of excommunication should not be interpreted as an affirmation of the personal views of any of these bishops. Theologically, this is certainly the case. Being wrong about the history of the holocaust is not a basis for excommunication according to canon law, and the original excommunication had nothing to do with holocaust claims, but with church laws on mandates for the consecration of bishops. Thus, it is quite consistent with lifting the excommunication decree that the pope issue a statement denouncing the Bishop Williamson's views in the separate matter of holocaust denial.
We wait to see if Pope Benedict is prepared to make such a statement. In the meantime, Jewish groups remain deeply offended and deeply suspicious of this development.