Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged "mistakes" in the way the Vatican lifted the excommunication of four bishops from a breakaway Catholic group, including a prelate who had denied that Jews died in Nazi gas chambers - write Luigi Sandri and Anli Serfontein.
In a letter issued on 12 March 2009 to Roman Catholic bishops around the world, the Pope described as an "unforeseen mishap" the case of British-born Richard Williamson, one of the four bishops belonging to the Society of St Pius X (SSPX).
"The discreet gesture of mercy towards four bishops ordained validly but not legitimately suddenly appeared as something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews," the pontiff said in his letter.
"I have been told that consulting the information available on the internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on," said Benedict, pledging that greater use would be made by the Holy See of "this source of news" in the future.
Williamson was shown making his remarks about the Holocaust in a Swedish television interview broadcast on 21 January, three days before the official announcement by the Vatican that the excommunication of the four bishops was being lifted. It subsequently became available on [the] YouTube [Internet video sharing service.]
At a 12 March Vatican media conference about the Pope's letter, the Director of the Vatican Press Office, [the] Rev. Federico Lombardi, did not respond to a journalist who asked whether it would have been possible to postpone the lifting of the excommunications once Williamson's views had been widely disseminated by the media.
In his letter, however, Pope Benedict announced that a Vatican commission - "Ecclesia Dei" - that dealt with the SSPX and the Williamson case, would be merging with the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. As Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, [before he became Pope], Benedict had headed the doctrinal commission. The pontiff also stressed the role of collective "decision making" in the Vatican through weekly meetings of cardinals.
In the Pope's homeland, where the Vatican decision on the excommunications has met with strident criticism, the head of the (Catholic) German Bishops' Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, praised the Pope's "extremely frank letter".
After widespread protests about Williamson from Jewish and [also] Roman Catholic groups, the Vatican stated on 4 February that the British-born bishop would need to "distance himself in an unequivocal and public manner" from his comments regarding the Holocaust before he could be admitted to the functions of a Catholic bishop.
In his 12 March letter, Pope Benedict [XVI] said he was grateful to, "our Jewish friends, who quickly helped to clear up the misunderstanding and to restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust". At the same time, the pontiff said he was, "saddened by the fact that even Catholics ... thought they had to attack me with open hostility".
Vatican observers said it was difficult to recall a similar case in modern times in which a pope had felt obliged to issue a detailed clarification of a decision in this way.
On the same day as the publication of his letter, Pope Benedict received a delegation of the Israeli rabbinate and the Holy See's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. At that meeting, he reaffirmed the dialogue with the "Jewish people, who were chosen as elected people". The Pope said he hoped his forthcoming visit to the Holy Land would, "deepen the dialogue of the Church with Jewish people so that Jews and Christians and also Muslims may live in peace and harmony".
Addressing the Pope, Rabbi Shear Yashuv Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa in Israel, thanked [the] Benedict for his, "clear and unequivocal statements deploring the Holocaust denial and making it very clear that the Catholic Church leaders are committed to continue the policy as formulated in Second Vatican Council decisions".
The Pope's 12 March letter describes as, "another mistake, which I deeply regret", the failure of the decision on the excommunications to be, "clearly and adequately explained at the moment of its publication".
Benedict said the decision on the excommunications had been intended as, "a gesture of reconciliation", towards the SSPX, founded in 1970 by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre and which rejected church reforms introduced in the mid-1960s by the Second Vatican Council.
Benedict made it clear in his letter that the SSPX would need to accept the teaching of the Second Vatican Council, which opened in 1962 and concluded three years later.
"The Church's teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 - this must be quite clear to the Society," he stated. "But some of those who put themselves forwards as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church."
Full text of papal letter: http://tinyurl.com/amuh6t
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]