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Pope Benedict's damage control

Whatever the reason for the pope's rehabilitation of a Holocaust denier, as the head of the Roman Catholic Church, he must remember to weigh his words carefully.

February 17, 2009

For the second time in his brief pontificate, Pope Benedict XVI is engaged in damage control after offending another religion with which the Roman Catholic Church has been seeking better relations. Benedict is no doubt sincere in dissociating himself from a breakaway bishop's suggestion that no Jews died in Nazi gas chambers. But a disclaimer wouldn't have been necessary if the pope had exercised due diligence or demonstrated even the slightest sensitivity before rescinding the excommunication of Richard Williamson and three other prelates from the Society of St. Pius X.

Williamson was excommunicated by Pope John Paul II after he was ordained a bishop by the late Marcel Lefebvre, a French archbishop who rejected the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In a television interview aired the same day his excommunication was lifted, Williamson said the evidence was "hugely against" 6 million Jews having been killed in gas chambers.

After Williamson's comments were publicized, the pope reiterated his condemnation of the Holocaust and announced a trip to Israel in May. The Vatican said that Williamson would have to "take his distance" from his comments about the Holocaust if he wanted to be recognized as a bishop. Williamson apologized for causing "unnecessary distress and problems," but he didn't recant his denial of the Holocaust. Instead, he told a German magazine that he would "look again at the historical evidence."

How could the pope rehabilitate a crank such as Williamson without a thorough investigation? One explanation is that the pope has been obsessed with reconciliation with Lefebvrites, who share his devotion to the 16th century Tridentine Latin Mass that was replaced by vernacular services after Vatican II. That may account for the pope's failure to consult with Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican official in charge of ecumenical relations, but reconciliation with one group should not involve indifference toward another.

Moreover, the Williamson affair seems to be part of the pope's general insulation from public opinion, which can border on arrogance. In a 2006 lecture in his native Germany, Benedict quoted a Byzantine emperor who described Islam as "evil and inhumane." The pope didn't endorse the statement, but he failed to recognize how his words would be received by Muslims.

Josef Stalin once mockingly asked: "How many divisions does the pope have?" Obviously the pope doesn't command an army, but the Roman Catholic Church is represented by legions of diplomats and humanitarian workers around the world, many of whom must deal with representatives of other religions. The pope is a pastor, but he also is the head of an international organization, and like more worldly leaders, he must carefully weigh his words and his deeds.

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