VATICAN CITY (AFP) — Catholic commentators joined Jewish leaders in criticising Pope Benedict XVI for bringing a Holocaust denier back into the fold as part of a bid to heal a schism with a traditionalist branch of the Church.
French essayist Matthieu Grimpret wrote in the Catholic newspaper La Croix that he was "ashamed to be Catholic" after the pope lifted the excommunication 20 years ago of Richard Williamson and three other bishops of the separatist branch set up by the late Marcel Lefebvre in 1988.
Noting that the Church refuses communion to people who remarry after divorcing, Grimpret said the pope's move gave "the despicable impression that it's better for Catholics to be anti-Semitic than divorced."
Williamson has dismissed as "lies" the fact that some six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust, most in the gas chambers of Nazi concentration camps.
"Williamson represents an extreme, but you can't pretend to ignore that anti-Semitism ... is a constituent part of this faction," Catholic historian Alberto Melloni wrote in the Italian daily La Repubblica.
Vatican Radio and the Holy See's newspaper Osservatore Romano roundly condemned Williamson's repeated assertions that no Jews were gassed to death, and took pains to recall Benedict's 2006 pilgrimage to Auschwitz and his eagerness for dialogue with Judaism.
On Tuesday, as Europe commemorated the 64th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, Renzo Gattegna, demanded an official clarification of Williamson's reintegration.
"This matter should not hamper our dialogue, but we are waiting for a positive gesture," he said.
Also Tuesday, Bishop Bernard Fellay, one of the four whose excommunication was reversed, asked the pope for forgiveness for Williamson's stance.
"The statements of Monsignor Williamson do not reflect in any way the position of our society," he said in a statement, referring to the Swiss-based "Lefebrvist" fraternity.
"That is why I have barred him, until further notice, from taking any public position on political or historical issues," he said in the statement released by the Vatican.
"We seek forgiveness from the Sovereign Pontiff and all men of good will, for the grave consequences" of Williamson's assertions, he said.
Benedict, who will begin his fifth year as pontiff in April, has already undermined ties with Judaism by condoning use of the old Tridentine mass in Latin, which includes a Good Friday prayer for the conversion of Jews to Catholicism.
He also made waves by encouraging the process of beatifying Pope Pius XII -- accused of remaining silent over the Holocaust -- which would put the wartime Church leader on the road to sainthood.
Rome's grand rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, said the Lefevbrist branch "rejected the theological positions of the Second Vatican Council towards Jews."
Reforms carried out in the early 1960s, known as Vatican II, overturned nearly 2,000 years of Church-sanctioned anti-Semitism fueled by the belief that Jews killed Jesus Christ.
Lefevbre and his supporters rejected Vatican II's teaching on religious freedom and pluralism, notably the declaration "Nostra Aetate" according to which Jews are the "older brothers" of Christians.
German prelate Heinrich Mussinghoff called on the four bishops brought back into the fold by the pope to swear their allegiance "credibly and without ambiguity" to the precepts of Vatican II, in particular to Nostra Aetate.
Benedict's frequent harking back to the pre-Vatican II era -- extending even to wearing vestments that have remained in the sacristy for decades -- has sowed "great confusion" in the Church, historian Melloni wrote.
"The faithful, bishops and cardinals are wondering whether (the conclusions of) Vatican II have become optional," he said.
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