Vatican City: January 24, 2009. (JP) In an attempt to heal a two-decade old schism, Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the excommunications of four bishops, including one who is a Holocaust denier.
Williamson has said that only 200,000-300,000 Jews died during World War II and that gas chambers were a fiction.
He has also endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a notorious anti-Semitic forgery used since the late 19th century to fuel anti-Jewish violence, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Williamson is one of four bishops, all members of the Society of Saint Pius X, which rebelled against the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
Jewish leaders, including Rome Chief Rabbi Ricardo Di Segni, have urged Benedict not to lift the ban.
The American Jewish Committee's director of Interreligious Affairs, Rabbi David Rosen, said that "while the Vatican's reconciliation with the SSPX [Society of Saint Pius X] is an internal matter of the Catholic Church, the embrace of an open Holocaust denier is shameful, a serious blow for Jewish-Vatican relations, and a slap in the face for the historic efforts of Pope John Paul II, who following his predecessors, made such remarkable efforts to eradicate and combat anti-Semitism.
"I am sure that the lifting of the excommunication was not an affirmation by the Church of Holocaust denial. However, the failure to take into consideration his outrageous opinions is deplorable. Williamson should not have been included in this embrace," Rosen said.
ather David Neuhaus, professor of Bible at Bethlehem University, said on Saturday evening that the lifting of the excommunications had nothing to do with the "odious views" held by some of the bishops.
"Rather the pope has a burning desire to put an end to the schism in the Church. Discussion is going inside the Church regarding the pope's attempt to bring back into the fold ultra ultra conservatives who never accepted the reforms of Vatican II and were illicitly consecrated. There are those in the Church he feel that the pope is humiliating himself for men unrepentant of their views."
Neuhaus, who is also secretary-general of the Hebrew Speaking Catholic Vicariate in the Holy Land, said the Church's position on the Holocaust was a very sensitive issue for the local Catholic community.
"It touches on the very heart of who we are here in the Holy Land as promoters of historical reconciliation of Jewish and Catholic relations so that Jews and Catholics understand each other more," he said.
"I would like to be optimistic and say that the move to bring these ultra-conservatives under the influence of the pope will force them to tow the line with regard to the Church's contempt for Holocaust denial."
Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said Williamson's views had no impact on the decision to lift the excommunication decree.
The pope's decision by no means implies "sharing [Williamson's] ideas or his comments, which will be judged on their own," the ANSA news agency quoted Lombardi as saying.
Marcel Lefebvre founded the Society of Saint Pius X in 1969, a breakaway traditionalist Catholic priestly society that protests the liberalizing reforms of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, particularly its allowing of mass to be celebrated in local languages instead of Latin.
The four bishops were excommunicated in 1988 after Lefebvre consecrated them without Rome's consent. Lefebvre was excommunicated as well.
In a statement on Saturday, the current head of the society and one of the rehabilitated bishops, Bernard Fellay, expressed his gratitude to Benedict and said the decree would help the entire Catholic Church.
The Society believes the Church is in crisis and blames in part the doctrinal reforms of Vatican II, including its ecumenical outreach, for causing it.
"Our Society wishes to be always more able to help the pope to remedy the unprecedented crisis which presently shakes the Catholic world," Fellay said.
Benedict made clear from the start of his pontificate that he wanted to normalize relations with the Society, meeting within months of his election with Fellay and convening cardinals to discuss bringing it back into the Vatican's fold.
Benedict has in the past praised the society for its stance against "moral permissiveness."
In 2007, Benedict answered one of Fellay's key demands by relaxing restrictions on celebrating the old Latin mass. In lifting the excommunication decree, he answered the society's second condition for beginning theological discussions about normalizing relations.
In lifting the decrees, Benedict risked a new clash with Jews, who had already been angered by the rehabilitation of the Latin mass because it contained a prayer calling for their conversion.
Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris said he understood the German-born pope's desire for Christian unity but said Benedict could have excluded Williamson, whose return to the church would have a "political cost" for the Vatican.
"I'm certain as a man who has known the Nazi regime in his own flesh, he understands you have to be very careful and very selective," Samuels said.
While Williamson's comments may be offensive and erroneous, they are not an excommunicable offense, said Monsignor Robert Wister, professor of church history at the Immaculate Conception School of Theology at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
"To deny the Holocaust is not a heresy even though it is a lie," he said. "The excommunication can be lifted because he is not a heretic, but he remains a liar."
Neuhaus said in response to Wister's comments that while he might be technically right, "William's views contradict the teaching of the Catholic Church. The pope has been very clear on this and continues John Paul II's tradition of inculcating total contempt for Holocaust denial and of asking whether Church clergy did enough during the Holocaust."