Ecumenical News International

Germany's debate on Holocaust rages as Vatican clarifies again

February 4, 2009

Trier, Germany, 4 February (ENI)--Sharp criticism unleashed by Pope Benedict XVI's decision to lift the excommunication of a cleric who was later found to have been a Holocaust denier is continuing in the Pope's native Germany. 

The reinstatement by the Pope of excommunicated Richard Williamson, a member of the  Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), came only days before a Swedish television interview showed Williamson denying that Jews died in Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust. The issue ignited a second week of bitter criticism in Germany. Some Germans seemed surprised when their normally reticent chancellor, Angela Merkel, entered the fray.

"If a decision of the Vatican gives rise to the impression that the Holocaust may be denied, this cannot be left to stand," Merkel said on 3 February. "It's a matter of the Pope and the Vatican affirming very clearly that there can be no denial here," she said. Although Merkel is a Protestant, many members of her Christian Democratic Party (CDU) are Roman Catholics.

The previous day, the German weekly political and cultural magazine, Der Spiegel, carried a picture of the Pope on its cover with a headline, "A German Pope embarrasses the Catholic Church."

On 1 February theologian and ethicist Jean-Pierre Wils announced he was leaving the Catholic Church. He lives and teaches in Germany and is currently also professor of theology at the Dutch Catholic University of Nijmegen. He explained, "I no longer want to be identified with the anti-modern, anti-pluralistic and totalitarian spirit in this Church."

On 4 February the Vatican said Pope Benedict did not know that Williamson was a Holocaust denier when he lifted his excommunication in January. In an official note, the Vatican described Williamson's comments denying the Holocaust as being ''absolutely unacceptable and firmly refuted by the Holy Father''.

The note added, ''Bishop Williamson must distance himself in an unequivocal and public manner from his comments regarding the Holocaust, which were unknown by the Holy Father at the time of [Williamson's] rehabilitation.'' It said further that without such a retraction, that Williamson will not be admitted ''to the episcopal functions of the church''. The Vatican noted that Williamson's rehabilitation did not mean he could act as a minister within the church.

Also on 4 February, the Italian news agency ANSA reported that the Vatican stressed the Pope had lifted the excommunication of Williamson and three other traditionalist bishops ''benevolently'' as a result of repeated requests by the society to which the bishops belong as a precursor to bringing the breakaway group back to the Church.

Benedict, then Joseph Ratzinger, began working in 1988 to reunite the traditionalist Society of St Pius X, which split with Rome over reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

In its cover story, Der Spiegel examined the theology of Ratzinger, also called "the Panzer Cardinal' by some of his critics in Germany, and reported that in his autobiography he was already critical of the more progressive aspects of the Second Vatican Council that introduced reforms in the 1960s into the Catholic Church. 

Not only Der Spiegel, but Germans in chat rooms like and talk radio grappled with the question as to how a German Pope was seen to pardon a Holocaust denier, since denying the Holocaust is a punishable criminal offence in Germany.

Swiss theologian Hans Küng, who taught with the Pope at the University of Tübingen in the 1960s, told Der Spiegel: "The central problem is the Pope himself, for whom it is primarily a question of the so-called truth and power in his own church. Thereby he causes heavy damage to the Church's relationship with other Christian religions. He first insulted the Muslims and now he has also thoroughly angered the Jews. That all of this is happening under a German Pope is all the more serious. The apologies that followed could not repair all the unnecessary damage he has caused."

At the end of January, Robert Zollitsch, the chairperson of the (Catholic) German Episcopal Conference, complained, "We were not asked, we were not informed in advance." Zollitsch's predecessor, Cardinal Karl Lehmann of Mainz, in a radio interview on 2 February called the decision "catastrophic" and demanded a clear apology "from a high position".



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