Pope benedict XVI has responded to international pressure and ordered a maverick cleric to recant his Holocaust-denying views.
Jewish-Catholic relations were plunged into crisis last week by the Vatican’s rehabilitation of English-born Richard Williamson, along with three other bishops associated with an ultra-conservative breakaway sect.
On Wednesday, a statement from the Vatican said that Bishop Williamson must “in an absolute, public and unequivocal way, distance himself from his present position on the Shoah”. It added that the Pope had been unaware of his views on the Holocaust when an excommunication order against the four bishops was lifted last week.
It added that a condition of their re-admission to the Church is “full acceptance” of the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, the historic declaration that lifted the stigma of deicide — the killing of Jesus — against the Jews and opened the way to dialogue with Judaism and other faiths.
Welcoming the move, Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said: “This was the sign the Jewish world has been waiting for. Holocaust denial must not go uncensored, and antisemites should not be allowed to have a say in the Church.”
The previous day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had called on the Vatican to do more to dissociate itself from Holocaust denial. Cardinal Karl Lehmann, former chairman of the German bishops, sought “a high-level apology” from the Church.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican official in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations, also made unusually strong comments in a radio interview, admitting “misunderstandings and management errors” by the Church.
In a letter to Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks on Tuesday, the leader of Britain’s Catholics expressed “dismay” at the fallout from the Williamson affair. “I naturally deplore the comments made by the Englishman, Rev Williamson, in his denial of the full horror of the Holocaust,” wrote Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster.
“His statement and views have absolutely no place in the Catholic Church and its teaching.”
In response, the Chief Rabbi said the cardinal’s words matched “the feeling of many Jews around the world who believe that great damage has been done to Catholic-Jewish relations”.
He said that the reconciliation between Catholics and Jews undertaken by successive Popes “must continue, and widen, not least to embrace Islam, with which there is much healing to be done. We are cherished friends. Let us work together to ensure that the friendship between our faiths continues and deepens.”