February 5, 2009

By RACHEL DONADIO

ROME — Responding to global outrage, especially in Pope Benedict XVI’s native Germany, the Vatican for the first time on Wednesday called on a recently rehabilitated bishop to take back his statements denying the Holocaust.

Late last month, the pope revoked the excommunication of four schismatic bishops, including British-born Richard Williamson, who in an interview broadcast last month denied the existence of the Nazi gas chambers.

A statement issued on Wednesday by the Vatican Secretariat of State said that Bishop Williamson “must absolutely, unequivocally and publicly distance himself from his positions on the Shoah,” or Holocaust, which it said were “unknown to the Holy Father at the time he revoked the excommunication.”

The unsigned statement seemed a clear indication that the Vatican was facing an internal and external political crisis.

The day before, in a rare case of a head of state criticizing the pope, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the pope to clarify his position on the Holocaust, saying his previous remarks had not been “sufficient.”

The statement from the Secretariat of State noted Benedict’s remarks last week in which he expressed his “full and unequivocal solidarity” with Jews and condemned all Holocaust denial, yet it went far beyond the pope’s earlier remarks in which he had never mentioned Bishop Williamson by name.

The four bishops are from the traditionalist St. Pius X Society, founded in 1970 to protest the liberalizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council, including liturgical reforms and a document that absolved contemporary Jews of guilt for the crucifixion of Jesus.

Last week, Benedict had called revoking the excommunication a gesture of “compassion” and a first step on a longer path toward the society’s full reconciliation with the church.

The statement from the Vatican on Wednesday also sought to address significant lingering questions about what conditions the society would have to meet before being fully welcomed back into the fold. It stated that the society would have to offer its “full recognition of the Second Vatican Council” in order to receive “recognition” by the church.