Catholic-Jewish ties tested as Pope prepares for Israel visit

Published February 20, 2009

Trier, Germany
The Central Council of Jews in Germany is to take part in the country’s annual Christian-Jewish “Week of Fraternity” after first expressing scepticism because of a controversy surrounding the Vatican’s lifting of the excommunication of a breakaway bishop who has denied that Jews died in Nazi gas chambers.

The week will focus on religious intolerance and the Jewish council’s chairperson, Charlotte Knobloch, will give the main address at the March 1 opening event which German President Horst Kohler is scheduled to attend.

Roman Catholic-Jewish relationships have been under close scrutiny in the homeland of Pope Benedict XVI as the pontiff prepares for a visit to Israel, amid the controversy about British-born Bishop Richard Williamson. Williamson was one of four bishops belonging to the breakaway Society of St. Paul X, the lifting of whose excommunication was made public by the Vatican on Jan. 24, three days after a Swedish television interview showed Williamson denying that Jews died in Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust.

After widespread protests from Jewish and also Roman Catholic groups, the Vatican clarified on Feb. 4 that Williamson would need to “distance himself in an unequivocal and public manner” from his comments regarding the Holocaust before he could be admitted to the functions of a Catholic bishop.

Still, the German Jewish council’s Knobloch said in mid-February, “None of us would ever have imagined that we Jews would have to distance ourselves from a bishop’s statements and demand they be retracted before the Pope had done this.

“Meeting the leaders of several U.S.-based Jewish organizations on Feb. 12, Pope Benedict had said, “The Church is profoundly and irrevocably committed to reject all anti-Semitism and to continue to build good and lasting relations between our two communities…. The hatred and contempt for men, women and children that was manifested in the Shoah [Holocaust] was a crime against God and against humanity.” The pontiff continued, “It is beyond question that any denial or minimization of this terrible crime is intolerable and altogether unacceptable.”

Rabbi David Rosen, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee and a consultant to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel, said after meeting Benedict, “The Pope’s condemnation of Holocaust denial and deniers was absolutely unequivocal. Pope Benedict made it clear that there is no place for Holocaust deniers in the Catholic Church.”

Still, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the U.S. Anti-Defamation League, while noting the Pope’s rebuke to the views of Williamson, said the pontiff didn’t go far enough. In an article on the ADL’s Web site (, Foxman wrote, “In the absence of Bishop Williamson recanting and recognising that he is wrong in his views, the Vatican should act definitively to prevent his participation in the Church.”


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