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The Pope’s mea culpa

It may be the height of irony, but the recent confrontation between world Jewry and the Roman Catholic Church may have actually done more good than harm.

That might seem strange or flippant, considering that the dispute was over a Catholic bishop who drastically minimized the historical record of the Holocaust and a pope who opted to revoke that bishop’s excommunication, thus returning him to the Church’s good graces.

We make no effort to diminish the outlandish and hurtful statements of Richard Williamson, the renegade bishop in question, nor to grant any tolerance to the delusional world of Holocaust denial.

It is the actions of the Vatican — and the reaction of the larger Church — that interest us.

Granted, the initial mistake — and such we believe it to be — was a big one.

Pope Benedict XVI explained last week that his lifting of Williamson’s excommunication was intended as a “gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process of separation.”

It was, in other words, an internal Church move, initiated — the pontiff insists — without knowledge that Williamson had repeatedly, and quite recently, espoused his bizarre opinions on the Holocaust.

In a fascinating, and very rare, papal admission of a mistake, Benedict acknowledged that had he and his coterie of assistants only checked the Internet, the true scope of Williamson’s activities would have been known to them — hence, no rehabilitation of the bishop would have taken place.

That might seem incredible to those of us who are more web savvy, but not such a stretch when one considers the very plausible possibility that such technological develop- ments might take a bit longer to penetrate the inner sanctums of the ultra-traditional Vatican.

Even more significant than the papal admission — and the accompanying heartfelt apology — was the Catholic reaction to the Williamson affair. Jewish protest is, of course, to be expected in such an instance, but Catholic protest — from laity and clergy alike, not to mention bishops and cardinals — was far from expected.

That development suggests that Catholic-Jewish relations — and Church recognition, not only of the facticity of the Holocaust but its centrality to Jewish sensitivities — are by now so ingrained that a serious violation of that ecumenical bond can trigger rapid and significant Catholic defiance to the Vatican.

We can find no greater testimony to the improvement in Catholic-Jewish relations than this. The modern-era respect between two ancient religious traditions was sorely tested in recent weeks, and the test was passed.

Read the related blog entry, “The Pope and the Holocaust denier“, on Rocky Mountain Jew.

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