Pope Benedict XVI is usually a thoughtful man. Though not as charismatic or media-savvy as his predecessor, John Paul II, his view of papal authority is cut from the same ecclesiastical cloth.
The German-born Pope Benedict, who caused a stir when he insulted Muslims at the beginning of his tenure nearly four years ago, is now at the center of a controversy that has riled many Jews. Two weeks ago the Vatican offered to reinstate the 600,000 members of the Society of St. Pius X and its four "bishops" if they renounced their schismatic doctrines and accepted the teachings of the mainstream Catholic Church.
The group includes Richard Williamson, a notorious Holocaust denier and follower of late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre. Mr. Williamson and his colleagues were improperly ordained 20 years ago by Archbishop Lefebvre without Pope John Paul's blessing; they were then excommunicated. Lefebvre's followers also rejected Catholic orthodoxy and the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, including dialogue with the worldwide community of Jews.
Since Vatican II, official Catholic teaching has been unequivocal in its denunciations of anti-Semitism, and Pope Benedict has been adamant in describing it as a heresy. Still, he has made reaching out to "traditionalists" and healing the wounds of division a priority.
To that end, Mr. Williamson has been reinstated as a member of the church. Last month, however, he told an interviewer on Swedish television that far less than 6 million Jews were murdered during World War II and none died in gas chambers. Later, after a storm of criticism. he apologized for his "imprudent" remarks.
Until Mr. Williamson rejects his anti-Semitic theories, he should continue to be treated like a schismatic. While Pope Benedict's pastoral desire to bring back 600,000 lost sheep is admirable, the church will suffer if he appears not to take seriously the hatred of Jews.
Yesterday German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on the pope to make a "very clear" rejection of Holocaust denials, while the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago, issued his own sharp rebuke of Mr. Williamson's remarks.
Although the pope has scrupulously denounced anti-Semitism, there is no escaping the heavier burden he carries as a German and a former member of the Hitler Youth. Any hint of accommodation will hurt his church.