BISHOP RICHARD WILLIAMSONThe capacity of the Roman Catholic Church to continue to inspire both awe and revulsion in the modern age is extraordinary.
This is a church with a flock of some 1.1 billion worldwide, that provides much-needed humanitarian relief in poor countries and runs a parochial school system in the U.S. that for many inner city children can be the difference between succeeding and failing.
Yet this is the same church that has basically turned a blind eye to an epidemic of pedophile priests and now plans to lift the excommunications of four ultra-conservative bishops, including anti-Semite and Holocaust denier Richard Williamson.
The wrong-headed move by Pope Benedict XVI (above, left) was an effort to bring rebel priests back into the Vatican fold by, among other things, making the old Latin Mass more available.
Williamson and the other bishops had been consecrated without papal consent 20 years ago by the late French ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (below, right), but no sooner had the pope taken the action that Williamson said in a Swedish state TV interview that historical evidence "is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed."
Lefebvre had rebelled against the Vatican's modernizing reforms of the 1960s, including replacing Latin with local languages at Mass.
"The Holy Father in this decision was inspired by the wish that full reconciliation and full communion can be achieved soon," the Vatican said.
Williamson is an especially problematic choice for reconciliation.
This hardliner, a member of Lefebvre's Society of St Pius X, has endorsed the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery that has appeared in various forms that purports to be an ancient document outlining a Jewish and Masonic plot to achieve world domination. He also faces prosecution in Benedict's native Germany for repeatedly siding with Holocaust deniers.
The Roman Catholic Church's historic relationship with Judaism has been deeply troubled, while Vatican's response to the Holocaust remains a source of great shame for thinking Catholics despite substantial efforts to whitewash the record of Pope Pius XII during World War II.
As revisionists had it, Pius did not speak out against the Holocaust because he feared for the safety of German Roman Catholics, but his indifference to the plight of Jews has been copiously documented.The report about Williamson's Swedish TV interview prompted Rome's chief rabbi to ask the Vatican to halt plans to rehabilitate him. The Vatican had no comment.