ROME (JTA) — Pope Benedict XVI admits in a letter that his rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop backfired.
The remarkable letter to bishops, whose text was officially released Thursday by the Vatican, also says the Vatican must become Internet savvy to prevent further mishaps.
Benedict specifically addressed the Jan. 21 lifting of the excommunication order on Richard Williamson and three other traditionalist bishops, saying it unleashed "an avalanche of protests" whose "bitterness laid bare wounds deeper than those of the present moment."
Lifting the excommunications had been intended to heal a rift in the church. But due to the uproar over Williamson, the pope said, it "suddenly appeared as something completely different: as the repudiation of reconciliation between Christians and Jews," and a revocation of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.
The pope continued, "A gesture of reconciliation with an ecclesial group engaged in a process of separation thus turned into its very antithesis: an apparent step backwards with regard to all the steps of reconciliation between Christians and Jews taken since the Council — steps which my own work as a theologian had sought from the beginning to take part in and support." This, Benedict said, he "can only deeply regret."
"I have been told that consulting the information available on the Internet would have made it possible to perceive the problem early on. I have learned the lesson that in the future in the Holy See we will have to pay greater attention to that source of news," the pope said.
A pontiffs very rarely issues a document admitting errors in such a detailed and personal way. Benedict said he was particularly hurt by the "open hostility" from within the Church itself.
"Precisely for this reason I thank all the more our Jewish friends, who quickly helped to clear up the misunderstanding and to restore the atmosphere of friendship and trust which — as in the days of Pope John Paul II — has also existed throughout my pontificate and, thank God, continues to exist."
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder praised the pope.
"The Pope has found clear and unequivocal words regarding Bishop Williamson’s Holocaust denial, and he deserves praise for admitting that mistakes were made within the Vatican in the handling of this affair," Lauder said in a statement.
"The Pope’s letter conveys the essential requirements for interreligious dialogue: candor and the willingness to tackle difficult issues squarely. His expressed anguish at the events following the Holocaust-denying statements by Williamson reflects the similar emotional pain felt by Jews worldwide during this affair," he said. "We reciprocate his words of appreciation for Jewish efforts to restore interreligious dialogue and will continue to work with the Catholic Church to further strengthen mutual understanding and respect."