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O'Malley defends pope's decision

Criticizes bishop's Holocaust denial

HIS RESPONSE Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley (right) was sharply critical of the Society of Saint Pius X, of which Bishop Richard Williamson is a leader. HIS RESPONSE Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley (right) was sharply critical of the Society of Saint Pius X, of which Bishop Richard Williamson is a leader.
By Michael Paulson
Globe Staff / February 1, 2009
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Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley of Boston is the first high-level church official in the United States to defend publicly Pope Benedict XVI's decision to lift the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop, but he also apologized to the Jewish community for the bishop's "outrageous" remarks.

O'Malley's comments, posted late Friday night to his blog, are the latest in a series of explanations and apologies from church officials worldwide seeking to contain the damage to Jewish-Catholic relations, and to the reputation of Benedict, from the revelation that Bishop Richard Williamson, one of the four bishops whose excommunication the pope revoked, does not believe that the Nazis used gas chambers to kill Jews.

The four bishops are leaders of the Society of Saint Pius X, a schismatic, right-wing, antimodernist Catholic movement, and they were excommunicated in 1988 because they were ordained without Vatican permission. As the controversy over Williamson has raged, there have been reports that some other clergy affiliated with the Society also hold anti-Semitic beliefs.

O'Malley had not responded to requests for comment about the controversy from the Globe, and has told local Jewish community leaders seeking to meet with him about the controversy that he will be available in mid- to late February. But in his weekly blog posting, increasingly the cardinal's medium of choice for commenting on issues of public concern, O'Malley took a two-pronged approach, supporting the pope's action while criticizing Williamson.

"We are very sorry that the people in the Jewish community have been so pained and outraged by Bishop Williamson's statements," O'Malley wrote. "It is very important for us to always remember the Holocaust so that such an atrocity could never take place again."

The cardinal was sharply critical of the Society of Saint Pius X, saying that Williamson's remark about the Holocaust raises questions about the "caliber of the leadership" of the movement. The society has as many as 1.5 million followers, predominantly in Europe but including a congregation that meets in Woburn. The cardinal said, "We know that these are generally people who practice their faith and try to live a Christian life seriously but, unfortunately, I believe that they have been misled by their leadership."

In a somewhat novel argument, the cardinal also suggested that Williamson's remarks provide a rationale for the pope's efforts to bring the society back into the Catholic fold, because, "as terrible as the comments were, it underscores the importance for the Holy Father to have increasing influence over those communities." O'Malley called the pope's move a step toward "unity and reconciliation."

Relations between Catholics and Jews have strengthened dramatically since 1965, when Pope Paul VI issued an important declaration, known by its Latin name, Nostra Aetate, that effectively repudiated the theological basis for anti-Semitism by decreeing that the Jews of today should not be charged with the death of Jesus. It also said that "although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures."

In recent years, Benedict and O'Malley have been more focused on internal church issues than on interfaith relations, particularly when compared with their predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Bernard F. Law, who had very strong personal connections with the Jewish community.

Boston-area Jewish leaders yesterday welcomed O'Malley's blog posting, but said they remain concerned about the ramifications of warming Vatican relations with a group skeptical of the Second Vatican Council, the gathering of bishops in the 1960s that led to the church's repudiation of anti-Semitism.

Two local organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the Jewish Community Relations Council, have been pushing for a meeting with O'Malley to discuss the issue.

"We have no doubt that Cardinal O'Malley's intentions are beyond question," said Robert Leikind, director of the Boston chapter of the American Jewish Committee. "The concern that many of us in the Jewish community have is that the actions of the Holy Father reflect a softening of the commitments that were made at Vatican II, and the work that has been continued since Vatican II, to build greater understanding between Jews and the Catholic community, and that's going to be a matter of discussion over the coming months, and I think there needs to be some clarification at this juncture."

Derrek L. Shulman, the New England regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said he understood that the cardinal "is going to defer to the leadership of the Catholic Church," but also that he appreciated O'Malley reaffirming the historicity of the Holocaust and his acknowledgment of the concerns of the Jewish community.

Shulman said the Jewish community wants to meet with O'Malley, "to make sure he is aware of the extent of our concern about bringing back Bishop Williamson, which raises a question about the strengths of the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. We want assurances that those aren't on the table, and we want to make sure the pope's action isn't misinterpreted as a tacit condoning of the teachings of the Society of Saint Pius X."

On Wednesday, the pope addressed the controversy over his decision to lift the excommunications, saying, "I hope that this gesture of mine will be followed by a prompt commitment on their part to take the further steps necessary to achieve full communion with the church, thus showing true faithfulness to, and true recognition of, the magisterium and authority of the pope and of Vatican Council II."

And the pope expressed "my full and indisputable solidarity" with the Jewish people, saying of the Holocaust, "Millions of Jews were cruelly massacred, innocent victims of blind racial and religious hatred."

In an interview yesterday, John L. Allen Jr., the National Catholic Reporter correspondent and Vatican specialist, said O'Malley's comments are in line with "the damage control efforts" that have been coming from the Vatican.

"There is a wide recognition in the church that this is a pretty serious problem, and people have been trying to do what they can to contain the fallout," he said.

For the full text of the cardinal's statement and more on the controversy, visit the Globe's religion blog at www.boston.com/religion. Michael Paulson can be reached at mpaulson@globe.com.

Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley (right) was sharply critical of the Society of Saint Pius X, of which Bishop Richard Williamson is a leader.

his response

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