Feb. 4, 2009— -- Pope Benedict XVI's latest public relations fiasco centers on British Bishop Richard Williamson, a longtime Holocaust denier who was excommunicated 20 years ago. Last month, Benedict began the process of bringing the prelate back into the fold.
Under pressure, the Vatican today issued a statement, saying that before Williamson can be fully readmitted into the church, he must recant his statements denying the Holocaust.
"The positions of Bishop Williamson (on the Holocaust) are absolutely unacceptable and firmly rejected by the Holy Father," the statement read. "The Holocaust must be for all a warning against the forgetting, against the denial or reductionism. ... Violence against an individual human is violence against all."
The pope's announcement on Jan. 24 that he was lifting the excommunication on the traditionalist bishop came days after Williamson made another round of anti-Semitic comments on Swedish television.
"The Germans have a guilt complex about their having gassed 6 million Jews, but I don't think 6 million Jews were gassed," Williamson said.
The Vatican insists the pope was unaware of Williamson's history of inflammatory statements when he rehabilitated him and three other bishops. Still, the announcement touched off an uproar around the world.
"The fact that the Vatican and Pope Benedict would welcome back a Holocaust denier [was] shocking and outrageous," said Rabbi Eric Greenberg, director of interfaith policy for the Anti-Defamation League. "It was a blow to us and the Jewish people. Holocaust denial is a form of anti-Semitism."
Williamson was originally excommunicated, not because of his comments about the Holocaust, but because the Vatican had not approved his ordination as bishop. The separation caused a long-running rift with right-wing Catholics. The Vatican says the pope was trying to bring the bishop back into the fold to mend this divide.
"The Vatican has rather spectacularly failed to communicate [its] logic to the outside world," said John Allen, senior correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. That problem, says Allen, is systemic.
Even in his first public appearance after the scandal broke, the pope hosted a group of circus performers, horsing around and playing with a lion cub before expressing his "full and unquestionable solidarity" with the Jews.
The pope's actions prompted German Chancellor Angela Merkel to launch a rare public rebuke, calling for the Vatican to make its rejection of Holocaust denials "very clear."
Bishop Apologizes to Pope, Has Not Recanted Holocaust Denials
Williamson has apologized to the pope for causing him embarrassment, but has not repudiated any of his statements about the Holocaust. Last November, Williamson said he believed there were no gas chambers during World War II and that as few as 200,000 Jews were killed.
This is not the first time Benedict has angered a major world religion. In 2006, he gave a speech in which he read a quote that said Islam was evil, setting off riots across the Muslim world.
And despite the fact that the Vatican recently launched a YouTube channel to help reach young people, critics say the pope has a tin ear.
"Clearly, public relations is not a high priority of this pontificate," Allen said. "Benedict XVI is the kind of leader who doesn't convene focus groups or take instapolls before he makes decisions. "
Some worry that problems with public relations may undermine Benedict's papacy and take attention away from his fight for peace and social justice.
"None of that message is getting through because it's overwhelmed by these disastrous decisions that are overshadowing the good things that he does. And that's not good for the pope or the church," said Father Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center.