Pope Benedict XVI has lifted the excommunications of four bishops consecrated without papal consent 20 years ago by the late French ultraconservative Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, a group that includes one bishop who has denied the Holocaust.
The pope acted despite an outcry from Jews after the bishop was shown in a Swedish state TV interview this week saying that historical evidence "is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed." The report prompted Rome's chief rabbi to ask the Vatican to halt plans to rehabilitate him.
The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, said Bishop Richard Williamson's views had no impact on the decision to lift the excommunication decree on Saturday.
The pope's decision by no means implies "sharing (Williamson's) ideas or his comments, which will be judged on their own," the ANSA news agency quoted Lombardi as saying.
Lefebvre founded the Swiss-based Society of St. Pius X in 1969, opposed to the liberalizing reforms of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council, particularly its allowing of Mass to be celebrated in local languages instead of Latin.
The four bishops were excommunicated in 1988 after Lefebvre consecrated them without Rome's consent. Lefebvre was excommunicated as well.
In a statement Saturday, the current head of the society and one of the rehabilitated bishops, Bernard Fellay, expressed his gratitude to Benedict and said the decree would help the whole Catholic Church.
The Society believes the Church is in crisis and blames in part the doctrinal reforms of Vatican II, including its ecumenical outreach, for causing it.
"Our Society wishes to be always more able to help the pope to remedy the unprecedented crisis which presently shakes the Catholic world," Fellay said.
Benedict made clear from the start of his pontificate that he wanted to normalize relations with the society, meeting within months of his election with Fellay and convening cardinals to discuss bringing the society back into the Vatican's fold.
In 2007, Benedict answered one of Fellay's key demands by relaxing restrictions on celebrating the old Latin Mass. In lifting the excommunication decree, he answered the society's second condition for beginning theological discussions about normalizing relations.
In lifting the decrees, Benedict risked a new clash with Jews, who had already been incensed by the rehabilitation of the old Latin Mass because it contained a prayer calling for their conversion.
On Saturday, Shimon Samuels of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Paris said he understood the German-born pope's desire for Christian unity but said Benedict could have excluded Williamson, whose return to the church he said will have a "political cost" for the Vatican.
"I'm certain as a man who has known the Nazi regime in his own flesh, he understands you have to be very careful and very selective," Samuels said.
While Williamson's comments may be offensive and erroneous, they are not an excommunicable offense, said Monsignor Robert Wister, professor of church history at Immaculate Conception School of Theology at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.
"To deny the Holocaust is not a heresy even though it is a lie," he said. "The excommunication can be lifted because he is not a heretic, but he remains a liar."