This was Pope Benedict’s first meeting with Jews since the controversy over traditionalist bishop Richard Williamson—who denies the full extent of the Holocaust and maintains there were no gas chambers—began on January 24, when the Pope revoked the excommunication of the four bishops illegitimately ordained by Marcel Lefebvre in 1988.
On February 5 the Vatican stated that bishop Williamson must recant “in an absolutely unequivocal and public way” his positions regarding the Shoah. Which was in my opinion a very good news, but perhaps not the best way to settle the whole question, as Norm Geras pointed out at the time: “[T]he Catholic Church could simply state that Williamson’s beliefs about the Shoah aren’t compatible with membership.” This time, Pope Benedict went further: not only is denying or minimizing the Holocaust not compatible with being a bishop, but also with being a Catholic, as ”unacceptable and intolerable” in itself.
However, it is to be recalled that the lifting of the excommunication did not by any means heal the schism between Rome and Lefebvrists, as much as the lifting of the excommunications between Rome and patriarchate of Constantinople ( December 7, 1965) did not mark a return to unity between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches. In both cases, as Sandro Magister pointed out on his website, the lifting of the excommunication was intended to be the first step toward a possible reversing of the schism. Which means that there are still two separated and independent entities, and therefore Williamson couldn’t in any way be expelled from the Catholic Church, for the simple fact that he is not a member of it (which is not that bad, in my own personal view).
By the way, traditionalist bishop Bernard Fellay—one of those whose excommunication was lifted last month—said in an interview on Wednesday that his movement could not fully accept landmark 20th century Church reforms. He said his Society of Saint Pius X did not agree with a key document of the Second Vatican Council on respecting other religions. Which means that a healing of the schism is theoretically possible but not anywhere near probable.
As for the Jewish reaction to the Pope’s comments, Elan Steinberg, vice-president of American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, said that “the crisis is over ... the dialogue between Jews and Catholics can now move forward with confidence.” Malcolm Hoenlein, vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said: “We came here with heavy hearts because of recent events, but we came away pleased and honored by the words of His Holiness.”
PS: Here is the complete text of the Pope's speech to members of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, received at the Vatican on February 12, 2009.