Michael Gerson

This is the historical context for the Catholic Church's recent lifting of the excommunication against Richard Williamson, a bishop of the ultra-conservative Society of St. Pius X. Williamson claimed last month, "I believe that the historical evidence is strongly against, is hugely against 6 million Jews having been deliberately gassed in gas chambers as a deliberate policy of Adolf Hitler. ... I believe there were no gas chambers."

There is no reason to believe that Pope Benedict XVI has backtracked on the admirable Catholic engagement of the Jewish community under John Paul II. Benedict was obviously distressed and surprised by the Williamson controversy, using his audience last week to affirm his "full and indisputable solidarity" with Jews. His attempted reconciliation with dissidents such as Williamson was intended to be a statement about church unity, not about Holocaust history.

But it was a large, insensitive error. The Vatican admitted that Williamson's Holocaust denial was "unknown to the Holy Father at the time he revoked the excommunication." Not only the Obama administration struggles with an incompetent vetting process.

The stakes of such failure, however, are higher for the Vatican. Christianity -- still accused by the anger of genocide survivors and haunted by the unquiet ghosts of Auschwitz and Kigali -- cannot tolerate leaders who deny the Holocaust without adding to its greatest scandal and further discrediting its deepest ideals.

Benedict has ended up at the right place, demanding that Williamson recant his statements. But serious damage has been done because the wounds are so recent, and the historical offense so massive.

While Christian resistance to the Holocaust was rare, there were exceptions. Bernhard Lichtenberg, the provost of St. Hedwig's Cathedral in Berlin, was convicted of violating the Sedition Law after two parishioners informed on him to the Nazis. The judge summed up his crime as follows: "On 29 August 1941, the defendant held evensong ... before a large congregation. He closed the service with a prayer in which he said, among other things: 'Let us now pray for the Jews and for the wretched prisoners in the concentration camps.' ... He states that he has included the Jews in his prayers ever since the synagogues were first set on fire and Jewish businesses closed."

Lichtenberg served two years in prison and died on the way to Dachau. A church dedicated to his ideals cannot be the church of Bishop Williamson.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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