By Robert Pigott
Religious affairs correspondent, BBC News
Richard Williamson's views on Holocaust
Pope Benedict's decision to rescind the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson appeared to be the latest in a series of olive branches held out to Roman Catholic traditionalists, who have never come to terms with attempts to modernise the Church.
Three other men ordained as bishops at the same time, in January 2009, were also readmitted to the Church.
But if the Pope hoped to prevent a split in the Church from widening, without damaging the Vatican's fragile relations with Jews, he seems not to have reckoned with Bishop Williamson's incendiary views on the Holocaust.
Bishop Williamson, who was born in Britain, gave an interview to a Swedish television programme in November 2008 in which he disputed that six million Jews had died at the hands of the Nazis, and claimed that none had died in gas chambers.
He said: "I believe there were no gas chambers," and insisted that up to "300,000 Jews perished in Nazi concentration camps but none of them by gas chambers".
These are not the only eccentric views held by Richard Williamson, whose "illicit" ordination as bishop by the French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre in 1988 led Pope John Paul II to excommunicate him from the Roman Catholic Church.
A woman can do a good imitation of handling ideas, but then she will not be thinking properly as a woman
Williamson has claimed that the United States planned the attacks of 9/11, and has accused Freemasons of conspiring against the Church.
He also has controversial attitudes towards women. He is quoted as saying: "A woman can do a good imitation of handling ideas, but then she will not be thinking properly as a woman. Did this lawyeress check her hairdo before coming into court? If she did, she is a distracted lawyer. If she did not, she is one distorted woman."
Williamson was born an Anglican, the son of a vicar, in 1940. He went to Winchester College and read literature at Cambridge University, before teaching in Africa and converting to Catholicism in 1971.
He became a member of the Society of St Pius X, which had been founded by Archbishop Lefebvre in 1970 to counter the reforms in the Church made by the Second Vatican Council during the previous decade.
Williamson was a novice at the London Oratory, studied at Lefebvre's seminary, and was ordained a priest in 1976. Archbishop Lefebvre announced in 1988 that he intended to ordain Williamson, and three other priests, as bishops, and did so despite warnings that he would be excommunicated.
The Vatican has said it was unaware of Bishop Williamson's views about the Holocaust when it decided to cancel his excommunication. But, given that they have not been exactly secret, the explanation seems unlikely to pacify Jewish critics of the decision.
As recently as March 2008, Bishop Williamson described as "authentic" the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" which purports to reveal Jewish plots to achieve world domination. The document is considered to be a forgery which originated in Tsarist Russia.
BWilliamson denies prejudice against Jews. He said: "My definition of anti-Semitism is to be against every single Jew purely because he's a Jew. That's not at all my case. I once had a Jewish rabbi come and speak to seminarians. Does that sound to you like anti-Semitism?"
Just how complete is Bishop Williamson's rehabilitation? He is regarded as a bishop; his ordination, although "illicit" was "valid". But Bishop Williamson - and the other three "illicit" bishops - will continue to be forbidden from practising as bishops. There is no immediate sign that the Society of Pius X will itself be welcomed back into the fold by the Pope.
Some liberal Catholics say Bishop Williamson and his colleagues have had their excommunications rescinded only because they are validly ordained bishops. Father Thomas Reese of Georgetown University suggests that because the four men could ordain other bishops (validly, if illicitly) "the schism can go on forever".
Father Reese continues: "If the bishops ordain more bishops, they will again suffer excommunication. If the bishops refrain from ordaining new bishops, the schism ends when these four bishops die even if they are not reconciled with the pope. If lifting the excommunication is the price for keeping the bishops from ordaining more bishops, then in the view of the Vatican it is a cheap price to pay".
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