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Holocaust denial: Vatican shifts into damage control

The Vatican is trying to clarify efforts to reconcile with a sharply right-wing set of bishops excommunicated in 1988.

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Pope Benedict is known for a theological brilliance rooted in a traditional conception of Catholicism as the true church. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he held the highly influential post of "Head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith" and was known informally among liberals as "the Pope's Rottweiler" for his purges of Vatican II advocates. The Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, helped Ratzinger rise to the papacy, saying it was his destiny to restore the church, particularly in a Europe viewed as in spiritual decline and increasingly pagan. Benedict's project is to bring back some of the more devout faithful, such as the Pius X group – whose vision hearks back to a medieval period of stability, certainty, authority, and papal infallibility.

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Yet Benedicts efforts are perceived, rightly or wrongly, as reversing the ecumenical focus of his predecessor, the popular John Paul II – and setting up "clashes" between faiths. The current outcry in the Jewish world comes in a context of other moves by the Vatican to step up to controversial religious lines: In 2006, at a speech in his academic hometown of Regensburg, the pope angered the Muslim world by quoting a 14th-century Byzantine emperor who said that Islam and the prophet Muhammad had brought only "evil and inhuman things." In 2007, he irritated Protestants by pronouncing their churches illegitimate and in need of reconciliation with Rome, in order to live fully in Christ. Even early efforts by Benedict to harmonize with the Eastern Orthodox world have run into criticism by Russian and other orthodox prelates for a lack of follow up and for aggressive missionizing in their lands.

Wilton Wynn, a long-time Vatican observer and writer who was close to Pope John Paul II, said in a phone interview from Rome that Benedict had been emerging as a strong proponent of "right-wing Catholicism, almost reactionary," when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger, but that when Ratzinger become Pope Benedict, "there was almost no discussion about this. Now we are beginning to see the differences.

"I think the papacy is moving to the right more and more. He [Benedict] may even rather have a small dedicated following than a broad, less dedicated community."

Last week, Benedict angered the German Catholic hierarchy by appointing – without traditional consultation – a bishop in Linz, Austria, who had said that hurricane Katrina was divine retribution for sin, and a cleansing of nightclubs and abortion clinics.

This week, amid the furor, Benedict made a series of affirmative statements about St. Paul, Martin Luther, and the Catholic church's need to learn the lessons of the Protestant reformation.

Yet on Thursday, the Financial Times Deutschland quoted Georg Brunnhuber, a lawmaker from Merkel's Christian Democratic Party, who spoke to the pope this week and said the Vatican "is horrified by the discussion in Germany.... The impression there is that all of the anti-Catholic resentments hiding under the surface in Germany are now coming to the surface."