Profile: Pope Benedict XVI

The Pope is emerging as an ultra-reactionary. First he antagonised Muslims. Now he has outraged Jewish groups by favouring a Holocaust denier.

Pope Benedict XVI. Photograph: Getty Images

Pope John Paul II contributed to the collapse of the Soviet system and pressed home spiritual values in a world he saw in steep moral decline. Papa Wojtyla castigated Reaganomics and Thatcherism even as the Berlin Wall fell. He followed John XXIII in extending the hand of friendship to the Jewish faith. When he died, in April 2005, John Paul bequeathed the more-than-billion-strong Catholic Church (16 per cent of the population of the planet) to a 78-year-old German theologian named Joseph Ratzinger.

Both men survived the Second World War, in strikingly different circumstances. Wojtyla was a slave worker in a Polish quarry. He directed and acted in anti-fascist plays in an underground theatre and attended a secret seminary. He helped Jewish refugees. Ratzinger was a member, albeit reluctantly, of the Hitler Youth, and served as an anti-aircraft gunner in the Wehrmacht, whiling away periods of inaction by reading Goethe and Schiller. He would look back nostalgically, as if through a mist of incense, on the rich Catholic liturgy and ornate vestments of churches in his Bavarian homeland.

He would never see the Third Reich as a German phenomenon. Preaching at Auschwitz many years later, he said he had come there as a son of "that people over which a ring of criminals rose to power by false promises . . . with the result that our people could be used and abused as an instrument of their thirst for destruction and power". In the 1950s he became a seminary student and rose, via academic theology, to the top Vatican job of protecting doctrinal orthodoxy. Finally, he was elected Pope Benedict XIV after a conclave of only two days.

Had John Paul II been alive today, as the global financial crisis unfolds, observers would praise him for his unique moral guidance. Benedict XVI, however, is embroiled in a squalid quarrel that has compromised his moral authority. On 24 January 2009, he rescinded the excommunication, imposed by John Paul II in June 1988, on four dissident Catholic bishops, one of whom is a blatant Holocaust denier. The men are members of a breakaway Catholic group known as the ­Society of Saint Pius X. They were illicitly raised to their bishoprics by the society's founder, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, also excommunicated in 1988.

The leader of the four is one Bernard Fellay, who has been negotiating reconciliation with Benedict for several years. Another, Bernard Tissier de Mallerais, has in the past, with consummate irony, accused Benedict himself of apostasy. A third, Bishop Richard Williamson, is the Holocaust denier. He is 68 and an Anglican convert to Catholicism under the influence of the late Malcom Muggeridge. He was rector of a seminary near Buenos Aires, but was dismissed from the post early this month. An old boy of Winchester public school and a Cambridge graduate, he was once a novice at the Catholic Oratory in the Brompton Road in London.

The raison d'être of the Society of Saint Pius X is to deplore the reforms of the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) of the mid-1960s. Lefebvrists, as they are also known, have a long list of discontents: these include a loathing of equal status for women and a hatred of homosexuality. They are opposed to the Vatican II document that absolved contemporary Jews of responsibility for the crucifixion of Jesus. In particular, the society laments the virtual abolition of the Latin Mass by Paul VI in 1968, and its replacement with a modernised ritual in the vernacular.

The name of the society is significant. Pius X (pope from 1903-14), officially sainted by one of his keenest admirers, the wartime pope, Pius XII, did much to shape the Catholic Church from the first decade of the 20th century to the 1960s. Pius X initiated a campaign against what he called the "Modernists" - Catholic liberal teachers who appealed to historical criticism and non-literal interpretations of scripture ("They should be beaten with fists," he said). Pius presided over a worldwide witch-hunt for Modernists, or liberals, involving spies, denunciations without hearings, dismissals, excommunications and persecutions beyond the grave. Every priest was required to take an anti-Modernist oath at ordination. It was enough to be seen carrying a liberal newspaper to stand accused. When the English leader of the Modernists, Father George Tyrrell, died in 1909, he was refused burial in consecrated ground. The priest who said prayers over his grave was suspended. In the view of the late pope's followers today, the Church of Pius X - from their perspective the authentic Catholic Church - has been wrecked by the reforms of Vatican II.

Following Benedict's act of reconciliation, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was outraged and demanded "clarification" of the Vatican's position on the Holocaust. Holocaust denial in Germany is a crime punishable by five years' imprisonment. Shocked German-speaking cardinals have unprecedentedly criticised the pontiff and his advisers. Williamson's utterances, which include denial of al-Qaeda's involvement in the attacks of 11 September 2001 (usually a prelude to Jewish con­spiracy fantasies), have ignited anger throughout the Catholic and Jewish worlds. The secular media were equally astonished. An editorial in the Financial Times opined that Benedict was guilty of a "solipsism of cosmic proportions". The veteran BBC Rome correspondent, David Willey, commented in the Catholic weekly the Tablet: "In three decades of covering Vatican matters, I have never seen a communications debacle comparable to [this]." But was the Williamson affair just an unfortunate gaffe in an otherwise competent papacy? Or was there method in Benedict's blunder?

A spate of recent papal initiatives speaks for itself. In the same week as the Williamson debacle, Benedict (against the recommendations of the local hierarchy) personally honoured with a bishopric a right-wing Austrian priest who had publicly preached that Hurricane Katrina was a retribution for the abortionists, pros­titutes and homosexuals of New Orleans. Just before Christmas, Benedict delivered a global sermon on how gay lifestyle choices were as much a threat to God's creation as global warming. In October, he had announced his desire to make a saint of Pius XII, provoking the anger of Jewish groups, which maintain that Pius did not do enough to save Jewish lives during the war. In the previous year, Benedict had announced the reinstatement of the Latin Mass, devoutly hoped and prayed for by the Society of Saint Pius X. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was on record as stating that Paul VI had exceeded his authority in replacing the old rite with modern versions. So where has Benedict's papacy been heading?

Benedict's election in April 2005 brought despondency to Catholic progressives, who feared the new pope would attempt to purge the Church of its "liberals". Benedict, they believed, would restore the Church shaped by Pius X, endorsed by Pius XI, and further espoused by Pius XII. The Church of the Piuses had rejected moves towards Christian unity, treasured ornate non-participatory liturgies, disdained democracy, kept women out of the Sanctuary, condemned liberalism, and drawn an equivalence between pluralism and relativism. It is no exaggeration to say that the Church of the Piuses colluded (if not actively collaborated) through the 1920s and 1930s with the regimes of Salazar, Franco and Mussolini. It was the future Pius XII, as Cardinal Pacelli, who in 1933 signed the Reichskonkordat (a bilateral agreement between Hitler and the Vatican). At the very outset of the regime, and in exchange for greater control over German Catholics, Pacelli negotiated the withdrawal of Catholics from social and political action. A feature of the deal was agreement that the Catholic Centre Party (the last democratic party under Nazism) would abolish itself after voting for the Enabling Act giving Hitler dictatorial powers.

Gleeful traditionalist Catholics confidently expected that Benedict’s election would signal the purging of Catholic liberalism and the revoking of the norms of Vatican II. As it happened, his first year brought no marked retrenchment: the reverse, in fact; or so it seemed. Benedict spent half a day with Father Hans Küng, the Swiss liberal theologian. He also gave a lengthy private audience to the late Oriana Fallaci, an Italian atheist, feminist and critic of Catholicism. Benedict found time to play the piano, and paced his workload.

He seemed comfortable with both sides of the progressive-traditionalist divide. In January 2006, he promulgated his first encyclical, God Is Love, the tone pastoral and irenic. Traditionalists were glum; the liberals relaxed. Then, in September 2006, Benedict set back Catholic-Islamic relations several eras with just two words. At his old university in Regensburg, Bavaria, he cited a 14th-century text referring to a debate between the Byzantine emperor Manuel II and a Persian Muslim. "Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new," he quoted the emperor as saying, "and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached." That same day, an Islamist terror group sent death threats to the Vatican. Benedict did not repine.

It was now remembered that after his election he had sacked the brilliant Vatican Arabist Archbishop Michael Fitzgerald, responsible for fostering relations with Muslim leaders. Moreover, he had earlier humiliated the Jesuit theologian Jacques Dupuis, for striving to establish a basis for a workable religious pluralism. The extraordinary meeting with the journalist Oriana Fallaci now made sense. In addition to her feminist writing, she had conducted a virulent campaign against the Muslim religion and way of life.

The Catholic Church, and the papacy in particular, had long found problems with the mere existence, let alone tolerance, of other religions. A succession of pontiffs, and notably Pope Pius IX (1846-78), declared respect for other religions a form of "insanity". Pius X, Pius XI and Pius XII only acknowledged the importance of religious freedom in countries where Catholicism was not the majority faith.

In 1965 a historic U-turn had occurred at the Second Vatican Council. After a battle royal, the council endorsed a model of mutual respect for other faiths similar to that of the American constitution: religious freedom, it said, was a human right. In another council document, Nostra Aetate ("In Our Age"), the Church said it rejected nothing that was "true and holy" in other world religions. Pius X, buried in St Peter's Basilica, might well have stirred in his grave. The Lefebvrist Society of his name to this day harbours clerics who routinely insult other religions and turn their backs on Christian ecumenism.

Is it possible that Benedict is of the same stamp? It was Ratzinger who, in 2000, wrote a document entitled Dominus Iesus. This stated that other than the Catholic faith, all religions, and indeed Christian denominations, were "defective". The take-home message was that the Anglican Church, for example, is not a proper church, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is a mere layperson of dubious baptism.

Here then is the long-term antagonism towards other religions and Christian denominations that has been the undercurrent of Benedict's thinking, putting him closer to the Society of Saint Pius X than the Catholic majority that honours Vatican II. Yet there is another undercurrent, just as important: Benedict's deep Bavarian nostalgia for the Latin liturgy shelved by Vatican II has been staunchly preserved and promoted by the Society of Saint Pius X.

In July 2007 Benedict issued instructions on the Latin rite for the whole Church. They spoke of his desire to restore the old liturgy on an equal footing with the new, in order to come to "an interior reconciliation at the heart of the Church". In the view of most Catholic commentators, this was bizarre, because there were so few aficionados of the Latin Mass and, indeed, very few priests skilled in conducting the old rituals. What possible reconciliation could he mean? In the light of his lifting of the Lefebvrist excommunications, it is now clear that he meant the four dissident bishops and the half-million membership of the Society of Saint Pius X.

In his days as a cardinal in charge of Catholic theological orthodoxy, Joseph Ratzinger often spoke of the importance of the true “salt of the earth” Catholics who would preserve the Church in the coming dark age of wholesale relativism and atheism. His attitude has been that if this means a vast number of half-hearted liberal Catholics would be lost to the true Church, so be it. The faithful, diminished “remnant”, he has preached, will keep alive the true doctrine and the authentic liturgy to await better times. It is now clear that he sees the Society of Saint Pius X as a crucial part of his salt of the earth remnant.

Did Benedict know Williamson was a Holocaust denier? It is hard to believe he did not; it was his job, as cardinal in charge of orthodoxy, to keep files on every last detail of a supposed dissident's beliefs and actions. The alarming feature of the Williamson incident, then, is that Benedict was prepared to deem the Holocaust denials mere foibles in the interests of bringing the Lefebvrists back home. And yet, Benedict is not so much bringing the Lefebvrists back in line with Vatican II, as leading the Church in the direction of the Society of Saint Pius X.

As the Pope reassures Angela Merkel and Jewish people around the world of his opposition to Holocaust denial, the Williamson incident will nevertheless have far-reaching consequences. Any expectation that the Vatican might be called on to use its traditional diplomatic expertise to help resolve differences between Israel and Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (another Holocaust denier), or Hamas and Israel, is extremely optimistic.

The overall direction of Benedict's papacy is now apparent for all Catholics to see. It was customary to characterise Joseph Ratzinger as a "conservative" during the decades he served as the Vatican's theological watchdog. In the light of recent events, "ultra-reactionary" might be too tame an epithet to describe the alliances he is forming with a politically obnoxious group which, given half a chance, would return the Church to the authoritarian auspices of their sainted patron, Pius X.

In the aftermath of the Williamson affair, the papacy's spiritual capital, built up by John Paul II, is diminished. In the expanding global economic depression, it is hard to see how Benedict will have the moral authority to give ethical guidance to the developed world, or offer solace to the poor of the developing world where most Catholics live.

If ultra-right-wing movements should rise up to take advantage of social fragmentation and unrest, will Benedict's papacy staunchly repudiate their claims? Or will he turn by a process of reactionary heliotropism back to the example of the 20th-century Piuses?

John Cornwell is director of the Science and Human Dimension Project at Jesus College, Cambridge, and author of "Hitler's Pope: the Secret History of Pius XII" (Penguin, £9.99)