Werner Thissen, the archbishop of Hamburg, said Pope Benedict XVI should have lifted the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson only if he had recanted his "unspeakable" claim that the Nazis did not use gas chambers.
He criticised the Vatican's "sloppy" handling of Bishop Williamson's rehabilitation, which caused a furore around the world, incensing Jewish groups and moderate Catholics.
Lifting the excommunication, imposed on Williamson and three other renegade bishops 20 years ago, has proved a public relations disaster for the Vatican, which underestimated the anger that the move would arouse.
Days before the bishops were welcomed back into the Church's embrace, Swedish television broadcast an interview with Bishop Williamson in which he said that historical accounts of the Holocaust were "lies, lies, lies."
"To rehabilitate a Holocaust denier is always a bad decision. That the efforts of the Pope coincide with the unspeakable remarks of Bishop Williamson is terrible," said Archbishop Thissen.
"It shouldn't have happened that an act of goodness – concern for Church unity – should be associated with a bad one – that is, the debate about a Holocaust denier. This definitely undermines trust in the Church."
Bishop Williamson, who runs a church in Argentina, is a member of the ultraconservative Society of Saint Pius X, which Benedict wants to reconcile with the rest of the Catholic Church.
Archbishop Thissen defended the Pope's efforts to try to build relations with traditionalists, but said the controversy over Williamson was "very damaging" to the Church's relations with Jews.
He suggested the Pope was badly advised and said the cardinal in charge of the rehabilitation, Dario Castrillon Hoyos of Colombia, should have known about Williamson's extreme views.
Asked whether the rehabilitation should be rescinded, Archbishop Thissen said that it should at least be re-examined. The backlash against the Pope has been particularly strong in Germany.
At the weekend, Bishop Gebhard Fuerst of Rottenburg-Stuttgart branded the rehabilitation "a betrayal of trust, especially among Jewish sisters and brothers in their relationship to the church" and last week, Gerhard Ludwig Mueller, the bishop in Pope Benedict's home city of Regensburg, said Williamson would not be welcome in its churches.
Germany's Jews were so angered by Williamson's rehabilitation that the head of the Central Council for German Jews pulled out of a planned dialogue with Catholic Church representatives.
Critics said Benedict's decision to welcome back Williamson despite the bishop's anti-Semitic views was a reflection of his autocratic style and a refusal to consult his advisers.
"This and other controversies point to a fatal systemic flaw in the Benedict papacy that is destroying his effectiveness as pope: he does not consult experts who might challenge his views and inclinations," said Father Tom Reese, senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Centre at Georgetown University in the United States.
"He is surrounded by people who are not as smart as he is and who would never think of questioning him."
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