The Cardinal Behind the Pope's Lefebvrite Flap

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Marco Longari / AFP / Getty

Colombian Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos

With pressure mounting after his controversial reconciliation with a breakaway church group, Pope Benedict XVI has ordered one of the bishops of the arch-traditionalist Lefebvrite movement to publicly retract his statements denying the Holocaust. The Vatican issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon saying the Pope had not been aware of the claims by Richard Williamson — one of four Lefebvrite bishops brought back into the fold late last month after 20 years of excommunication — that Nazi gas chambers didn't exist and no more than 300,000 Jews died in concentration camps.

"Bishop Williamson, in order to be admitted to the episcopal [bishop] functions of the Church, must in an absolutely unequivocal and public way distance himself from his positions regarding the Shoah," the statement said, using the Hebrew word for the Holocaust. (See pictures of Holocaust survivors sharing their memories.)

The sudden ultimatum, which came less than 24 hours after unprecedented public criticism was voiced by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, raises more questions than it answers. Why did it take so long? How will Williamson specifically and the Lefebvrites in general react? Could this scuttle the Pope's high-stakes gambit to end the excommunication of the breakaway bishops, leaving him permanently damaged both inside and outside the Vatican walls? But perhaps the starting point would be to ask: Who is steering the ship for Benedict during what is turning into the most turbulent crisis of his papacy?

It must first be clear that the Pope himself badly wanted the rapprochement with the Lefebvrites, a throwback movement that uses the Latin-rite Mass and shuns any attempt to have dialogue with other religions. Although he doesn't agree with all their views — and certainly not Williamson's Holocaust-denying — Benedict had hoped that by undoing the excommunication, the Lefebvrites would eventually accept the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council and become a new force for contemporary conservative Catholicism in the West. (Read "Germany Confronts Its Dark Past.")

But if Benedict is the inspiration behind the move, few inside the Vatican doubt who is its executor. A few days after the surprise signing of the Jan. 21 papal decree that overturned the excommunication, one well-placed Vatican official noted, "It has every appearance of being the work of Castrillón."

Vatican insiders know Cardinal Darío Castrillón Hoyos well. The steely-eyed Colombian Cardinal, 79, served for nine years as head of the Congregation for Clergy, where in 2002 he drew the wrath of victims of American-priest sex abuse for denying that the Catholic Church had any particular problem with pedophiles in its ranks. But most of all, Castrillón is a dyed-in-the-wool traditionalist. He was named by Pope John Paul II as the go-between in relations with fringe traditionalist groups like the Lefebvrites, whose official name is the Society of St. Pius X. Castrillón pushed hard for Benedict to expand the use of Latin-rite Mass, which the Pontiff did in 2007. Four years earlier, Castrillón had presided over the first officially sanctioned Latin-rite Mass in Rome since the Second Vatican Council, held at the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore. The following year, it is worth noting, disgraced Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law was named Archpriest of the same basilica, which has been the site of subsequent Latin Masses.

The past two years, working independently from other established Vatican dicasteries, Castrillón was busy hammering out the details to make way for the reconciliation with the Lefebvrites. Other top Holy See officials were, by all accounts, shut out from both the substance of the accord and its timing and presentation to the outside world. That it coincided with the airing of a television interview with Williamson in which he espoused his views of the Holocaust could be chalked up to bad luck. But the British-born bishop has said similar things in the past, as have several other Lefebvrite members; the fact that nothing was done ahead of time to try to assuage Jewish concerns doomed the release of the papal decree.

According to the Vatican official, Castrillón was bound to forge ahead as he pleased. Born in Medell√≠n, Colombia, he has displayed courage, tenacity and a willingness — even an eagerness — to mix church and state. He has gone deep into Colombian jungles to mediate between leftist guerrillas and right-wing death squads, and once, while still a bishop, he showed up at the house of cocaine king Pablo Escobar disguised as a milkman. Revealing himself, Castrill√≥n implored Escobar to confess his sins, which, presumably at some considerable length, the vicious gangster did. "Anyone who's had interaction with him will tell you he's an imperious [person] who acts first and worries about the consequences later," says the Vatican official. "Sometimes I don't think he even cares about the consequences."

Castrillón expressed surprise when it was revealed that Williamson was a Holocaust denier. Some Catholic blogs have castigated Castrillón for not doing enough of a background check while vetting the Lefebvrites. One of the Cardinals closest to Benedict, and a former student, Archbishop of Vienna Cristoph Schonborn, took the unusual step of criticizing his fellow Cardinals of the Roman Curia, saying that "some collaborators of the Pope" had let the Pontiff down. The consequences for Benedict have been a 10-day avalanche of criticism — other Lefebvrites have come out of the woodwork with controversial statements — culminating in a call from the German Chancellor for the German Pope to react more sternly to Williamson's views on the Holocaust. It is unclear if Castrillón had anything to do with Wednesday's ultimatum.

Read about a Holocaust series on Iranian TV.