VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday replaced the cardinal responsible for lifting the excommunication of a Holocaust-denying bishop as part of the Vatican's effort to reconcile with an ultraconservative group.
The commission that had been in charge of the effort will now be under the authority of a powerful office seen as close to the pontiff, the Vatican said. Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, who had been leading the reconciliation, is stepping down after reaching the customary retirement age of 80, the Vatican said.
Hoyos had been head of the Pontifical "Ecclesia Dei" Commission, which was charged with healing the schism with the ultraconservative Society of St. Pius X.
The effort to reconcile with the Society of St. Pius X will now be headed by Cardinal William Levada, the highest-ranking U.S. clergyman in the Vatican hierarchy. Levada heads the Vatican's powerful orthodoxy watchdog, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which Benedict headed for decades before becoming pope in 2005.
Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre founded the Pius society in 1969 in opposition to the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which included outreach to Judaism and other religions.
The Vatican in 1988 excommunicated four of its bishops after they were consecrated without papal consent by Lefebvre.
Shortly before the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson and the three other Society bishops was lifted in January, Williamson denied in an interview with Swedish TV that 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. He said about 200,000 or 300,000 were murdered and none were gassed.
Jews and Catholics around the world voiced outrage and Williamson later apologized for the "hurt" caused by his remarks but didn't recant them.
Hoyos said he and other officials knew nothing about Williamson's denial that the Nazis killed 6 million Jews. Benedict made a rare acknowledgment of a Vatican mistake in March, saying in a letter to Catholic bishops worldwide that he was unaware of the bishop's positions when he lifted the excommunication.
The Vatican said Hoyos' tenure at the commission had run out and did not mention the controversy when announcing that Levada would now directly handle the reconciliation process.
The Vatican said Benedict had expressed thanks to Hoyos and said Levada's office would handle upcoming talks with the Society because it is most suited to resolve doctrinal differences.
On Wednesday, Benedict reiterated that until theological differences with the Society are resolved, the group has "no canonical status in the church and its ministers cannot legitimately exercise any ministry."
The Society has been defiant, with new priests being ordained last month in Switzerland and Germany. The Vatican had said any ordinations would be considered invalid.