FOR an institution that claims the adherence of hundreds of millions around the world the Roman Catholic Church, and more specifically the Vatican, often displays worrying unworldliness. A few days ago the Pope announced that the expulsion some years ago of the ultra-conservative Society of St Pius had been revoked so that its members could return to the mainstream of the Church. However, this apparently unifying gesture by the Pope caused global outrage because one leading member of the Society, Bishop Richard Williamson, a Briton, had only recently given an interview in which he denied that there had ever been concentration camps with gas chambers at the time of the Nazi regime; further inquiry showed that Bishop Williamson has a record of Holocaust-denial.

The seriousness of this situation was underlined when the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, called on the Pope to clarify his own position on the Holocaust. This unprecedented intervention led the Vatican Secretariat of State to issue a statement that the Church “unequivocally distanced itself from Bishop Williamson's position on the Holocaust” and added that the Bishop's statements had been “unknown to the Holy Father at the time he revoked the Society's excommunication.” If the latter part of that statement is correct then either the Vatican's civil service is woefully incompetent or Pope Benedict does not consult or listen to them. Either way it is a worrying indicator of the remoteness of the contemporary Vatican from the everyday life of the rest of the world.