John Allen tackles the history of the Lefebvre movement:

When the Vatican lifted the excommunication of four traditionalist Catholic bishops Jan. 21, it’s entirely possible Rome was unaware that one of those bishops, an Englishman named Richard Williamson, had just given an interview to Swedish television in which he denied that the Nazis had used gas chambers and asserted that no more than 200,000 to 300,000 Jews had died during the Second World War.

In retrospect, however, it would be disingenuous for anyone to feign surprise.

A troubled history with Judaism has long been part of the Catholic traditionalist movement associated with the late French Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre beginning with Lefebvre himself, who spoke approvingly of both the World War II-era Vichy Regime in France and the far-right National Front, and who identified the contemporary enemies of the faith as “Jews, Communists and Freemasons” in an Aug. 31, 1985, letter to Pope John Paul II.

Reacting to the furor over Williamson, the Vatican has stressed that lifting the excommunication is not an endorsement of his views on the Holocaust, and has repeated its firm commitment to Catholic-Jewish dialogue and to combating anti-Semitism. The pope’s outreach to traditionalists should instead be seen, spokespersons said, as an “act of peace” intended to end the only formal schism in the wake of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Canonical experts also point out that, technically speaking, Holocaust denial is not heresy. It’s a denial of historical truth, not a truth of the faith, and hence repudiating it is not inconsistent at least from a strictly logical point of view with the Jan. 21 decree from the Congregation for Bishops ending the excommunication of the four Lefebvrite prelates.

That’s a fine distinction, however, likely to be lost on much of the world, especially given that Williamson’s comments hardly came out of the blue.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.