Canonization of Pope Pius XII?
- Created: December 8, 2006
- Written by Walter Ruby
From The Jewish Week
Fault lines are emerging within the façade of a united Jewish leadership opposed to the Vatican’s prospective beatification of Pope Pius XII—the wartime pope who failed to speak out publicly against the Holocaust.
With movement toward beatification quickening, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said this week that there could be serious repercussions for Catholic-Jewish relations if the Vatican takes this step before opening up its extensive Pius-era archives.
“If the Vatican rushes to judgment on beatification without allowing open access to the files of the Holocaust years, that would seriously damage the [Jewish-Catholic] relationship,” he said. “Prejudging the matter in that way would be disrespectful of our concerns and of Jewish pain and anguish.”
But the two Jewish leaders who head the formal communal body charged with dialogue with the Vatican hastened to tamp down any suggestion that Pius’ beatification might provoke a Jewish backlash.
In interviews with The Jewish Week Rabbi Israel Singer, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Inter-religious Consultations [IJCIC], and Rabbi David Rosen, its president, said a Vatican decision to beatify Pius would create unhappiness in the Jewish community—but would not cause a serious rupture in what all characterize as strong and mutually beneficial relations between the Vatican and world Jewry.
“If they do go ahead [with beatification], it will be regrettable,” said Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee. “But what is more important than the way we view the past is the way we teach and approach each other today. We have far too much invested in our relationship with Catholic Church to want to suspend it.”
The clear difference in intensity on the issue between Foxman on one side and Singer and Rosen on the other highlights a rift among Jewish leaders as they grapple with how to deal with the increasingly likely prospect of Pius’ early beatification.
Foxman does not advocate breaking off international Jewry’s relationship with the Vatican if it moves ahead with the process. But he warned: “If my colleagues are sending the signal to the Vatican that ‘beatification is almost OK, don’t worry about it,’ I don’t think that serves the interests of either the Jewish community or the Vatican. They are entitled to their personal opinions, but I don’t believe they are entitled to speak in the name of IJCIC or the Jewish community.”
Many Jews, and not a few scholars, fault Pius for failing to speak out about the Nazi genocide of European Jewry as it was taking place during his tenure. But defenders credit Pius with various behind-the-scenes Catholic rescue efforts. Foxman, himself a member of IJCIC, said Jews and Jewish groups might react in a variety of ways to a perception of insensitivity.
“Some may reconsider their financial support of Catholic institutions,” he said, emphasizing that he did not support such a reaction. Foxman declined to identify donors who might react in this way. And he cautioned that such a reaction was “a possibility not a probability.”
Foxman also pointed out that Jewish groups have in the past intervened with the government of Israel on behalf of Catholic concerns in the Holy Land. Such interventions, based on a sense of mutual sensitivity, might be imperiled, Foxman said.
The journey of the controversial World War II-era pope toward sainthood seems to be moving slowly but steadily forward. Pius’ beatification—the penultimate step before sainthood—has already been recommended by the investigating judge in charge of evaluating his case. A commission of cardinals and bishops is expected to meet next summer to decide on his recommendation. Other steps must follow. But the final decision, by Pope Benedict XVI, may come as early as 2008.
It is widely believed that staunch opposition from the Jewish community has been an important factor in deterring a succession of popes from beatifying Pius XII in the decades since that step was first proposed by Pope Paul VI back in 1965.
Even Pius’ most ardent defenders acknowledge he remained publicly silent about Nazi persecution and genocide against the Jews until late 1944, possibly out of fear that an open condemnation of German brutalization of the Jews might have led Hitler to turn against the Vatican itself.
There are also deep scholarly divisions on the key question of whether the pontiff played a behind-the-scenes role in Catholic efforts to save Jews. Critics of Pius say there is no solid evidence in the form of written documents that show Pius was personally involved or played any role in various rescue efforts by local Catholic prelates, churches and institutions.
Defenders of Pius within and outside the Vatican respond that the pontiff would not have issued written orders to save Jews for fear of triggering Nazi retribution. But, they say, large-scale rescue efforts, such as hiding 4,000 Jews in Catholic institutions in Rome during the German occupation of the Eternal City in 1943-44, could not have taken place without the Pope’s authorization.
In 2001, a committee of Jewish and Catholic scholars appointed by IJCIC and the Vatican to issue a report on Pius and the Jews broke apart after several of the scholars concluded it would be impossible to reach a definitive conclusion until the Vatican opened its archives for independent examination. The Vatican has promised to do so, but only after all documents from Pius’ papacy have been cataloged—a process it says will take years.
Rosen, who derided Foxman for an “apocalyptic” position on the consequences of beatification, dismissed as a “red herring” the argument that allowing independent scholars to examine the Pius files would finally determine the question of what Pius did or did not do to succor Jews from the Nazis.
“It is a fallacy to suggest that opening the archives would resolve the debate over Pius, since the difference between the two sides is subjective in nature,” Rosen remarked. “Catholics look at the evidence and say, ‘Pius did everything he could do to save Jews’. We see it differently and no amount of [new] evidence will change that.”
According to Seymour Reich, the immediate past president of IJCIC, the umbrella body — which is composed of the World Jewish Congress, Israel Jewish Council on Interreligious Relations, ADL, B’nai B’rith, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and the lay and rabbinic bodies of Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Judaism in North America — has traditionally operated on the principle of consensus. That would appear to mean it would have a hard time formulating a position on the beatification issue.
But Rosen, who serves as international director of interreligious affairs of the American Jewish Committee, said that discussions with the Vatican on the issue of Pius XII—if and when the Vatican moves forward with beatification—will not be the province of the entire body of IJCIC. That will be the job of a four-member steering committee, he said. Rosen said the steering committee consists of himself, Singer, general-secretary of the World Jewish Congress, Reich, who represents B’nai B’rith on IJCIC, and the representative of the Jewish Council on Interreligious Relations (the longtime president of that body, former Israeli Ambassador to the Vatican Shmuel Hadass, is retiring this month).
Last July, Cardinal Walter Kaspar [sic], head of the Vatican Office for Dialogue with Jews, told the Catholic weekly Il Consulente Re that the wartime pontiff “did what was humanly possible” to protect Jews from Nazi persecution during the years of World War II. Kaspar’s comment was widely construed by observers to be a trial balloon to gauge the likely reaction of world Jewry if the Vatican went ahead with plans for beatification. Father Peter Gumpel, the main investigating judge of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, who has been sifting through the evidence concerning Pius since 1983, told The Jewish Week that he has already signed papers certifying that Pius deserves beatification based on his life, activities and personal virtues.
A commission composed of 12 cardinals and bishops will likely convene next summer to consider Father Gumpel’s recommendation. If they agree he deserves elevation, other experts, including medical doctors, will then need to ascertain that the late pontiff performed at least one miracle.
Only then will Pope Benedict XVI make the final determination on whether to beatify Pius, something that Gumpel said “will not happen until 2008 at the earliest.”
“The irony is that [early beatification] will damage the level of respect between [Catholics and Jews] at a time when radical Islam is challenging Christianity around the world,” Foxman said. “We both face the same enemy.”Foxman said that while some might worry about losing Vatican support for Israel, “I can’t think of one issue where the Vatican has lined up with Israel against the Muslims. Frankly, their position toward Israel has not been anything to write home about.”
Rosen said, “While the beatification of Pius would definitely cause a negative reaction in the Jewish world, the suggestion that it would lead to some kind of hiatus, suspension or breakdown, seems to me very unlikely.”
Father Gumpel expressed evident satisfaction at the position of Rosen and Singer. “They have said [beatification] would not create serious problems and I certainly have taken note of that position,” he said. “I think it is a sign that something is changing in terms of Jewish attitudes in the U.S. and the world on this issue.”