Rome’s chief rabbi says only God can judge Pius XII on Holocaust

January 14, 2010
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Pope Pius XII in an undated file photo from the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano

Only God can judge whether war-time Pope Pius XII did enough to save Jews and whether he should have spoken out more forcefully against the Holocaust, according to Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, who will host Pope Benedict for his first visit to the Italian capital’s synagogue on Sunday.

Speaking to Reuters at his synagogue along the Tiber River, Di Segni criticised a comment by Cardinal Walter Kasper that Pius “followed the will of God as he understood it” and had saved thousands of Jews in Rome and elsewhere. Some Jews have accused Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, of not doing enough to help Jews facing persecution.

“I think that it can be morally dangerous and, religiously speaking, dangerous to say that the will of God is to be silent and not to say a word in front of the suffering of the people,” Di Segni said, speaking in English.  “So let us be careful and let us not (look for) a way of absolving people. I think only God may understand if people have done His will righteously, not us.”

Benedict’s visit to the synagogue has been overshadowed by his decision last month to move Pius closer towards sainthood. Jewish groups reacted angrily when he approved a decree recognising Pius’s “heroic virtues.” The two remaining steps to sainthood are beatification and canonisation, which could take many years. Jewish groups had wanted a freeze on the process until more Vatican archives were made available to scholars.

Here is the transcript of my interview with Di Segni:

Q. The pope coming on Sunday to your synagogue has taken on many levels of significance.  One is the continuation of the process begun by John Paul. But are you afraid that the visit might be overshadowed by issues surrounding Pius XII?

A. “Each step of dialogue with Christians is very complicated so every day we have to face discussions and
polemics and so on. The sensitivity of survivors all around the world is the same the sensitivity that is felt where so we are very conscious of the difficulties of this moment. We have to try to find the right way to go ahead with the process of friendship with Christians and this is the challenge for today.  We are absolutely aware that there are difficulties, that the problem absolutely aware that there are difficulties, that the problem of the past, the interpretation of the past, is one of the main difficulties,  but we also have the problem of the the main difficulties, but we also have the problem of the future so we all have to understand what is possible to do in this narrow street.”

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Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni in Rome, 25 Feb 2005/Tony Gentile

A. “I think that it can be morally dangerous and, religiously speaking,  dangerous to say that the will of God is to be silent and not to say a word in front of the suffrence of the people.  So we are entering into a very though theological issue,  which has to be considered very carefully and not to be exaggerated.  So let us be careful and let us not (look for) a way of absolving people. I think only god may understand if people have done His will righteously and not us.”

Q. The visit to the Rome synagogue by John Paul in 1986 was a breakthrough.  How do you see the significance of Benedict’s visit?

A. “First of all, the mere fact that it is being repeated by the new pope is important.  It means that this pope wants to follow the step of his predecessor.  So it is an important signal that this pathway has to be go forward. This is the first point and this is absolutely not secondary.  The other point is that after 24 years the world has changed. There have been many developments in Jewish-Christian dialogue.  I just want to recall the political solution between the state of Israal and the Vatican, which is not an unimportant point. There have been developments but the picture of the world has also changed. In 1986 there was the Berlin Wall and the struggle was between the Soviet Union and the United States. Now all the political framework of the world is different.  In this context, there is a very dangerous perspective that was opened by the events of  September 11, 2001, where people who say they are religious demonstrated the destructive power of religion in the  world.  Religion now has a tremendous responsibility in bringing either war or peace to the world.  So,  a signal of peace and friendship starting here from Rome could be very important, like a wave of  of a will of peace around the world, not forgetting the difficulties.”

Q. What do you think another visit by another pope to Rome’s synagogue can send to non-Jews about the dangers of anti-Semitism?

A. “I would like to say first of all that we are not talking only about anti-Semitism … any kind of hostility towards the Jewish world …. we are witness to the fact that churches are struggle against this movement.  But this is not the only problem. As Jews we want to say very strongly that any kind of hatred against difference, and not only against the Jews, has to be banned, has to be condemned.  So anti-Semitism is only a part of a very big problem of intolerance, lack of dignity of the human being and this has to be the message. We are only a chapter, a dramatic chapter,  but only a chapter of a much wider problem in the contemporary world.”

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Papal Infallibility means never having to say “I was wrong”.

After all, if it wasn’t God’s will, you wouldn’t have done it.

And as the only person to know God’s will is God (and you, of course), nobody has the right to say you loused it up.

Because if the Pope could be judged in the same manner he would judge you, the whole system falls apart. Without the acceptance of hypocrisy, no religion could survive.

So as the good Lord once said: “Render unto the chumps their idol”.

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