Reasonable people can agree to disagree on lots of issues, but some are so polarising that even reasonable people will hunker down in opposing trenches whenever debate about them flares up. The long-standing Catholic-Jewish dispute over Pope Pius XII and his role during the Holocaust is one of those issues. The 50th anniversary of Eugenio Pacelli’s death on Oct. 9, 1958 has recently mobilised both his defenders and detractors. After several pro-Pius comments from the Vatican and its friends and a firm but polite rebuttal by an Israeli rabbi, the umbrella group of French Jewish organisations, CRIF, has issued a stinging denunciation of Pius and warning that beatifying him would strike a “severe blow” to Catholic-Jewish relations.
The statement (here in French) is clearly sharper than the latest call by the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League (ADL) urging the Vatican to open its last wartime records to historians’ scrutiny before deciding to proceed with Pius’s beatification and eventual canonisation as a Roman Catholic saint. CRIF is the public spokesman for France’s 600,000-strong Jewish community, which is Europe’s largest. It regularly denounces anti-Semitism in France and upholds the memory of the Holocaust, but has not been as active as the ADL in engaging the Vatican in the debate over whether Pius did as much as he could have to save Jews during the Holocaust.
A quick look at the timetable of the latest dispute puts the CRIF statement in perspective. Shear-Yashuv Cohen, chief rabbi of Haifa in Israeli, became the first Jew to address a bishops’ synod in Rome on Oct. 6. Catholic-Jewish relations have improved markedly in recent decades and Cohen accepted the invitation in that spirit. But when in Rome he realised the meeting would also be commemorating Pius’s death, he told our Vatican correspondent Phil Pullella he might not have attended if he had known that. During his address, he told the bishops that Jews “cannot forgive and forget” that some major religious leaders during World War Two did not speak out against the Holocaust. He separately told reporters Pius “should not be seen as a model and he should not be beatified”.
Four days later, at the Oct. 9 commemorative Mass for Pius, Pope Benedict — who as a German must be particularly sensitive to the debate — staunchly defended his Italian predecessor. Pius “often acted in a secret and silent way precisely because, given the real situations of that complex moment in history, he realised that only in this manner could the worst be avoided and greatest number of Jews be saved,” Benedict said. He added that he hoped the beatification process could “proceed happily” (felicemente in the original Italian, successfully in the official English translation).
Even though he gave no date for any move on beatification, this was clearly a ringing papal endorsement for the plan. It’s no surprise, then, that CRIF upped the ante, saying that a beatification “would deal a severe blow to relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish world”. Apart from criticising Pius’s caution during the war, it said he never issued a full public denunciation of the Holocaust after the war and called this shocking. “Jewish survivors of the Shoah will suffer a profound hurt if the silence of the magisterium in the face of the genocide of the Jews is presented as model behaviour,” it concluded.