The role of Pope Pius XII during World War Two is a subject of endless dispute, part of which we’ve tracked on FaithWorld over the past year. This has gained in interest because of Vatican plans to put him on the path to sainthood, which may be held up now because of protests from Jewish groups. We’re all waiting for the secret archives of his papacy (1939-1958) to be opened to finally see what the documents say about his relations with Nazi Germany. While we’re waiting, one of the key questions that could be assessed on the basis of files already available is what Pius thought about dealing with the Nazis before he became pope. There is a long paper trail there, because Pius was the Vatican Secretary of State — effectively, the prime minister of the Vatican — from 1930 until his election as pope. But a lot of people argue for or against Pius without having read this material.
The controversy over Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust just doesn’t seem to end. The latest twist came on Friday when our Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella got the scoop that Holocaust survivors and their descendants plan to lobby Pope Benedict to stop the process of making his wartime predecessor Pius XII a saint. They plan to submit their protests to papal nuncios (ambassadors) around the world, something apparently being done for the first time. The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendantsdecided this on Thursday in New York. Earlier that day in Rome, Pope Benedict’s deputy, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, said Jewish accusations were “outrageous” and no one could tell the Vatican whether Pius should be made a saint. But this does not seem to have prompted the decision.
Pope Benedict told Jewish leaders on Thursday that he was seriously considering freezing the sainthood process of his Nazi-era predecessor Pius XII until Vatican archives from the war years can be opened. At a meeting with Jewish leaders, one urged the pontiff not to go ahead with the beatification of Pius until the files were open for study by historians. “The pope said ‘I am looking into it, I am considering it seriously’,” Rabbi David Rosen, head of the delegation. told reporters.
The dispute over Pope Pius XII’s public silence about the Holocaust (background here) widened over the weekend. At the same time, Pope Benedict came in for criticism for his own silence, this time about organised crime in the Naples area during a visit to nearby Pompei . A local newspaper had (wrongly) reported he would publicly condemn the Camorra, as the local mafia is known. His spokesman insisted the visit to a Marian shrine (the purpose of the trip) was purely spiritual.
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.
In the latest step in the discussion about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust, Pope Benedict has issued a ringing defence of his wartime predecessor and said he hoped his beatification “can proceed happily.” To critics who say Pius should have spoken out publicly against the Nazi slaughter of European Jews, Benedict said Pius’s “secret and silent way” was the right approach.
The Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano has lost no time in rejecting the criticism of Pope Pius XII’s Holocaust record made by Shear-Yashuv Cohen, the Haifa Chief Rabbi who addressed a synod of bishops on Tuesday. Editor-in-chief Gian Maria Vian wrote a front-page editorial today saying charges that he turned a blind eye to the Nazi massacre of European Jews was a “black legend” not backed up by history.
A leading Italian biographer of Pope Pius XII has sharply criticised Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen for recalling the controversy about the pope’s role in the Holocaust during an unprecedented address to a synod of Roman Catholic bishops at the Vatican. Andrea Tornielli, the Vatican correspondent of the newspaper Il Giornale who has written four books defending the wartime pope, said no cardinal could have ever spoken that way at a major Jewish forum in Jerusalem.
Just as the Vatican is gearing up to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XII, two Jews have spoken out to recall the darker side of his papacy. Their tone is neither shrill nor polemical, unlike many articles and books that have appeared over the years accusing Pius of being “Hitler’s Pope” and not doing enough to save Jews from the Holocaust. They do not seem keen to pick an argument with the Vatican just as it is preparing to hold what may be its most open defence of the controversial pontiff. But they raise difficult questions that remain even after Pope Benedict insisted his predecessor “spared no effort” to save Jews during World War Two.
On October 9, Pope Benedict will lead the Roman Catholic Church in marking the 50th anniversary of the death of Pope Pius XII. There is a lot of interest in what Benedict will say in his homily about his predecessor, arguably the most controversial pontiff of the 20th century because of what he did or did not do to save Jews during the Holocaust. On October 21, the Vatican will open a photographic exhibition on his papacy and on Nov 6-8, two pontifical universities in Rome, the Lateran and the Gregorian, will jointly sponsor a conference on his papacy.