Still playing catch up from last week, I see that 19 Catholic theologians have signed a pretty provocative letter to the pope asking that he slow the process of possible beatification for Pope Pius XII.
The controversy over Pius’ efforts to save Jews from the Nazis is, of course, well known. I won’t attempt to restate it here.
But the letter caught my eye because it was signed not only by several prominent Catholic scholars, but by Eugene Fisher, who for many years oversaw Catholic-Jewish relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Fisher undoubtedly understands the dynamics of this very complicated, emotionally charged debate as well as anyone in this country.
The letter, in general, makes the case that the historical record on Pius XII is still far from complete:
Currently, existing research leads us to the view that Pope Pius XII did not issue a clearly worded statement, unconditionally condemning the wholesale slaughter and murder of European Jews. At the same time, some evidence also compels us to see that Pius XII’s diplomatic background encouraged him as head of a neutral state, the Vatican, to assist Jews by means that were not made public during the war. It is essential that further research be conducted to resolve both these questions. As scholars of theology and history, we realize how important the historical critical method is to your own research and we implore you to ensure that such a historical investigation takes place before proceeding with the cause of Pope Pius XII.
The letter also offers a more nuanced argument that the Pius debate must be seen in light of broader anti-Semitism “propogated” by Christians throught the centuries:
For many Jews and Catholics, Pius XII takes on a role much larger than his historical papacy. In essence, Pius XII has become a century old symbol of Christian anti-Judaism and antisemitism, which, for example, the late Reverend Edward H. Flannery has documented and spelled out in his work The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism. It is challenging to separate Pope Pius XII from this legacy. Proceeding with the cause of Pope Pius XII, without an exhaustive study of his actions during the Holocaust, might harm Jewish-Catholic relations in a way that cannot be overcome in the foreseeable future.
So the debate continues.
Not long ago, Dimitri Cavalli, a writer from the Bronx, had an op-ed published in the leading Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz that defended Pius XII. Cavalli made the case that there is simply no evidence to suggest that the wartime pope failed the Jews of Europe.
Cavalli outlined some of the pope’s actions and concluded with this:
Throughout the war, the pope’s deputies frequently ordered the Vatican’s diplomatic representatives in many Nazi-occupied and Axis countries to intervene on behalf of endangered Jews. Up until Pius XII’s death in 1958, many Jewish organizations, newspapers and leaders lauded his efforts. To cite one of many examples, in his April 7, 1944, letter to the papal nuncio in Romania, Alexander Shafran, chief rabbi of Bucharest, wrote: “It is not easy for us to find the right words to express the warmth and consolation we experienced because of the concern of the supreme pontiff, who offered a large sum to relieve the sufferings of deported Jews … The Jews of Romania will never forget these facts of historic importance.”
The campaign against Pope Pius XII is doomed to failure because his detractors cannot sustain their main charges against him – that he was silent, pro-Nazi, and did little or nothing to help the Jews – with evidence. Perhaps only in a backward world such as ours would the one man who did more than any other wartime leader to help Jews and other Nazi victims, receive the greatest condemnation.