Catholic scholars ask pope to go slow on Pius XII beatification

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.

APPOPEPIUSTWELVEBut 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:

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.


An Israeli diplomat’s take on the popes

Serving as Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican must be a mighty tricky post.

The current man is Mordechay Lewy, a veteran Israeli diplomat who has represented his country in Germany, Sweden, Thailand and now at the Holy See. That’s Lewy (yeah, the guy on the right).

The Boston Globe’s Michael Paulson recently interviewed Lewy when he was in town to speak at Boston College.

If you’re interested in Catholic-Jewish relations, you should read the whole Q&A.

Here are a few snippets:

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Q: You’ve been at the Vatican for a year. What have you learned?
A: From the books you can see that it is an absolute monarchy, but it is not. Far, far from that. Structural absolute monarchy doesn’t mean that the monarch is trying to exercise, on every day basis, his authority. You are reducing your authority if you are using it too often.

Q: There was some criticism of the way he (POPE BENEDICT XVI) characterized the Holocaust.
A: People who were expressing those disappointments, which to my mind were unjustified, were on second or third thought retracting them. It didn’t cast a real shadow on the visit. It was filling the columns in the press for one or two days. The speeches of the pope were of enormous importance to everybody, not only to us, but to everybody. What he contributed at Yad Vashem was a completely different approach which was an enrichment to the culture of memory, and it was almost a wake-up from an unexpected corner for people to think a little bit differently, and not to expect a ritual. This pope is not one who is getting into existing patterns of rituals – it’s not a challenge for him intellectually – so he would like really to set his mind and contribute his own thoughts, which are rather deep thoughts about what Yad Vashem means.

Q: Do you have a position on Pius XII’s historic role?
A: Historically speaking, I think he was neither a hero nor a villain. It is probably the right thing to think of a more balanced view of him. The problem is that we are looking at him through the filter of a post-conciliar church. He is definitely a protagonist of the pre-conciliar church, and the pre-conciliar church has, as its main assignment, to seek all possible means to salvation for its own flock. He is not a pope for the Jews; he is not a pope for the Mohammedans; he is not a pope for everyone who was not Catholic. ‘My main task is to save the souls of the Catholic Church.’ This is why he did a concordat with the Germans. He didn’t make a concordat because he was Hitler’s pope. This is a mistaken concept. He did it in order to survive, to make it happen that the church can survive a godless regime. This was the term that they used. He tried also to make a concordat with the Soviet Union, but the Russian Orthodox Church didn’t like this idea. It is wrong to look for any affinity between him and the Nazis.

It is also wrong to say that he didn’t save Jews. Everybody who knows the history of those who were saved among Roman Jewry knows that they hid in the church, they hid in Roman monasteries, in the Vatican itself people were hidden. To look for written evidence, an order of the pope, well…this is odd. This is not how it works.

Might Benedict XVI freeze sainthood process for Pius XII?

Here’s the latest on the never-ending controversy over Pope Pius XII’s efforts to save the Jews.

Rabbi David Rosen of the American Jewish Committee, by the way, is quite a respectable fellow (that’s him addressing the pope). I would tend to trust his statement about the meeting:

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By FRANCES D’EMILIO and MARTA FALCONI
Associated Press Writers

VATICAN CITY (AP) _ A Jewish leader says Pope Benedict XVI is considering a request to freeze the sainthood process for wartime Pope Pius XII, who critics say did not speak out enough during World War II to save Jews amid Hitler’s extermination campaign.

Rabbi Ravid Rosen says the pope was asked to do so during a meeting Thursday with a Jewish group and the pontiff replied he would give “serious consideration” to the request to wait.

Rosen spoke after the Vatican rejected Jewish groups’ requests to immediately open its secret archives on Pius XII’s papacy during the Holocaust years.

e4cfabb1378545c59fdccff5cde20312.jpgVatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi said the requests to see the wartime archives were “understandable,” but added Thursday that it would take another six or seven years to catalog those 16 million documents.

Currently, the archives can be consulted only up through the papacy of Pius XII’s predecessor, Pius XI, which ended in early 1939, a few months before World War II began in Europe.

Pius XII was Pius XI’s secretary of state, as Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli. Some scholars who have examined archive documents dealing with the future Pius XII’s diplomacy say Pacelli was an indecisive diplomat as Nazism and Fascism took hold in parts of Western Europe.

The Vatican says Benedict has been reflecting on documentation gathered by Church officials about Pius XII’s virtues as part of the process toward possible beatification, the last formal step before possible sainthood. Benedict, marking the 50th anniversary recently of Pius’ death, has described him as a great pope who spared no effort to try to save Jews.

Earlier this month, Israeli president Shimon Peres urged the Vatican not to let a contentious reference to Pius XII stop Benedict from visiting the Holy Land sometime. A caption accompanying a photograph at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial alleges the wartime pope did not act to save Jews from the Nazi genocide.

Benedict met Thursday with Rosen and others from the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations. The pontiff called for “sincere dialogue” and called Church condemnation of all forms of anti-Semitism a “significant milestone.”

Neither Benedict nor Rosen in their speeches mentioned the sainthood controversy.

Rosen said Jews were “profoundly grateful for all that the Holy See has said and done in recent times” to combat anti-Semitism and he expressed thanks for Christians who “saved many Jews” during the Holocaust.

“We reiterate our respectful call for full and transparent access of scholars to all archival material from that period, so that assessments regarding actions and policies during this tragic period may have the credibility they deserve,” Rosen said.

The late Pope John Paul II made an official visit to Israel in 2000.