Benedict XVI's signature on the document certifying Eugenio Pacelli's (religiously defined) "heroic virtues" over the weekend came as a surprise, and not only because the pope's decision to move his World War II-era predecessor, Pius XII, a step nearer sainthood was taken less than a month before the pontiff's planned visit to Rome's main synagogue.
The inherent controversy of the move was underlined by the fact that the wartime pope's name appeared discretely on a list of 10 new "venerables," including Jerzy Popieluszko, the murdered Polish Solidarity priest, considered a martyr, and Pope John Paul II. While John Paul's case for sainthood has reached this advanced stage less than five years after his death, Pius XII's cause has taken nearly 45 awkward years.
The "venerable" state is normally followed some time later by beatification, after a team of doctors and theologians have certified a miracle attributed directly to the candidate's intervention, and is subsequently completed by canonization - or sainthood. Each step requires the pope's signature.
A commission of theologians and Vatican officials had already voted in favour of proclaiming Pius XII's "heroic virtues" in May 2007, but Benedict was evidently uncertain, calling for further research in the secret archives. Until the new list appeared this weekend, it was not known that Benedict had been persuaded.
Vatican authorities, along with some Catholic and Jewish scholars, have claimed that precisely through his silence, Pius XII was able to work quietly to rescue as many Jews as possible. While he never publicly condemned the Nazi persecutions, many Catholic institutions, and many individual priests and nuns, opened their doors at personal risk to save Jewish lives. Doubtless, the pope was informed of this; the as yet unanswered question is whether he had given orders for this activity.
As an example of what might have happened had he chosen the route of public denouncement of the Nazis, Pius XII's supporters point to the Nazi round-up and deportation of all converted Jews in the Netherlands immediately after the Dutch hierarchy levelled public accusations.
Many Jewish leaders, however, offer a contrasting narrative, highlighting the personal roles the kings of Denmark and Bulgaria played in their country's efforts to protect their Jews.
Benedict has been repeatedly urged to abstain from any final decision until the archives of the Pius XII papacy are made accessible to independent scholarly research. Now, the chances that he will heed those pleadings seem to have diminished.
Jewish leaders in Israel, Rome and Germany have thus far reacted with different degrees of disappointment to the weekend's unexpected news. All agree that it is inappropriate for Jews to interfere in the internal processes of the Catholic Church; all also realize that saints in the Catholic tradition are exemplars for future generations.
Rabbi David Rosen, interfaith affairs director for the American Jewish Committee and consultant to Israel's Chief Rabbinate, stated diplomatically but tellingly, for instance, that "while it is not appropriate for us to tell the Catholic Church whom they may or may not name as saints, if we are partners in interreligious dialogue the Church must take Jewish sensitivities into account. I hope no further steps to accelerate Pius XII's cause will be taken before an objective historical analysis becomes possible by making the secret archives accessible to scholars."
Similarly, a statement issued by the Italian Jewish Community noted that if the decision implied "a definitive and unilateral judgment with regard to Pius XII's record in history, we confirm that our evaluation remains critical."
More bluntly, it added, "Let us not forget the deportations of the Jews of Italy and in particular, the train with 1,021 who were deported to Auschwitz on October 16, 1943, from the Tiburtina Station of Rome amidst the silence of Pius XII."
Tullia Zevi, president emeritus of the Italian Jewish Community, reiterated that if the archives were made available to scholars, "new aspects and heretofore unknown episodes might be brought to light, dispelling the clouds that still hang over Pope Pacelli. Why not do so? It is up to historians, on the base of reliable documents, to dispel the doubts that still surround Pius XII."
Most blunt of all was the general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, Stephan Kramer, who declared he was "sad and furious" because "Benedict XVI is rewriting history without having permitted a serious scientific discussion..."
Benedict's visit to Rome's main synagogue is scheduled for January 17, and representatives of Israel's Chief Rabbinate as well as Diaspora delegations are scheduled to be present. The atmosphere surrounding this encounter, however, will depend on which further clarifications, if any, are forthcoming from the Vatican over the next four weeks.