Revisiting Pius XII

Views of his actions during WWII intensify as beatification progresses.

October 7, 2008 21:44
Revisiting Pius XII

Pope Pius XII 63. (photo credit: )


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Pope Benedict XVI will lead a mass on Thursday during the 12th Synod of Bishops, for Eugenio Pacelli - Pope Pius XII - on the 50th anniversary of his death. Haifa Chief Rabbi She'ar Yashuv Cohen, who addressed the bishops on Monday, said that had he known of the mass for the Holocaust-era pope, he would not have become the first Jew to speak to the top representative body of the Catholic Church. "Although Pope Pacelli may have helped many refugees in secret... he should have spoken up much more strongly than he did against the Holocaust," Cohen told The Jerusalem Post over the weekend. Would a moral outcry have helped stop the Holocaust or simply extended persecutions to Catholics, making further rescue efforts impossible? Survivors and historians are strongly divided on the issue. Radically opposed views of Pius XII's wartime policies periodically kindle passions anew as his beatification process (the third of the four steps on the way to being declared a saint) moves forward. It is expected this issue will be mentioned again during a summit meeting of the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee in Budapest next month. Italian historian Alberto Melloni calls the conflict between Pius XII's devotees and his critics "a stupid match between fanatical followers of 'the defamed pope who saved the Jews' and those of 'Hitler's pope'... with exaggerations, simplifications, banalities, basic errors." A symposium organized in Rome last month by Gary Krupp, the Jewish president of the Pave the Way Foundation, to present new, favorable evidence on Pius XII, was boycotted by the Jewish community and Catholic critics who considered the conference format biased. The symposium presented testimonies by Catholic and Jewish scholars and witnesses, videos, including an interview with British historian Martin Gilbert, documents from the files of the OSS (the World War II forerunner of the CIA), and The Palestine Post (The Jerusalem Post's previous name) supporting the thesis that Pius XII did more than any Allied government to save Jewish lives, although no written orders will ever be found because he worked through prudent, officially neutral diplomacy. This line challenges the idea of a noncaring and silent pope held by many Holocaust survivors. Pius XII's photo exhibited at Yad Vashem among those who did nothing was deemed very offensive and the printed criticisms accompanying it were rebutted line by line at the Rome symposium. But this issue may soon evolve. "I am happy to have learnt recently that serious attention is being given to the matter in the wake of concerns expressed by the papal nuncio in Jerusalem to the leadership of Yad Vashem," Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee's chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultations - the umbrella body of Jewish organizations engaged in interreligious dialogue, told the Post from Jerusalem. In Rome, Krupp said he intended to nominate Pius XII for recognition by Yad Vashem as a "righteous among the nations" - listing as partial evidence the Haitian visas issued under his personal orders from 1939-45 that saved 11,000 European Jews. Pius XII was also credited with having tried to stop the October 16, 1943, deportation of more than 1,090 Roman Jews, negotiating a halt to further round-ups and opening Rome's churches, convents, monasteries and the Vatican itself to Jewish refugees. "No doubt after October 16, generous, organized efforts to save Jews and others were made by all Catholic institutions in Rome," Italian Jewish historian Anna Foa said. "This could not have been done without specific orders by Pacelli." A DPA German news agency report recently estimated that more than 7,000 Roman Jews owed their lives to this activity. Rome Chief Rabbi Dr. Riccardo Di Segni disagreed, telling the Post that Pacelli failed to prevent the October 16 deportations from happening. "The train to Auschwitz was not stopped," he said. "Seven hundred and fifty Roman Jews were gassed immediately on arrival. Another thousand were deported during the following nine months. In Bulgaria, where the Bulgarian government intervened forcefully, a similar train never left the station," therefore saving his own grandfather, he said. Regarding Pius XII's possible beatification, Di Segni said, "On a human level, I can accept Pacelli's weaknesses, but beatification would make him an ideal for future generations. That, for me, would become an impediment to dialogue." Rosen said, "If the Catholic Church wishes a respectful relationship with the Jewish people, sensitivity toward Jewish sensibilities is appropriate," meaning "suspension of any action [toward sainthood for Pius] as long as survivors of the Shoah are still with us." The International Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultations, said Rosen, "has requested full access for independent scholars to the Vatican's archives as soon as possible, thus ensuring maximal credibility." Eugene Fischer, former head of Catholic-Jewish relations at the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, speaking at Gary Krupp's Rome conference, said he agreed with Rosen. The prefect of the Vatican Secret Archives, Bishop Sergio Pagano, told the Post that five or six more years of work were need by the five archivists cataloguing, stamping and numbering documents from the 1939-58 Pius XII's papacy. "Financial donations for increased help, however generous, would not expedite matters since our archivists require years of special training on Roman Curia issues. Documents regarding personal areas of priests' lives, for example must remain private," Pagano said. Such discretion was required when releasing archival information, he said. "Regarding Pius XII's beatification, as a historian, I would think it prudent to wait a few years after the opening of the archives" Pagano said. "Allowing further research and waiting can only strengthen his case. Certainly nothing negative will be found. Probably scholars will be disappointed, because there will be nothing dramatically new - although perhaps some papers indicating Pius XII's 'wishes' - rather than direct orders - might emerge." The pre-war, pre-Vatican II context of Pius's papacy may also influence evaluation of Vatican wartime actions. Catholic historians such as Alberto Melloni and Jesuit scholar Giovanni Sale admit that before Vatican II (1962-1965), anti-Semitism was very common in Catholic circles. "It was part of the environment, and people were not conscious of doing evil," Pagano said. Sale recently wrote that "the dominate mentality at that moment and in that part of the Italian Catholic world... was marked by a certain anti-Judaism... For many it was not easy to remove that mental habit and... see in the Jew an 'older brother' to love and above all, in that delicate moment, to help." "Yet very often individual priests and nuns acted courageously, exposing themselves to risks beyond the general orders received," Pagano said. "Anti-Semitism was more prominent in higher echelons, not on the people level."

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