The World Jewish Congress (WJC) Monday criticized the decision by Pope Benedict XVI to pave the way for the beatification of his controversial war-time predecessor Pius XII (Eugenio Pacelli), who was pontiff of the Catholic Church from 1939 to 1958.
Benedict XVI's signature on the document certifying Eugenio Pacelli's (religiously defined) "heroic virtues" over the weekend came as a surprise since 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.
"As long as the archives of Pope Pius about the crucial period 1939 to 1945 remain closed, and until a consensus on his actions - or inaction - concerning the persecution of millions of Jews in the Holocaust is established, a beatification is inopportune and premature," WJC President Ronald S. Lauder said in a statement.
"While it is entirely a matter for the Catholic Church to decide on whom religious honors are bestowed, there are strong concerns about Pope Pius XII's political role during World War II which should not be ignore," Lauder added.
Lauder called on the Vatican to immediately open all existing archives about the Pius era to international researchers in order to dispel doubts that still persist. "Given the importance of good relations between Catholics and the Jews, and following the difficult events of the past year, it would be appreciated if the Vatican showed more sensitivity on this matter," he said.
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.
Lisa Palmieri-Billig contributed to this report