Roman Jews, Benedict XVI and the shadow of Pius XII

Roman Jews, Benedict XVI

pope looking like et extra terrestrial (photo credit: AP)
pope looking like et extra terrestrial
(photo credit: AP)
Jews have lived in the backyard of the popes for over 2,000 years, including more than 300 years (1555 to 1870) behind the ghetto's locked gates, as willed by Paul VI's papal bull, cum nimis absurdum. Following the unification of Italy 140 years ago, Jews were finally freed from curfews and again permitted to openly practice trades and professions, gradually entering all walks of Italian life. As patriotic, loyal citizens, Jews from Rome and the rest of Italy served as soldiers and officers during World War I. Thus, Mussolini's 1938 Racial Laws came as a bolt of lightening. Suddenly Jews were again second-class citizens, banned as students and teachers on all levels of public education from kindergarten to university. They could not own land, businesses, homes, cars or radios, nor have Christian employees, mix with gentiles on public beaches, hold any public office, nor could they serve in the military. From one day to the next, Italian Jews were ostracized and bereft of their identities. Then came October 16, 1943, the day the Germans rounded up 1,021 Roman Jews at dawn in the old ghetto: men, women, children, babies, the elderly and invalids, in the usual Nazi style. They kept them locked up for two days while only silence issued from Pius XII's window just across the Tiber. Their train for Auschwitz left the Rome Tiburtina station on October 18. At the war's end, only 17 of the 1,021 returned alive. These memories, in brief, are the heritage of every Roman Jew - an inalienable part of their worldview and existential anxiety. The Polish pope, John Paul II, in 1986 became the first pope to visit a synagogue since the early history of the Roman Catholic Church, coming to the Great Synagogue of Rome. The images and words of his visit forever changed mind-sets on relations between Christians and Jews. Sitting in an armchair next to that of Elio Toaff, the chief rabbi of Rome, he addressed Jews as dearly beloved elder brothers. The current German-born pope, Benedict XVI, will arrive at the synagogue on January 17, in a different atmosphere. Though forthrightly committed from the start to continuing on the path of John Paul - whom, when he was known as Josef Ratzinger, he clearly supported as his theological adviser - Benedict's papacy has been strewn with Catholic-Jewish collisions, followed by corrections and even apologies. The incidents included the revival of a Latin prayer for the conversion of Jews and rescinding the excommunications (but without readmitting them back into the Church) of priests from the schismatic, anti-Vatican II Society of St. Pius X, including Bishop Richard Williamson - later discovered to be a Holocaust-denier. Two weeks ago, on December 19, Benedict's startling promotion of Pius XII's "heroic virtues" in his "cause for sainthood" raised the wartime pope to "venerable" status - a step away from beatification. The Rome Jewish community promptly held a special meeting to permit all elected councillors, past and present presidents, Holocaust survivors and rabbis to democratically express their views on questions regarding the forthcoming papal visit to the city's main synagogue. It was a tumultuous session, lasting until 2 a.m. and concluding with the miraculous birth of a unanimously approved communiqué. During the night, in the tradition of a Talmud-Torah lesson, the various opinions of Israeli and Diaspora rabbis and Jewish leaders, presented by Rome's chief rabbi, Dr. Riccardo Di Segni, were amply discussed. The final communiqué carved out the bottom lines: The community "confirms the importance of interreligious dialogue of which the forthcoming visit of Benedict XVI to the Synagogue of Rome is a fundamental step. "This event, however," continues the statement, "to which the Jews look forward with great expectations, must not be interpreted as an approval of the controversial historical interpretations of Pius XII's choice of silence [during the Holocaust]. We await for the truth to emerge through research and a historical evaluation of all the documents of that era." This blueprint of welcome, accompanied by a firm critical stance, had already been adopted immediately following the Vatican announcement of Pius XII's promotion to venerable. On December 19, a communiqué jointly issued by Di Segni, together with the presidents of the Rome and Italian Jewish communities, Riccardo Pacifici and Renzo Gattegna, respectively, stated, "If today's decision implies a definitive and unilateral judgment of Pius XII's actions in history, we confirm that our evaluation remains critical." However, significantly, it also confirmed that "the Jewish world continues to be grateful to Catholic individuals and institutions that worked to save persecuted Jews." The preparatory atmosphere of this event is fraught with the burden of Catholic-Jewish history, to an even greater degree than John Paul II's visit in 1986. The Jewish community feels a great responsibility to honor Benedict with warm hospitality, while simultaneously holding firm on world Jewry's requests to postpone Pius XII's beatification until the archives of his papacy are available and have been studied by independent historians. According to Bishop Sergio Pagano, prefect of the Vatican's Secret Archives, these millions of post-1939 wartime documents will be ready for review in four to five years. The key question of the moment is, "Why did Benedict choose to sign the decree on Pius XII's 'heroic virtues' at this particular moment?" The answer lies in an analysis of Benedict's goals. On his scale of values, the pope has chosen to balance his unquestionable commitment to good relations with the Jewish people with his concern for recouping the religious center-right wing of Catholicism. This is composed not only of the Society of St. Pius X, still in limbo, but also traditionalists within the Catholic Church proper. Benedict's reasons for breaking the 18-month deadlock over historical research into Pius XII's "heroic virtues" less than one month before the synagogue visit were probably twofold. • First, a beatification candidate can be declared "venerable" only once a year, usually in December. Benedict already blocked Pius XII's case for one-and-a-half years, and has been urged to advance it by his closest advisers in the curia, including Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. By finally certifying Pius XII's "heroic virtues," Benedict has eased the pressure. • Second, the Vatican has most likely calculated that negative reactions from the Jewish world at this time would be softened by the necessity, felt on both sides, to make a success of the January 17 event. Conciliatory diplomatic dialogue between the Vatican and Roman Jews has meanwhile taken place. Following Italian and international Jewish outcry, Vatican spokesman Rev. Federico Lombardi indicated that the beatification of Pius XII is not linked to that of John Paul II (expected to take place next October). Rome's Chief Rabbi Di Segni declared over Vatican Radio that Lombardi's statement was "important" and "a sign of Vatican sensitivity to Jewish reaction to this decree." Presumably, Pius XII's beatification is not around the corner. Even after being declared "venerable," the process can take years. Pius IX's beatification process, for example, spanned nearly a century because of strong opposition from the Italian state and others, and was completed only in the year 2000 by John Paul II. Semantic problems also becloud the issue. Contrary to what may seem obvious, the theological definition of "heroic virtues" does not refer to courageous actions in the context of history. The virtues are "faith, hope, charity, prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance." According to spokesman Lombardi, if a candidate for beatification has evidenced these virtues "over and beyond normality, he can be proposed as a model for Christian life... The evaluation regards essentially... his intense relationship with God... his continuous search for evangelical perfection - and not the evaluation of the historical impact of all his choices of action." Another slippery slope facilitating misunderstandings regards what many Christians as well as Jews mistakenly consider interference in the internal religious affairs of the Catholic Church. "Why should Jews care whom the Vatican chooses for sainthood?" they declare. "Jews don't even believe in saints." The answer is again twofold. • True, Jews don't believe in saints, but they hold up examples of righteousness for model behavior, while Catholics hold up saints as models for Christian behavior. Once sainthood is bestowed, supporters of Pius XII will consider criticism of his life as an even greater offense than they do today. And we know from bitter experience the extent to which erroneous concepts and stereotypes in Christian religious education can be transformed into tools for hatred and, eventually, persecution. • Pius XII's memory cannot be left as the private property of the Catholic Church. He was a public figure who played a crucial role in the drama of World War II. His memory belongs to history. Most knowledgeable Jewish leaders recognize that Pius XII was first and foremost a diplomat and an intellectual with deep anxieties over his unwanted life and death-making responsibilities during one of the darkest, most chaotic moments of history; a religious and political leader (as head of the Catholic Church as well as the Vatican State) who navigated with equidistance between Hitler, Stalin and the Allies in order to save the Catholic Church and as many lives as possible (including, though not primarily, those of Jews). There are also those, such as Pius XII's foremost Jewish supporter, Gary Krupp, the head of the Pave the Way foundation, who, with case histories in hand, even believe the wartime pope was a Righteous Gentile to be honored at Yad Vashem.  But the great majority of Jewish leaders disagree. For Italian Jews, October 16, 1943, tells the complete story. For them it is an unswerving confirmation of the thesis that Pius XII knowingly chose silence over open condemnation while the Germans were carrying out their barbaric persecutions and murders. They are convinced that a shout of protest from the pope's windows that loomed above the prison could have saved the 1,021 from deportation. For this reason alone, no matter what other evidence may emerge from the archives, Roman Jews cannot deem Pius XII to have been a Righteous Gentile, and would in all likelihood retreat entirely from Jewish-Catholic dialogue following a papal decree on the sainthood of Pius XII. Hopefully within the next two weeks, further assurances over future timing will be made to clarify that the opening of the archives and independent historical research will precede any further steps that might be made toward Pius XII's beatification.