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Beatification of Nazi-era pope dismays many
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Beatification of Nazi-era pope dismays many

Pope Pius XII, now on the road to sainthood, signed a concordat with Germany in 1933.
Pope Pius XII, now on the road to sainthood, signed a concordat with Germany in 1933.

Jewish leaders in and outside New Jersey expressed concern — and in some cases dismay — that the Vatican is considering sainthood for the pope who led the Catholic Church during the Nazi era.

More than a half-century after the death of Pope Pius XII, there is still debate over his relationship with the Nazi regime and whether or to what extent he used his moral authority to save Jews and other victims from extermination.

After Pope Benedict XVI nominated Pius for canonization on Dec. 19, many in the Jewish community have agreed that the move is internal Church business; others, however, are vocal in their opposition and insist the Vatican should weigh the move in light of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue.

The World Jewish Congress and the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants were critical. And at the very least, said the American Jewish Committee, no steps should be taken toward the beatification of Pius XII until the Vatican’s secret archives on the World War II period are opened for objective scrutiny by scholars.

“Is his canonization warranted? Most survivors would respond, ‘Absolutely not,’” said Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest.

As a person in touch with the views of many of the state’s Holocaust survivors, Wind said few of them — and few in the broader Jewish community — would support sainthood for Pius. Even some Catholics have questioned the wisdom of canonizing Pope Pius XII.

“Many Jews, as well as Christians, believe that the Catholic Church is moving toward greater conservatism, and the more liberal aspects of ‘Nostra Aetate’ are being eroded,” Wind said, referring to the seminal 1965 papal document that aimed to reverse centuries of anti-Jewish teachings by the Church.

“However,” Wind added, “canonization is a Catholic issue and it would be inappropriate for Jews to tell the Church what to do.”

Other Jewish leaders and organizations are urging the Church to open its voluminous records on the controversial pontiff, who reigned as pope from 1939 until his death in 1958.

Six years before his elevation to the papacy, as the Vatican’s secretary of state, Pius XII signed a concordat agreeing to peaceful relations between his church and the Hitler government.

“Many of the Jews of Italy and many Holocaust victims feel he did not speak out,” said Lawrence Schiffman, a professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University.

“One point is clear: He certainly didn’t speak out in public.”

Schiffman is vice chair of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, which coordinates interfaith dialogue on behalf of several large Jewish organizations.

A decade ago, a joint commission of Jewish and Catholic scholars was given access to the Vatican’s records on Pope Pius.

“Then the Vatican closed the archives to the commission it had appointed and canceled the ability of the commission to do its work,” said Schiffman. “They said the archives wouldn’t be opened until 2014.”

‘Neither hero nor bad’

Schiffman said defenders of the wartime pope argue that “he gave instructions and he told people to save Jews.”

But, said Schiffman, “he also didn’t speak out when many Polish people were being killed by the Nazis. It’s not clear what the real record is.”

“Our claim is not that ‘We know he’s a bad guy’; our claim is that this is not an issue that should go ahead without satisfying the debate, and the debate is never satisfied when all of the archival material is closed,” said Schiffman. ‘So, [given] all the excuses they can use that the archival material is closed because it’s not sorted, how do they know that he’s a great man?”

Schiffman added, however, that “as Jews we should not want to take a position about who they make a saint. It’s none of our business.”

Rabbi Alan Brill of Seton Hall University, a veteran of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, said even if closed Vatican records are reopened, he is “not expecting a big smoking gun from the archives.”

Pius “was neither hero nor bad,” said Brill, the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering at Seton Hall in South Orange. “He was not consistent. He saved Jews at some points, not in others. He seemed sympathetic — except when he wasn’t.”

Allyson Gall, executive director of the American Jewish Committee’s Metro New Jersey Area, also said canonization is the Church’s decision.

But “if the Church really values their relationship with the Jewish community,” she said, “then they should, in this one case, open and study the archives before they move forward on canonization.”

Brill, however, said Pope Benedict XVI probably did not take the issue of Catholic-Jewish relations into consideration before recommending Pius for possible sainthood.

“Benedict deals with Jewish issues but he is not a good politician who issues a statement that pleases everyone at all times,” said Brill. “He is very close to Jews…but he just doesn’t know how to get up there and say the right thing that will please everybody.

“But at the same time, strengthening the dialogue with Jews is very important to him.”

“Benedict wants to canonize Pius because he preserved the Church as an institution” in the postwar era, Brill theorized. “That was a great era of the Church’s strength, especially here in America, with Catholic schools and Bing Crosby and the whole 1950s Catholic scene. He is being canonized for that reason.”

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