'Heroic' decree for wartime pope sparks anger among Jews


RELATIONS BETWEEN the Catholic Church and Jews struck a familiar raw nerve at the weekend when Pope Benedict XVI approved a decree of “heroic virtue” for the wartime pope, Pius XII.

The controversial Pius was one of 17 people approved by Benedict last Saturday in a list that also included Pope John Paul II and Father Jerzy Popieluszko, a Polish priest killed by Polish secret services in 1984.

The decree of heroic virtue is an important step on the path to sainthood, representing an official finding that the candidate lived a saintly life. The candidate may now be referred to as “venerable” and, if two miracles are documented and accepted by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Cause of Saints, the candidate will be beatified and later sanctified.

While there are unlikely to be many problems relative to John Paul II’s claims to sainthood, the same clearly cannot be said of Pius. For most of the last 60 years, many Jewish groups have argued that Pius, who was pope from 1939 to 1958, was guilty not only of not publicly condemning Hitler’s Nazi-Fascist regime but also of doing little or nothing to prevent the death of an estimated six million Jews in the Holocaust.

The inclusion of Pius in Saturday’s list took Vatican observers by surprise. Most Vatican commentators had expected John Paul II to be on the list, but not Pius XII, thus generating the suspicion that the Holy See had tried to “slip in” one highly controversial pontiff, Pius, for the price of one widely admired one, John Paul II.

Pope Benedict’s announcement prompted immediate criticism from the worldwide Jewish community. In Italy, the president of the Association of Italian Rabbis, Giuseppe Laras, said: “ is a sad one because I cannot help but think of what happened during the Shoah[Holocaust]. The figure of this pope is a controversial one because he did not shout out loud his outrage and his opposition to the Shoah and against the extermination of people whose only crime was that of being Jewish.”

In a joint note, three other senior figures in the Italian Jewish community, Riccardo Di Segni, Renzo Gattegna and Riccardo Pacifici argued the decision might be premature, since a joint Vatican-Jewish Commission of historians was still considering Pope Pius’s record, adding: “The joint commission . . . still has to get full access to the archives. Let us not forget the deportation of Jews from Italy, in particular train 1021 on October 16th, 1943, which took Italian Jews to Auschwitz from Rome, in face of the silence of Pius XII.”

Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League in the US said: “We are saddened . . . that the pontiff would feel compelled to fast-track pope Pius at a point where the issue of the record – the history and the coming to a judgment – is still wide open.”