Scrutiny of Pius XII's reign required before canonisation


OPINION:Some leading Catholic and Jewish scholars have called for the proposed canonisation of Pius XII to be delayed. Here one of them explains why

LAST MONTH was the 50th anniversary of Pope Pius XII's death, an occasion when Pope Benedict XVI expressed his support for the canonisation process. At a solemn Mass in St Peter's Basilica on October 8th, Pope Benedict promoted his beatification and rejected all allegations that Pius had ever acted improperly, insisting that he had done everything possible to halt the murders in the second World War. Yet Pius XII's response to the Holocaust is the subject of a vigorous historical debate of profound significance for contemporary Jewish-Christian relations.

It is the view of many Catholics, as well as Jews, that his canonisation is unseemingly hasty, partly because the Vatican has yet to release much archival material which should be opened up with deliberate speed and examined by reputable scholars.

Pius XII was pope from 1939-58. Some claim he knew much and did little of importance while others argue he did all he could under very difficult circumstances.

Born Eugenio Pacelli in Rome, the son of a Vatican lawyer, he entered the Vatican diplomatic service in 1901. On his appointment as papal nuncio to Bavaria in 1917, he was consecrated archbishop.

Following his appointment as Vatican secretary of state, Pacelli was responsible for the Reich Concordat of 1933 that effectively neutered Catholic political opposition to the Nazis. He protested against violations of the concordat and, when elected pope in 1939, was widely regarded as anti-Nazi.

Although Pius XII condemned the effects of the war on its innocent victims, he did not single out the persecution of Jews either during or after the war. He refused pleas for help on the grounds of neutrality, while making statements condemning injustices in general.

For example, during his Christmas Eve radio broadcast in 1942, he referred to the "hundreds of thousands who through no fault of their own, and solely because of their nation or race, have been condemned to death or progressive extinction", but never mentioned Jews by name. Privately, he sheltered a small number of Jews and spoke to a few select officials, notably in Hungary, encouraging them to help Jews.

Was Pius more concerned with safeguarding Vatican interests than with the fate of Jews? Critics suggest he was bound by centuries of anti-Jewish attitudes and practices in the papal states. Some suggest he was anti-Semitic.

Defenders, in the context of current moves to beatify, point to his great personal piety, the unprecedented complexity of issues faced during his papacy and the naivety of assumptions that the pope could have made any difference to the progress of Nazi genocide, and presume his tacit blessing of acts of sanctuary afforded by Catholics to Jews.

Yet Catholic (and Protestant) protests against Nazi atrocities proved successful in one notable instance: the almost complete cessation of the euthanasia programme in 1941.

The success of this contribution to the end of the euthanasia programme suggests that church opposition was effective, with the regime still being dependent on public support.The Vatican appeared to be in two minds over the discrimination and murder of Jews in the Third Reich.

While some representatives of the Catholic Church spoke out against anti-Semitic atrocities, and not infrequently helped to rescue Jews, the Vatican itself remained silent and took no stand when it learnt about the ongoing murder of Jews.

Most Jews remain convinced that Pius was guilty, at the very least, of the sin of silence in the face of evil but some Jewish inter-faith leaders fear that criticism could lead to a breakdown in the positive Jewish-Catholic relationship initiated by Pope John XXIII. Some also insist that we should not be involved in what is unquestionably an internal matter for the Catholic Church to resolve.

The evidence released thus far does not satisfactorily respond to whether Pius XII acted soon enough and decisively enough. A more extensive study is still required, one that would draw in the best available scholars in the field.

The Vatican will not achieve credibility on the question of Pius XII's wartime record by relying solely on the work of defenders of Pius XII, some of whom engage in questionable research.

The Rev Prof John T Pawlikowski from the Cardinal Bernadin Center in Chicago, myself and other scholars have therefore respectfully urged the Vatican to continue a hold on a consideration of Pius XII's beatification/canonisation until all relevant archival material is made available and scrutinised and a wider scholarly consensus is achieved regarding his response to the Holocaust.

Until then, it will remain uncertain whether the pope did all he could and whether he did it soon enough.

• Dr Edward Kessler is executive director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, which is attached to Cambridge University in England and is a constituent body of the Woolf Institute of Abrahamic Faiths