Pius XII Controversy Intensifies Sainthood for the Holocaust Pope?

Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday fueled speculation that beatification may be on the horizon for Pope Pius XII, often criticized for not doing enough to combat the Holocaust. The Vatican has been working hard to improve Pius's popular image.

The process of beatification is usually a backroom deal, taking place inside the Vatican and well outside the public eye. But not this time. For months the Catholic Church has been sending signals that the beatification of Pope Pius XII, who headed the Catholic Church during World War II, may be imminent. Some historians and Jewish leaders, though, have been vociferous in their opposition to the move, arguing Pius XII did less than he should have to save the Jews from the Holocaust.

Pope Benedict XVI on Thursday launched the most recent volley in defense of Pius XII. Speaking at a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica to mark the 50th anniversary of Pius' death, Benedict said that Pius, who became pope in 1939 just before the outbreak of the war, had "worked secretly and silently" during the conflict "to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews possible."

Benedict recalled for his audience that Israeli Foreign Minister Golda Meir paid tribute to Pius when he died on Oct. 9, 1958. Benedict also highlighted a Christmas radio message given by Pius in December 1942 in which he spoke of "hundreds of thousands of persons, who, through no fault of their own, only for reason of nationality or ethnic roots, were destined for death or for steady deterioration."

The process of beatification, the final formal step before declaring sainthood, "can proceed happily," Benedict said on Thursday.

Not everyone is quite as sanguine about the prospect of a Saint Pius, however. Haifa Chief Rabbi She'ar Yashuv Cohen, who on Monday became the first Jew ever to speak before the Vatican's Synod of Bishops, said that many Jews were unhappy with Pius.

"We feel that the late pope should have spoken up more strongly than he did," he told a news conference prior to addressing the Synod. "He may have helped in secrecy many of the victims and many of the refugees but the question is could he have raised his voice and would it have helped or not? We, as the victims, feel (the answer is) yes."

Others haven't been nearly as diplomatic. In a 1999 book called "Hitler's Pope," British author John Cornwell documents Pius' role prior to becoming pope in negotiating the "Reichskonkordat," the treaty signed between Nazi Germany and the Catholic Church in 1933. Many historians have argued that this agreement provided the Nazi regime with a substantial degree of international legitimacy.

But Cornwell's assertion that Pope Pius XII failed to take serious action to save the Jews has been challenged and the author himself has retreated from some of his more controversial claims regarding Pius' alleged acquiescence.

Nevertheless, many Jews are still critical of the role Pius played. His photo in the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum includes a blistering caption.

"Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest either verbally or in writing," the caption reads. "In December 1942, he abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews. When Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the Pope did not intervene."

The veracity of the caption has been challenged by the Vatican and the museum has said it would be open to new research on the question. Pius's supporters argue that the wartime pope worked hard behind the scenes to protect Jews from Nazi death camps. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano on Tuesday printed a full-page article praising Pius's World War II efforts. The paper also included a piece written by the Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. "If he had made a public intervention, he would have endangered the lives of thousands of Jews, who, upon his directive, were hidden in 155 convents and monasteries in Rome alone," Bertone wrote.

Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, who has spent years researching the Pope as the Vatican's lead investigator into Pius's suitability for sainthood, has given his blessing for beatification. Speaking to the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Tuesday, Gumpel said he read everything he could find and had access to Vatican archives that have still not been made available to the public.

"If I had found anything incriminating in the files, I never would have signed off," Gumpel told the Süddeutsche. "After all, I have a lot of responsibility as the investigating judge."

The road to beatification for Pope Pius XII, which began in 1967, has not always been straightforward and has suffered repeated delays. With the beatification process now apparently moving along, there are some who argue it is time for the Catholic Church to open up the archives so independent historians can have a look.

"I wish they'd spend a higher percentage of their time in efforts to open the archives, and less in spinning what they're selectively presenting," said Abraham Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to the National Catholic Reporter recently. Foxman and the ADL have consistently opposed beatification for Pius. "They're protesting too much. We are willing to withhold our judgement and the Vatican should withhold its (own) until scholars have been able to openly examine the material and see what's there."

cgh -- with wire reports


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