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VATICAN CITY (RNS) Jewish leaders warned of new strains in Catholic-Jewish relations after Pope Benedict XVI moved his controversial wartime predecessor, Pope Pius XII, one step closer to possible sainthood.
Benedict signed a decree on Saturday (Dec. 19) recognizing Pius’
“heroic virtues” and declaring him “venerable.” That new status makes the late pope eligible for beatification, the rank just below sainthood.
“While it is entirely a matter for the Catholic Church to decide on whom religious honors are bestowed, there are strong concerns about Pope Pius XII’s political role during World War II,” said Ronald S. Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress. “It would be appreciated if the Vatican showed more sensitivity on this matter.”
Critics say that Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, failed to do or say all he could to stop the Nazis’ persecution and genocide of the Jews.
The late pope’s defenders counter that he heroically condemned anti-Semitism throughout Hitler’s reign, and both directly and indirectly saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
The controversy over Pius’ legacy overshadowed Benedict’s May visit to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, when he avoided visiting the adjacent museum because its exhibits included a photo caption critical of Pius.
On Sunday (Dec. 20), the president of the Assembly of Italian Rabbis said displeasure over Saturday’s decree could lead to canceling Benedict’s scheduled visit to Rome’s main synagogue next month.
“Anything can happen now,” Rabbi Giuseppe Laras told the Rome newspaper La Repubblica.
Announcement of the decree caught most observers by surprise. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints voted unanimously to declare the late pope “venerable” in May 2007, but Benedict took the extraordinary step of appointing a commission to reconsider Pius’ record, with special attention to Jewish concerns.
Apparently the pope was satisfied by evidence presented at a Rome conference last September, which he said showed that Pius had “spared no effort in intervening” on behalf of the Jews, though in many cases “secretly and silently, precisely because… only in this way was it possible to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews.”
A number of historians and Jewish leaders have said that more study is necessary in order to evaluate Pius’ wartime record, and have called for opening the Vatican Archives from World War II, most of which are inaccessible to outsiders. The Vatican says it needs until at least 2014 to prepare those documents for consultation.
“We are sadly disappointed, and fail to understand why they would put the beatification on track as long as the issue of the archives is not resolved,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the New York-based Anti-Defamation League.
Foxman noted that Jewish-Catholic relations had “just come out of a difficult period” following Benedict’s decision in January to lift the excommunication of ultra-traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, who turned out to be a public Holocaust denier.
“The rift has just healed, so why reopen another wound at this time?” Foxman said.
In Washington, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum echoed the call to open the archives. “An understanding of (Pius’) response to the murder of Europe’s Jews and the moral evaluation of his actions depend upon solid historical research,” the museum said in a statement. “Such research will be possible only when all Vatican archival material from 1933-1945 is completely open and available to scholars of all disciplines.”
Catholic-Jewish relations in the U.S. are still fragile after U.S. Catholic bishops sought to “clarify” the church’s relationship with Jews — asserting that everyone would be a target of evangelism and conversion. Jewish leaders threatened to pull the plug on 40 years of dialogue, but by October, the bishops backed down, saying interfaith dialogue will never be used as a means of covert proselytism.
Before Pius can be canonized, he must be beatified and credited with a miracle due to his intercession. A second miracle after beatification would be needed in order for him to be named a saint.
In the same decree with which he named Pius “venerable,” Benedict inched his beloved predecessor, John Paul II, one step closer to sainthood with the same “venerable” title. That move, which was widely expected, could lead to John Paul’s beatification sometime next year.

By FRANCIS X. ROCCA
Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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