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VATICAN CITY (RNS) Catholic historians and theologians are urging Pope Benedict XVI to suspend the sainthood process for the controversial World War II pontiff, Pius XII, until further research clarifies Pius’ record during the Holocaust.
“Holy Father, we implore you, acting on your wisdom as a renowned scholar, professor, and teacher, to be patient with the (sainthood) cause of Pope Pius XII,” the academics wrote in a letter dated Tuesday (Feb. 16). “History needs distance and perspective to arrive at these conclusions.”
The 19 scholars — 17 of them based in the U.S. — warned that prematurely moving Pius toward sainthood would disrupt Catholic-Jewish relations, and make it harder for Catholic scholars to study Pius’ legacy objectively.
Prominent signers included the Rev. John Pawlikowski of the Chicago Theological Union, and Eugene J. Fisher, former associate director of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ ecumenical office.
The group sent copies of the letter to Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s principal representative in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, and New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who plays a similar role for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Critics say 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, however, counter that he heroically condemned anti-Semitism throughout Hitler’s reign, and both directly and indirectly saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
“Pius XII has become a symbol of centuries-old Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism,” the scholars wrote. Honoring Pius for his sanctity before the academic debate is resolved could derail Jewish-Catholic relations “in a way that cannot be overcome in the foreseeable future.”
Jewish leaders protested last December when Benedict signed a decree recognizing Pius’ “heroic virtues” and declaring him “venerable,” thus making the late pope eligible for beatification, the rank just below sainthood.
The controversy overshadowed Benedict’s visit to Rome’s main synagogue last month, when the president of Rome’s Jewish community criticized the “silence of Pius XII” and a high-profile Italian rabbi boycotted the event.
The 19 scholars intended their letter “to make clear that these concerns are not just exclusively from the Jewish side,” Pawlikowski said in an interview. “There is Catholic concern as well.”
A number of historians and Jewish leaders have said 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.
According to Pawlikowski, premature honors for Pius would place a special burden on Catholic academics.
“It’s very difficult for serious scholars who take their Catholic faith seriously to do a real critical analysis of someone who’s been beatified or canonized,” Pawlikowski said.
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.
By Francis X. Rocca
Copyright 2010 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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