The Rabbi and the Pope(s)

The Rabbi and the Pope.jpg“The first Jew to address a Vatican synod said on Monday that wartime Pope Pius XII should have done more to help Jews during the Holocaust.” That’s the lead on the incisive Reuters story about Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen of Haifa, in Israel, who told Reuters he might have stayed away if he had known the major Church gathering coincided with ceremonies to honor Pius on the 50th anniversary of his death. Rabbi Cohen was addressing the Synod on the Word, a gathering of bishops discussing the role of the bible in Catholic life (no jokes, please). Cohen was going to give some insights into how Jews read Holy Scriptures, but he felt he could not ignore the re-emerging Pius controversy. (Foto via Whispers)


“We feel that the late pope (Pius) should have spoken up much more strongly than he did,” Cohen, 80, said in an interview hours before he was due to address the gathering of Catholic bishops from around the world. Cohen said that in his speech he planned to make an indirect reference to Jewish disappointment about Pius as well as an appeal to all religious leaders to denounce Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Indeed, as John Allen reports from Rome, that’s what Rabbi Cohen did:

At the end of a brief speech to the synod this afternoon on the Jewish approach to the Bible, Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen alluded to the controversies over Pius XII. “We cannot forget the sad and painful fact of how many, including great religious leaders, didn’t raise a voice in the effort to save our brethren, but chose to keep silent and help secretly,” said Cohen, the Chief Rabbi of Haifa in Israel.
“We cannot forgive and forget, and we hope you understand our pain, our sorrow,” Cohen said, speaking in English to an audience of some 253 cardinals, archbishops and bishops, as well as Benedict XVI. Cohen never mentioned Pius XII by name, though in context the reference seemed obvious.
His remarks on Pope Pius to the synod were not in Cohen’s prepared text, suggesting a last-minute addition.


Pius XII.jpgAs John notes, Cohen’s remarks come as the “Pius Wars” are heating up: Benedict is weighing whether to move forward with Pius’ canonization cause, and the pope strongly defended his wartime predecessor in a speech last month to the interreligious dialogue group, The Pave the Way Foundation:

“When one draws close to this noble Pope, free from ideological prejudices, in addition to being struck by his lofty spiritual and human character one is also captivated by the example of his life and the extraordinary richness of his teaching. One can also come to appreciate the human wisdom and pastoral intensity which guided him in his long years of ministry, especially in providing organized assistance to the Jewish people.
“Thanks to the vast quantity of documented material which you have gathered, supported by many authoritative testimonies, your symposium offers to the public forum the possibility of knowing more fully what Pius XII achieved for the Jews persecuted by the Nazi and fascist regimes. One understands, then, that wherever possible he spared no effort in intervening in their favour either directly or through instructions given to other individuals or to institutions of the Catholic Church. In the proceedings of your convention you have also drawn attention to his many interventions, made secretly and silently, precisely because, given the concrete situation of that difficult historical moment, only in this way was it possible to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews. This courageous and paternal dedication was recognized and appreciated during and after the terrible world conflict by Jewish communities and individuals who showed their gratitude for what the Pope had done for them.”


Michael Phayer’s new book, “Pius XII, the Holocaust and the Cold War,” is yet another example of the ongoing search for the historical Pius. But Benedict himself has fed the controversies with his own impolitic moments (like his flat-footed speech at Auschwitz) and actions such as the restoration of Latin prayers for the conversion of the Jews and his fervid outreach to traditionalists who are some of the most fervent anti-Semites in Christianity today. Giving Pius the green light to sainthood would compound the controversy; not doing so would be seen as a rank injustice by some Catholics.

Comments read comments(34)
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posted October 7, 2008 at 5:59 pm

I understand the sins the Catholic Church has made in the past, but it should also be pointed out that millions of Christians also died fighting Hitler. So I don’t think Christianity owes Judaism an apology?
Many Catholic priests stood up against the Germans.
Pope John Paul II as a bishop was a key figure in helping jews escape Poland.
If the Jewish autorities would like Pope Pius blamed fine, but no one should try to make this a Christians were bad to us deal.
African Americans were treated bad in history too… so were Native Americans.
My ancestors were Irish & treated very poorly… do I rehash the past?

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Scott R.

posted October 7, 2008 at 10:12 pm

Do you know offensive that sounds?
I am entitled to know why people who were supposedly moral and who were supposedly devoted to God didn’t do everything in their power to save my family.
They needed the Church, because the church was the only force on the continent that could have helped.

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Gerard Rixhon

posted October 9, 2008 at 3:14 am

Growing up In the Belgian Ardennes under the German occupation, I remember vividly the complaints of my father in 1944 (when I was visiting from my hiding place in a forest nearby) to our parish priest about the silence of Pius XII throughout the pre-war and the war years concerning Hitler’s atrocities, concentration camps, the racism of the Nazis, etc. His “why didn’t he speak?” drew only the bland remark rhat he Himself, the priest, coukd not comprehend this silence and lamely added that the Pope hopefully knew what he was doing … or not doing! That did not satisfy my father nor me, nor the rest of the family. This complaint went beyond what was happening to the Jews (one of whom our family of 12 children hid for a while) as we had our own relatives and friends locked in German death camps and young men like me hiding in the forest to avoid forced labor in Germany and later to fight them. The Holocaust was a real horror but not the only one. The “why” of my father has so far remained unanswered. The church simply is afraid to accept the fact one of theirs has been found tragically wanting. To me, the current scramble to justify Pius XII’s murderous silence adds another insult to a 70 years old injury to Jews and non-Jews alike.

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Scott R.

posted October 9, 2008 at 2:29 pm

You, your father and your family are part of the righteous of the nations. He who saves one life saves the world.
Bless you.

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posted October 10, 2008 at 8:11 am

I willing to concede times were tough, but sainthood? Why go there? There’s an in-your-face aspect (“Happily go forward”) to this that really troubles me. Authority above all else. Time to read, again, Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor chapter from the Brothers K.

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Gerard Rixhon

posted October 11, 2008 at 3:34 am

Your kind words, Scott, are appreciated. However, saving lives for Pius XII meant more than just hiding a number of Italian Jews or asking others to do the same. Ge was expected to Face up courageously to the Nazi regime, its ideology and terrorism by speaking up the truth.That would have saved many more people from the horrors they went through and possibly even shortened the war. He did not.

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Pius XII and the Church

posted October 12, 2008 at 6:42 pm

International Jewish organizations downplayed public criticism of Hitler’s camps and told this to Pius XII in order to lessen the suffering. Israel as a government, and scholars have always known this. The attacks on Pius XII have little to do with truth and all about betrayal. That Pope was the Jews best friend in their worst of days as Golda Meir stated.

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Michael F Brennan

posted October 12, 2008 at 6:59 pm

Pius XII risked life and limb to hide Jews in the Vatican, Castel Condolfo, and [under his explicit orders] church property throughout Europe. Pregnant Jewish women gave birth in one of his bedrooms. International Jewish organizations did little during this timeframe and that is one of the major reasons the JDL is scapegoating Pius XII. Jews do not want to explain the truth to their grandchildren. However, all Jewish scholars know that public criticism of Hitler drew enormous costs in blood. They know their attack on Pius XII is the betrayal of a best friend. The Vatican has been entirely too patient with liars and anti-papacy driven commentators. Knowledge of all this has been very sobering on many of us who know, and will not forget.

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