In response to interest in Catholic-Jewish relations -- as exemplified by the popularity of David Kertzer's "The Popes Against the Jews" and James Carroll's "Constantine's Sword," as well as a new Vatican document about the Jewish wait for the messiah -- Beliefnet recently launched a new dialogue between Catholic and Jewish scholars, leaders, and clergy called "The Vatican and the Jews: Understanding the Past, Looking Toward the Future." The dialogue is in the form of an email exchange. Beliefnet will periodically post contributions from the participants.

The dialogue began with the following question about recent news from the Vatican:

The Vatican has just announced that it will give historians access to its archives from 1922 to 1938 , which cover the church's relationship with Germany during this time. What light do you think these archives will shed on the church's role during World War II? What are scholars and clergy hoping to learn from these documents? Does this signify a stronger effort on the part of the Vatican to improve Catholic-Jewish relations?

Albert Friedlander, dean of the Leo Baeck College, a school in England for the study of Judaism and the training of rabbis and teachers, responds:

Two points: Who will be given access? And will ALL documents from thatperiod (1922 -1938) be available?

I think, and I assume the Vatican shares this thought, that one must findscholars who do not have a particular point to prove, but want to start withtexts and then relate them to the actions of the pope(s) during thiscritical period.

Whatever the texts say, they will give some insights into the mind andthe actions of Pope Pius XII. Only 2 years after his ordination in 1901 hewas already part of the Vatican bureaucracy. Monsignore Pietro Gaspari washis mentor who, by 1917 as cardinal, was responsible for the Codex JurisCanonici of 1917. And the Pacelli family was very much part of the Vatican.I believe that Pius XII, more than the popes who preceded and who followedhim, followed the guidelines of Vatican thinking. Alongside the texts in theArchives, one can look through the period between 1880 and 1939 (whichRichard Rubenstein has done) and see lines of anti-Judaism in L'OsservatoreRomano and "Civilt Cattolica" where the battle against the Enlightenment,secularity, and against the Jews supported through those forces, is wagedrelentlessly.

If the scholars can find texts which show that, within theVatican, there was also support for the Jews against unjustified attacks, itwill strengthen those who feel that during and even after that period thePapacy must be given more credit than it now receives. If we see relentlessattacks against the Jews, it also helps explain why Pius XII felt himselfunable to fight against this -- at least the idea of Pacelli as a total,wicked antisemite can be challenged: he functioned as the voice of theVatican and was tied to that role which at times makes him more a tragicfigure than a black villain.

--Albert Friedlander

Gene Fisher, Director of Catholic-Jewish Relations for the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, responds:

"A Somewhat Mixed Bag"

All reputable scholars will have access to all documents. First everything from 1922-1939 (next year). Then everything related to Germany shortly thereafter. Then materials on prisoners of war. Then everything from the war years (in about 5 years, unless they can find and fund more archivists (who must be priests), in which case it will take less time. If anybody wants to raise some funds to speed up the process, I know who to send it to: Cardinal Jorge Mejia, who is in charge of the Vatican library. The more people he can get working on the documents the faster they will be bound and placed into the archive for scholars to peruse at their leisure.

The Vatican and Pius do, I would argue, look pretty good relative to the governments of Europe & North America in the same period.

I think they will find a somewhat mixed bag. There will be very little racial anti-Semitism, since most of these folks were Italian and that is simply not an anti-Semitic culture.

But Pius likely would have shared the general European Catholic clerical identification of secular Jews with the Enlightenment. In the pre-Vatican II era the church did not like the Enlightenment and there was nostalgia for the "good old days" of the papal states, including, for some, the Jewish ghettos. So they would distinguish between the good, pious Jews and the ominous, secular Jews. Hence, while Pius XI fought bitterly against the introduction of Mussolini's racial laws, with Pius XII, then Secretary of State leading the charge, when Hitler announced his idea of "concentrating" the Jews into the ghettos, they would have thought that that was not a bad idea, just a re-establishment of the old order before the loss of the papal states.