The pope at issue is Pius IX, the last Roman Catholic pontiff to reign over the papal states of central Italy. He is expected to be beatified, the final step before sainthood, along with Pope John XXIII on Sept. 3.
During his 32 years as temporal as well as spiritual leader, Pius IX ordered Jews back into the Rome ghetto, the last in Europe, and barred them from owning property, having careers in the arts or sciences, teaching in schools or receiving public assistance and medical care.
Pius IX also was a central figure in the notorious case of a young boy who was kidnapped from his Jewish parents and brought up as a Catholic because a domestic servant had had him secretly baptized.
"The beatification of Pius IX exalts a symbol that for Italian Jews still represents a wound," Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, told a news conference March 8.
The Rev. Georges Cottier, a Dominican priest who serves as theologian to the pope, dismissed the protest, saying it "did not make interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Jews easier."
Cottier said prelates considering the case for sainthood did not take Pius IX's political actions into consideration, only his saintliness. "If you want to make a study of the historical events, go ahead, but that cannot block the cause of beatification," the theologian said.
Luzzatto voiced the protest one day after the Vatican issued a document explaining John Paul's decision to celebrate a "Day of Pardon" on the first Sunday of the penitential season of Lent, asking forgiveness for sins committed during the first two millenniums of Christianity.
The document, "Memory and Reconciliation: the Church and the Faults of the Past," expressed "profound remorse" for the "tormented" relations between Jews and Christians throughout the 2,000 years of Christianity. It reiterated the regret the Vatican expressed in 1998 over the failure of many to come to the aid of Jews during the Holocaust of World War II.
The International Theological Commission, which wrote the document, also lists as faults of Christians the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox churches, the Protestant Reformation, the "use of force in the service of truth" and such "evils of today" as atheism, relativism and abortion.
Luzzatto expressed disappointment over the document.
"I was expecting more. This document basically says nothing new on the responsibility of the Christians for the Holocaust," he said. "To speak generically of responsibility of some Christians without making further clarification at length can only be dangerous. I was expecting more. More courage is needed and, above all, clarity."
Luzzatto said the document spoke only in theological terms, failing to take the church's political and social relations with Jews into consideration.
"Relations between the church and the Jewish world have never been only of a theological nature but have been also political," he said. "It is enough to think of the decrees with which the ghettos were instituted or the restrictive laws that opened the way to social discrimination. But these are not spoken of."
Luzzatto said the Vatican has halted proceedings on the beatification of another controversial pope, Pius XII, attacked by many Jews for his silence on the Nazi death camps. The Vatican has denied shelving the pope's beatification.
Pius IX forced Jews back into Rome's medieval ghetto in 1848, two years after he became pope. He introduced laws depriving Jews of their civil rights in 1849.
Sandro Di Castro, head of the Rome Jewish Community, said Pius IX's laws can be considered the "antecedents and, in a way, the inspiration" for the racial laws that Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini instituted in 1938.
In an affair that caused an international uproar in 1858, the Swiss Guard kidnapped young Edgardo Mortara from the home of his Jewish family in Bologna and brought him to Rome to be raised as a Catholic because of his secret baptism. The Emperor Napoleon II was among the leading figures of the day who appealed for the boy to be returned to his family, but the pope rejected the pleas and adopted the boy.
Mortara, educated in Catholic schools, became a priest and died in Belgium in 1940, three months before the Nazis invaded the country.
Pius IX fled the Vatican in 1870 when the army of Victor Emmanuel II defeated the papal forces, but he continued to reign until 1878, longer than any other pope since St. Peter.