The largely Jewish effort to slow down the proposed canonization of the pope who headed the Catholic Church during World War II has taken a more ecumenical tone.
Nineteen prominent Catholic scholars and theologians last week sent a letter to Pope Benedict XVI, urging him to put aside plans to declare Pius XII, the controversial pontiff during the Holocaust, a saint until historians gain full access to the Vatican’s wartime archives. The letter, intended as an internal Church document, was leaked to Reuters in Rome and subsequently made public.
The “faithful, practicing Catholics, consecrated and lay” who signed the letter declared that “the movement to press forward at this time the process of beatification of Pius XII greatly troubles us.” Beatification is a preliminary step to the declaration of sainthood.
“In essence, Pius XII has become a century old symbol of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism,” the letter states. “It is challenging to separate Pius XII from this legacy.”
Pius XII, who received praise in Jewish circles immediately after World War II for his opposition to Nazism, became subject to wide criticism following Rolf Hochhuth’s 1963 play, “The Deputy,” which depicted the pope as a vacillating figure with little interest in the fate of endangered Jews. Critics say he turned his back on Jewish suffering; supporters say his behind-the-scenes role helped save thousands of Jewish lives.
German-born Pope Benedict XVI late last year decreed the “heroic virtues” of Pius XII, John Paul II and 15 other Catholics, a step on the road to canonization.
Pius’ record is subject to dispute, according to many scholars.
“It’s a record of too much timidity,” said Sister Mary Boys, professor of practical theology at Union Theological Seminary.
The letter raises the question “Is there really a need for haste?” said Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute of Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s University. “It’s a plea for ‘let’s take our time.’” “The letter is a request for a continued hold on the canonization.”
It does not take a position on the possibility of eventual canonization at some point down the road, Rev. John Pawlikowski, professor of ethics at Catholic Theological Union and one of the organizers of the letter, told The Jewish Week in an e-mail interview.
Rev. Pawlikowski, like the 18 other signers, is a veteran of interfaith activities, in which the possible canonization of Pius XII has played a prominent role — particularly for Jewish participants — in recent years.
“We sent this letter because we feel that too often the issue of Pius XII is portrayed as one of Jewish concern,” Rev. Pawlikowski told the Catholic News Service. “We wanted to make it clear that some Catholics who have worked on Holocaust issues have serious concerns about advancing the cause of Pius XII at this time.”
“The Catholic scholars’ letter has strengthened the [interfaith] dialogue by demonstrating that our counterparts have the same fidelity to historic truth as we do,” said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
The Vatican had not responded to the letter by early this week, and several representatives of Catholic organizations said there is no way to predict what effect, if any, such a letter may have on papal behavior.
The signers of the letter “are close to the sensitivities of the Jewish community,” but the letter “will not really have any impact,” said Gary Krupp, president of the Pave the Way Foundation, an independent organization that works to improve Jewish relations with the Vatican.
“Those of us who signed it hope that our considered scholarly opinions will be taken into consideration” by Benedict XVI, said Sister Carol Rittner, professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey. “My ‘biggest hope’ is that he will be given the letter so that he personally can read it.”
Rev. Pawlikowski said he and Rev. Kevin Spicer, associate professor of history at Stonehill College, drafted the letter “because we felt it was necessary for Vatican leaders to know that there was important Catholic opposition to fast-tracking Pius’ canonization and because we felt that the apparent ‘hold’ on his canonization was in danger of being lifted. We wanted to encourage the pope to continue the hold so that scholars, particularly Catholic scholars, could continue to do their necessary research without having the extra burden of critiquing an already canonized saint. We think out letter might just help keep the hold in place.”
Most Jewish opponent’s of the pope’s canonization have emphasized that the Catholic Church’s declaration of sainthood is a purely internal Catholic decision, but that a premature canonization of Pius XII is likely to harm Jewish-Catholic relations that improved following the Second Vatican Council’s inter-religious advances in the early 1960s, and during the papacy of John Paul II.
“It is an extremely good sign — that there are elements within the Catholic Church who … do not wish to see that progress being rolled back,” said Menachem Rosensaft, vice president of the American Gathering organization.
Signers of the letter include Eugene Fisher, retired associate director of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Ecumenical and Inter-religious Relations; Paul O’Shea, an Australian author who has written a balanced history of Pius’ wartime record; and Frank Coppa, professor of history at Saint John’s University who is writing a biography of Pius XII.
“History needs distance and perspective” to make a thorough examination of Pius’ papacy, the letter states. “Proceeding with the cause of Pope Pius XII, without an exhaustive study of his actions during the Holocaust, might harm Jewish-Catholic relations in a way that cannot be overcome in the foreseeable future.”
The signers of the letters reflect the views of a larger group of Catholics who are troubled by Pius’ canonization before the opening of Vatican archives, observers said.
“I regard it as not just 19 people, but 19 people speaking on behalf of many of us,” said Sister Boys.
Holocaust expert Michael Berenbaum said the signers of the letter, mostly veterans of interfaith work “who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust” and of Vatican II, took to heart the Church’s increasing openness to ecumenism over recent decades.
Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League and a hidden child in Poland during the Holocaust, called the letter a “very significant, important gesture. The views of Catholics resonate a lot more seriously” in the Vatican than those of outsiders.
The Catholic News Service report on the letter brought a mixed response from readers. “I see a lot of signatures, but none from anyone whose opinion matters,” one reader wrote. “These are very important voices,” wrote another.
Copies of the letter were also sent to Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Holy See’s Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, and New York’s Archbishop Timothy Dolan, Episcopal Moderator for Catholic-Jewish Relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
What effect will the leaking of the private document have on the Vatican’s decision-making process?
Philip Cunningham of Saint Joseph’s University said a mixed reaction is likely. “It will annoy those in the Vatican hierarchy who wish to see Pius canonized.” On the other hand, he said, “It might give people pause who are not necessarily ready to have that happen right away.” n