During the current era of warming Jewish-Catholic relations, initiated in 1978 by the late Pope John Paul II and continued by the recently retired Benedict XVI, some dividing points between the Jewish and Catholic communities surfaced. Among them were the resurrected Latin Mass that calls for the conversion of the Jews, and the lifting of a Holocaust-denying priest’s excommunication.
But one issue has kept its position atop Jewish concerns: the legacy of Pius XII, the man who led the Vatican during World War II, turning a blind eye, according to many critics, to the Nazi persecution of Europe’s Jews; that included the Jewish community of Rome, members of which were rounded up, literally, outside Pius’ windows. Only a full opening of the Vatican’s wartime archives, which hold the full accounting of what Pius XII said and wrote in privacy as the Holocaust raged, will offer a full picture of his actions, members of the Jewish community, and to a lesser extent, some prestigious members of the Catholic community, maintain.
The Vatican has largely kept the archive doors closed. It has allowed selected scholars access to selected documents, and has promised a gradual opening of more records — far from what an honest historical accounting demands.
The change in the Vatican last week offers hope that this situation may change for the better. The election of Pope Francis, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio of Argentina, by the College of Cardinals as the successor to Benedict sent a strong signal of a change in style at the Holy See. Francis, according to al reports, is a modest man, who during his years moving up the Catholic hierarchy in his homeland, maintained constant and close ties with Argentina’s active Jewish community, celebrating Jewish holidays in synagogues and protesting terrorist attacks that were aimed at Argentine Jews.
Among the friends he made among Argentine Jewry is Rabbi Abraham Skorka, who co-authored with the then cardinal a 2010 book, “On Heaven and Earth,” which devoted a chapter to an analysis of Pius’ “attitude” toward the victims of the Final Solution.
Rabbi Skorka, in an interview with The Jewish Week’s Stewart Ain, said the cardinal called for an opening of the archives. Thr Rabbi said he is optimistic that Cardinal Bergoglio, as Pope Francis, will “search for all of the details and … open all the archives. He will use this opportunity to learn the truth.”
A full opening of Vatican records will go a long way to easing Jewish suspicions about the role the Church played — or failed to play — in using its influence to mitigate Nazi Germany’s atrocities against the continent’s Jews. On the other hand, many defenders of Pius XII in the Jewish and Catholic communities maintain that he clandestinely saved thousands of Jews by ordering the Church’s convents and seminaries to open their doors to endangered Jews. Opening the archives also runs a risk for the Vatican. Revelations that Pius XVI indeed was hostile, or at least indifferent, to the suffering of millions of Jews would greatly embarrass the Church, which has steadily defended the wartime pontiff and taken steps to elevate him to sainthood, and they would threaten the concept of papal infallibility.
If Pius was wrong about his dealings with the Third Reich, other pope’s views about other issues may be open to question.
Pope Francis, to all appearances, is a man committed to truth. A decision to fully open the Vatican, no matter the consequences, would be a clear demonstration of his further commitment.