Amman, Jordan — Jews who continue to oppose the Vatican’s desire to make a saint of World War II Pope Pius XII are causing an anti-Semitic backlash among Catholics, warned William Cardinal Keeler, one of America’s foremost interfaith leaders.
“I’ve seen signs of a backlash, even in my own diocese,” Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, said Sunday night at a press conference. He was speaking on the eve of Pope John Paul II’s historic arrival in the Holy Land, and several days before the Pope’s much-anticipated speech at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
Some Jewish leaders were hoping John Paul II would somehow soften his support of canonizing Pius XII, accused by some Jewish and Christian leaders for failing to speak out strongly against the Holocaust. (Practically and theologically that is virtually impossible, as a pope, for political reasons, would not criticize a predecessor, and would also abide by Catholic doctrine that popes are infallible.)
But Keeler said there is a growing bitterness among Catholics against Jewish leaders who continue to attack Pius XII, even as John Paul II had made historic strides in healing and building Jewish Catholic relations.
Keeler told The Jewish Week his comments were in reaction to a press conference by Israel Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, who on March 15 laid out a critical chronology of Pius XII’s refusal several times to meet with the chief rabbi of then-Palestine to discuss the genocide against Jews in Europe.
Sources close to Keeler said the archbishop, known as one of the Jewish community’s best friends in the Church, meant to send Jews a message to lay off Pius XII.
But the language of “anti-Semitic backlash” raised some eyebrows and concern.
“I take it very seriously that he’s reporting something he’s encountering,” said Rabbi James Rudin, interreligious affairs director of the American Jewish Committee.
“I’ve gotten reports from other bishops in the United States that there’s unrest and the continued questions over whether Pius XII should be canonized,” Rudin said Tuesday. “It has gotten people very, very upset, because for many Catholics he is the pope of their youth, and adored from 1929 to 1958.”
In a follow-up interview on Monday by The Jewish Week, asked to clarify how this anti-Semitic backlash is manifesting itself, Keeler tried to tone down his language.
“I’m concerned some of our people are getting mad. Some of our people that I would like to see putting more energy into a positive Catholic-Jewish relationship say, ‘What’s the use?’ It’s more of a subtle thing in that people we would like to have interested in positive relationships are turned off.”
Keeler named a group of liberal American rabbis who tend to compliment the Vatican’s Jewish efforts, such as Rabbi Jack Bemporad of New Jersey and Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz of Connecticut, as good dialogue partners, as opposed to more critical groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the World Jewish Congress.
“What I try to encourage our people to see is that there are a number of serious, responsible leaders who appreciate the fact that progress has been made and I’m grateful to them, and I point out to the people in the Catholic side that might be concerned that one noisy group is not representative.”
Keeler said Jewish critics are ignoring the “facts” about how Pius XII’s silence during the Holocaust was meant to save more victims.
But Rabbi Lau provided a very different historical assessment, saying that Pius XII’s refusal to use his high leadership and influence among his flock around the world should not be a role model for Church behavior, which would be validated if he were canonized.
Rabbi Lau, a Polish Holocaust survivor, said Rabbi Isaac Herzog in Palestine was turned away at least three times by Pius XII during the years as the attacks on European Jews increased, in a period that started in 1938.
“Rav Herzog asked for a meeting in the Vatican with the Pope, asking him, begging him to say something to condemn the Nazis to prevent bloodshed because there is a real danger for very many innocent people in Europe, mainly the Jewish people and this was before the Wanasee conference of January 1942. The answer was no. The Pope didn’t want to meet with the chief rabbi.”
Rabbi Lau said that then-Cardinal Roncalli from Istanbul — the future Pope John XXIII — asked Pius XII to meet with the chief rabbi. “But the Pope refused.”
In 1946, Rabbi Herzog did gain a meeting with Pius XII, requesting that the pontiff ask Christian families to give back Jewish children kept under their protection during the Holocaust, Rabbi Lau said.
“There was no response from the Pope. He didn’t say a word about it. He didn’t write a word about it.”
Rabbi Lau said there’s a contradiction for John Paul II to speak of reconciliation and forgiveness and at the same time of canonization of Pius XII. “It’s a conflict. These things cannot dwell together. You make an example of him for future generations by making him a saint.”
Rabbi Rudin warned that “what we have is a potential flash point over the issue.”
He once again called on the Vatican to open its World War II archives as a way to answer the questions. “One way to solve the problem once and for all is to allow the right kinds of scholars to get all information,” he said.
A group of scholars is currently studying a redacted 12-volume set of Vatican documents, but the Vatican has so far refused to make all relevant documents available. Several Church leaders, including New York’s John Cardinal O’Connor, have called on the Vatican to do so.