In what is being hailed as a major development in interfaith affairs, John Cardinal O’Connor, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, is calling for the Vatican to quickly open its secret Nazi-era archives.
The comments by Cardinal O’Connor mark the first major initiative by a Christian leader in the long-running struggle to gain access to the Catholic Church’s sealed documents in Rome. Jewish leaders have been calling for access to try and determine the relationship between the Vatican and Nazi Germany during and after World War II.
“Yes, I would like to see [the archives] opened,” said Cardinal O’Connor, a leader in Jewish-Catholic dialogue, who is close to Pope John Paul II. He spoke during a ceremony last month to inaugurate the world’s first Holocaust studies doctoral program at Clark University in Worchester, Mass.
“It would be much better for the world, much better for the Church, if the archives were opened tomorrow,” Cardinal O’Connor continued.
The 78-year-old Cardinal O’Connor, who heads the nation’s third largest archdiocese, said he would suggest to the Pope that the archives be opened.
But he warned that some Vatican officials oppose the idea.
“The Pope would open everything,” Cardinal O’Connor told the newspaper Catholic New York. “But not everyone in Rome is as open-minded.”
Cardinal O’Connor returned from his meeting with the Pope last Friday. Results of the meeting could not be obtained at press time.
Several Jewish interfaith officials hailed Cardinal O’Connor’s comments.
“It is indeed significant,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which helped spearhead the looted Nazi gold issue.
“I believe that when the cardinal speaks, the Vatican, the Jewish world, and indeed religious communities in general pay attention.”
Rabbi A. James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said the remarks were a breakthrough, considering Cardinal O’Connor’s close relationship with John Paul II.
“I consider this very positive and it’s going to have a major impact because this is a cardinal from New York City who is close to the Vatican and the Pope,” said Rabbi Rudin.
He compared the campaign to open the archives to the long term struggle to free Soviet Jewry. “You start out on a campaign and stay with it and make the case that it is to the benefit of everybody.” With Cardinal O’Connor on board, he said “I think this campaign will bear fruit to allow competent scholars to have access to relevant archival materials so we can finally get a full accounting of the World War II period.”
Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University, said, “I’m extremely pleased. What he’s asking for is something that the Jewish community has been demanding, and he is doing it in a polite way to clear up points that are muddied in the Jewish mind. I think coming out into the open has to be positive sign between Catholics and Jews.”
Under normal Church policy, the Vatican archives would be sealed for another 20 years. But in light of the world’s re-examination of the history of the Holocaust — brought about by pressure to finally recompense Jewish Nazi war survivors and the families of victims — many governments, including Switzerland and Spain, have already made their archives accessible to outside researchers.
The Vatican has remained virtually alone in resisting public calls by U.S. officials, including Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat, and American Jewish leaders to open the archives.
At the heart of the struggle is the quest to once and for all ascertain the role of World War II-era Pope Pius XII in the Holocaust. Jewish officials say Pius XII was silent while Jews were being murdered. But church officials, including Pope John Paul, defend Pius as a wise diplomat who quietly saved thousands of Jews.
Cardinal O’Connor said he has no idea what is contained in the archives, but expressed confidence that the classified documents would justify the silence of Pius XII as a “silence of charity to save lives rather than exacerbate the situation.”
Steinberg noted that the cardinal’s comments came just a few weeks before a major conference in Washington, D.C. next month on Holocaust-era assets.
“It is especially appropriate,” he said, because “the Vatican found itself isolated” with regard to the issue of open records at the last such conference in London several months ago.