Jewish leaders worldwide continue to express outrage and sadness over the Vatican’s action to bring 19th century Pope Pius IX — who called Jews “dogs” and conspired in the kidnapping of a Jewish child — one step closer to sainthood.
But perhaps more important, the Vatican’s decision to beatify Pius IX on Sunday at the same time as the popular 1960s Pope John XXIII — a good friend to the Jews — exposes a high-stakes theological struggle in Rome between progressive and conservative Catholic forces that could hamper future Jewish-Catholic relations.
“It shows me that inside the Vatican today, in the twilight of John Paul II’s papacy, there is a struggle going on,” said Rabbi James Rudin, senior interreligious adviser for the American Jewish Committee.
Rabbi Rudin said if “ultra-Conservatives gain ascendancy,” he feared regression in the recent historic positive developments between Catholics and Jews under current Pope John Paul II. Since the Pope’s historic “mea culpa” for sins against Jews and his emotional visit to the Western Wall and Yad Vashem earlier this year, and his referring to Jews as his “elder brothers,” Catholic and religious leaders have met, for the first time, to discuss biblical texts and are preparing a draft of a report seeking the opening of the Vatican archives.
This growing dialogue, interfaith observers say, could be jeopardized by the Pius IX decision.
As if to underscore the point, Rabbi Rudin said he is outraged by a statement from a senior Vatican official last week who publicly defended Pius IX’s support of the 1858 kidnapping of Edgardo Mortaras, a 6-year-old Italian Jewish boy who after being baptized was later made Pius’ personal ward despite international protests to return the boy to his Jewish parents.
The Rev. Daniel Ols told a national Italian television audience that he would still “find it beautiful” for a child to be baptized without his parents’ knowledge, as Edgardo was.
The “good of the eternal life” supersedes any “natural good,” including the rights of a parent over a child, said Rev. Ols, an official of the Holy See’s Congregation for the Promotion of Saints.
“I’m outraged,” Rabbi Rudin told The Jewish Week. “I would like that refuted by somebody. It flies in the face of [John Paul II] repudiating any form of religious coercion.”
Eugene Fisher, a spokesman for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said Tuesday he could not comment directly on Rev. Ols because he was not familiar with the full context. He directed the call to a Vatican spokesman in Rome, who could not be reached.
But Rabbi Joseph Ehrenkranz, executive director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Studies at the Catholic-sponsored Sacred Heart University, also expressed concern over Rev. Ols’ remarks and its consequences for future interfaith relations.
“I am concerned that the conservative voices may be the ones taking over,” Rabbi Ehrenkranz said. “I know there is a struggle going on, and there are people in the Vatican who still feel a Jew can’t have eternal life [without accepting Jesus]. When this Pope is gone, I’m concerned which will be the stronger voice.”
In fact, Rabbi Ehrenkranz said he was “surprised” that John Paul II supported Pius IX’s beatification — the last formal step in Catholic ritual before possible sainthood.
“I’m trying to find a reason in my mind why he did it,” he said.
Other Jewish leaders were less tolerant. On Monday, the European Jewish Congress strongly condemned the Vatican, saying Pius IX represented the most dogmatic and anti-Jewish forces in the Roman Catholic Church.
“The Vatican is sowing confusion and trouble among [Jewish] participants in the Jewish-Christian dialogue,” the Paris-based Congress said in a statement. “Pius IX remains in the memories of Jewish communities the pope of the forced transfer of Rome’s Jews into the ghetto.
“The European Jewish Congress also challenges this beatification, which tarnishes that of John XXIII, whom Jews remember as the Pope who abandoned the Church’s teaching of contempt toward the Jews,” the statement continued.
The American Jewish Committee, World Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League and Israel Jewish Council for Interreligious Relations also jointly condemned Pius IX’s beatification in a letter last month, saying that his conduct fell “far short of saintliness.”
The Israeli government expressed “deep sorrow,” especially in light of the progress John Paul’s 22-year papacy has made in Catholic-Jewish relations.
In addition to the criticism from Jewish organizations, 19 eminent Catholic theologians from 10 nations wrote in the Catholic magazine Concilium that Pius IX was “known for his anti-Semitic actions,” and asked, “How can [John Paul] beatify one of the people for whose actions he asked forgiveness?”
Italian Jewish leaders, who have more direct family experiences with Pius IX’s policies, were more critical.
Leone Paserman, president of the Rome Jewish community, said that while the Church is entitled to make its own decisions, the action “will set back by many years the process of reconciliation between Jews and Catholics” in Italy.
“Pius’ beatification is quite simply a scandal,” said Enrico Modigliani, a member of the board of Rome’s Jewish community and a former member of the Italian parliament.
“In a year when the Church has made an effort to apologize for the treatment of the Jews, it is not right to beatify Pius IX, who was one of the worst anti-Semites,” he added.
Recent controversy over the beatification of Pope Pius XII, who served during World War II and is accused of silence in the face of the Holocaust, has died down as the Vatican seems to have put his sainthood track on the back burner.
Meanwhile, at a candlelight protest in Rome Saturday, speakers read from passages of Pius IX’s writings, including one in which he allegedly wrote Jews were not citizens but “dogs.”
But most critics focused on the taking of Edgardo Mortara by papal guards in 1858. Church officials ordered the boy removed from his Jewish family in Bologna after hearing he had been secretly baptized by a Catholic housemaid. Despite an international campaign, Pius IX refused to return him to his family. Mortara later became a priest.
Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, called it “the biggest wound that remains in the Italian Jewish world.”
Descendants of Mortara called Pius’ beatification “a reopening of a wound.”
“We always thought that this ordeal was in the past,” said Elena Mortara, Edgardo’s great-great niece, surrounded by the Mortara family. “We are sorry that it has become a scandal of the present.”
Equally troublesome, she said, was that the measure that governed the taking of Edgardo remains Church law today.
Pope John Paul II acknowledged the controversy, calling Pius “much loved, but also hated and slandered.”
“Beatifying a son of the Church does not celebrate particular historic choices that he has made but rather points him out for imitation and for veneration for his virtue,” the Pope said.
Pius IX had the longest papacy in history and strengthened fundamentalist Catholic dogma by putting papal infallibility and the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary into Church doctrine.
Seemingly lost in all the controversy is the historic accomplishments of John XXIII, whose Second Vatican Council rejected the idea that Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus, a 2,000-year-old belief that is at the root of anti-Semitism among Christians.
“This is really an odd couple,” said Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations of the coupling of the two popes.
“They are completely opposites. Regrettably, the whole issue of saints for the Catholic world is tainted by pushing Pius IX at this time.”
John XXIII, born Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli, is known as the “The Good Pope.” As the Vatican’s envoy to Turkey during World War II, he is credited with saving thousands of Jews with transit visas and other assistance — although at one point he complained of a “convoy of Jews” heading to Palestine and its holy sites. He pushed for recognition of human rights as essential for world peace.
In contrast Pius condemned emerging civil rights in his own 1864 encyclical and opposed the formation of a secular Italian state.
When John died of stomach cancer in 1963, less than five years into his papacy, he was mourned by all of Rome.
When Pius died, his coffin was mobbed by angry Italian nationalists who tried to throw it into the Tiber River.
- John Paul
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Eugene Fisher
- James Rudin
- Joseph Ehrenkranz
- Sacred Heart University
- Daniel Ols
- Edgardo Mortara
- Enrico Modigliani
- Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli
- Edgardo Mortaras
- Western Wall
- John Paul II
- Staff Writer
- Human Interest
- executive director