A cloud of suspicion will hover above the Bishop of Rome when he crosses the Tiber River to visit Rome’s Great Synagogue next month.
Pope Benedict XVI’s planned visit on Jan. 17 to the synagogue — the second in history by the leader of the Roman Catholic Church — will take place in the shadow of renewed controversy over Pope Pius XII, the pontiff during World War II whose ambiguous record has soured Jewish-Catholic relations for four decades.
Benedict XVI’s announcement last week that he decreed the “heroic virtues” of Pius XII, and of John Paul II and 15 other Catholics, a step toward their eventual canonization as saints, has deeply divided the Jewish community.
The move, say some participants in interfaith dialogue, could be a setback in ties between the Jewish community and Catholics, and is premature until the Vatican fully opens archives that would reveal that extent of Pius XII’s opposition to the Third Reich’s murder of European Jews.
But other Jewish leaders say Benedict XVI’s decision to honor his predecessor’s memory, which may not necessarily put Pius XII on the “fast track” to sainthood, is less important to inter-religious relations than the upcoming papal visit to the synagogue.
While arguing that Jewish-Christian relations remain strong, some scholars said the Vatican’s apparent placating of conservative elements in the church, following the declining support for Israel among many liberal Protestant churches, is a sign of the Jewish community’s weakening role in interfaith relations.
“We’re getting squeezed a little on both sides,” said Holocaust historian Michael Berenbaum.
Jewish leaders said they plan no steps against the recent papal action beyond issuing statements of protest.
“The symbolism of [Pope Benedict] going to the synagogue,” a visit that will feature the participation of prominent Jewish representatives from Israel and the diaspora, “trumps everything else,” said Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It says to the church world that Judaism is viable,” said Foxman, who survived the Holocaust because his Polish Catholic nanny hid him in her home.
Pope Benedict’s apparent fast-tracking of Pius XII’s road to sainthood follows two other actions in the last two years that have drawn criticism in parts of the Jewish community — his reinstatement of a Latin prayer that calls for the conversion of Jews to Catholicism, and his lifting of the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, an outspoken denier of the Holocaust.
Foxman said the Vatican addressed Jewish concerns when the pope overturned Bishop Williamson’s excommunication. Church spokesman later apologized. “They did listen. They did reconsider,” Foxman said. “This papacy has shown that it does listen and it does correct itself.”
According to Berenbaum, “Even if the Vatican makes [Pius XII] a saint, it will not cleanse his record. We have found that individual Roman Catholics,” both members of the clergy and members of the laity, “behaved better than the Vatican leadership” during the Shoah, he said.
Berenbaum said the Vatican’s behavior in rehabilitating both a Holocaust-denying bishop and praising the record of a controversial pope are signs that the impact of the 1965 Second Vatican Council, which helped remove centuries of Catholic hostility to Jews and Judaism, might be reduced by a generation of Catholic leaders who grew up after Vatican II.
The current generation “probably has not embraced this [ecumenical] tradition,” he said. “We’re entering an era in which [Jewish-Catholic relations] may suffer from benign neglect.”
Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said, “I don’t think [Benedict XVI’s recent action] is going to be a major problem.” While Pius XII’s behavior during WWII “would not fit any Jew’s definition of sainthood,” the current controversy is simply the latest step in the debate over the wartime pope, Sarna said.
Proponents of inter-religious dialogue remain optimistic about relations remaining strong, he said, while Benedict XVI’s action will persuade critics of the Vatican that “Jewish-Christian relations are not as high” on the Catholic Church’s “hierarchy” as they were for Pope Benedict’s predecessor, John Paul II.
While liberal factions of Christianity, mostly Protestant, have become increasingly hostile to Israel in recent years, support for the Jewish state has grown in Evangelical circles, in effect replacing the loss, Sarna said.
A member of the Italian Jewish community with close ties to the community leaders told The Jewish Week that the papal visit is “at risk,” but a spokeswoman for Rome’s Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni said this week that the visit is still on.
The ADL and several other Jewish organizations here, in Israel, Italy and Germany criticized Pope Benedict’s recent action as insensitive to Jewish feelings, while recognizing the church’s primacy in determining whom it honors.
Pope Benedict’s decree about Pius XII’s “heroic virtues” was “a big mistake,” said Fred Rosenbaum, a San Francisco-based Jewish educator who spent a recent sabbatical year conducting archival research in Rome about Pius XII. “Most historians have come to the conclusion that Pius XII was not a friend of the Jews. There is no solid evidence that he was working behind the scenes” to save Jewish lives.
“The pope’s woeful inaction was due to his feelings that Nazism was the lesser of two evils, compared to communism,” Rosenbaum said. “Any fair-minded person would come to the conclusion that the pope was a bystander at best and is not qualified for sainthood.”
Benedict XVI will likely feel pressured to discuss — or explicitly defend — his recent action during the synagogue visit, Rosenbaum said.
“This needs to be a front-and-center priority of every ecumenical meeting,” said Menachem Rosensaft, World Jewish Congress general counsel.
Pope Benedict’s visit to the Rome synagogue will be his second to a Jewish house of worship — in 2005 he visited a synagogue in Cologne, Germany. The pope’s predecessor, John Paul II, visited the Rome synagogue in 1986, calling Jews “our beloved elder brothers.”
“The response of Eugenio Pacelli [Pope Pius XII] to the policies of the National Socialist regime — notably his failure to condemn publicly the genocide of the European Jews — has long been the topic of debate and controversy,” according to a statement by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “At the time of the Holocaust, questions about Pius XII’s public silence were raised by Myron Taylor, the U.S. representative to the Vatican, and Taylor’s assistant Harold Tittman, who requested that the Holy See speak out on the issue.”
Giuseppe Laras, president of the Association of Italian Rabbis, said he was saddened by Pope Benedict’s action because Pius XII “did not shout out loud his outrage and his opposition to the Shoah and against the extermination of people whose only crime was that of being Jewish.”
However, Gary Krupp, founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, a New York-based independent nonsectarian organization that fosters closer relations between Judaism and Catholicism, denied that the possible canonization of Pius XII will harm Jewish-Catholic ties, and he said the eventual opening of the Vatican archives will “find only positive stuff” about the pope’s conduct during the Holocaust.
Krupp, who is Jewish, said Pius XII enjoyed a stellar reputation among world Jewry until the 1963 publication of Rolf Hochhuth’s “The Deputy,” a play that depicted the pope as an unfeeling diplomat-turned-pontiff who remained silent during the Final Solution.
Krupp, whose foundation is to publish a series of books on this subject next year, presented his findings earlier this month to a group of students at Yeshiva University.
Benedict XVI is not speeding up the process to canonize Pius XII, Krupp said.
While a Vatican commission had voted two years ago in favor of proclaiming Pius XII’s “heroic virtues,”
Pope Benedict called for further research, in effect delaying a decision. His decision last week to approve the commission’s recommendation was a surprise to Jewish participants in interfaith dialogue.
The process to declare Pope Pius a saint, which requires the proof of miracles attributed to him, will still take several years.
“It doesn’t mean [Benedict XVI] is putting [Pius XII] on the fast track for canonization,” said Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s director of inter-religious affairs. He said the statement about Pius XII’s “heroic virtues,” a matter of “atrocious timing” on the eve of the synagogue visit, may be a concession to satisfy the conservative wing of the church that holds Pius XII in high regard.
The pope’s act last week was certain to upset a large part of the Jewish community, the rabbi said, but “it’s a price he’s willing to pay” in order to help unify the Catholic Church.
Rabbi Rosen stressed that most Catholic leaders “see themselves as friends of the Jewish people,” but he repeated his call for the opening of the Church archives.
The Vatican has indicated that the 16 million documents from Pius XII’s pontificate, 1939-1958, won’t be made public until at least 2014.
Only the opening of the sealed wartime archives, Jewish representatives stressed, could definitively prove whether Pius XII turned a blind eye to Jewish suffering in the Holocaust or clandestinely saved Jews.
World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder, in a prepared statement, called on the Vatican “to immediately open all existing archives about the Pius era to international researchers.”
“It is up to historians, on the base of reliable documents, to dispel the doubts that still surround Pius XII,” said Tullia Zevi, president emeritus of the Italian Jewish Community.
Pope Benedict, like many Vatican officials, has said that Pius XII worked “secretly and silently” to save Jews.
Benedict XVI is “rewriting history without having permitted a serious scientific discussion,” said Stephan Kramer, general secretary of the Central Council of Jews in Germany.
The Vatican alone will determine when to open the archives, and has remained immune to the Jewish community’s calls for the archive’s early opening, Foxman said. “They’re holding the key to opening the archives.”
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