Don't pressure the pope on Pius XII, Vatican warns

By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.

Pope Benedict should not be pressured over the possibility of sainthood for Pius XII, his controversial wartime predecessor, the Vatican warned yesterday.

“The pope has not yet signed a decree on the heroic virtue of the Servant of God Pius XII, a signature which is required for the cause to go forward,” said Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson. “It’s currently the subject of reflection and study on his part.”

“In this situation,” Lombardi added, “it’s not helpful to try to exercise pressure on him in one sense or the other.”

Lombardi also said that Benedict XVI is not delaying putting a trip to Israel on his schedule in protest over a controversial display about Pius XII in Jerusalem’s main Holocaust museum.

“This is not a determing factor for any decision about an eventual trip to the Holy Land by the Holy Father,” said Lombardi said in an Oct. 18 statement.

The presentation of Pius XII at Yad Vashem, Israel’s most important Holocaust museum, has proved a thorn in Jewish/Catholic relations since it went up in 2005. Last year, the Vatican ambassador to the Holy Land briefly threatened to refuse to attend an annual commemoration of the Holocaust in protest.

In the wake of new debates over Pius XII last week, some commentators revived speculation that Benedict had put the brakes on a possible trip to the Holy Land because of the fracas at Yad Vashem. Lombardi, however said going to the Holy Land “is among the well-known desires of the pope,” but for now, “there’s no concrete plan” for the trip.

Lombardi was reacting to a flurry of commentary on the debates surrounding Pius XII in both the European and Israeli press, following a week in which the wartime pope’s record once again proved to be a flashpoint in Jewish/Catholic relations.

On Monday, October 6, Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen of Haifa, Israel – the first Jew ever invited to address a Synod of Bishops – indirectly referred to what he termed Pius’ public “silence” during the Holocaust, saying that Jews cannot “forgive and forget.”

On Thursday, Oct. 9, Benedict XVI celebrated a special Mass in the Vatican commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pius’ death. In his homily, Benedict mounted an across-the-board defense of Pius XII, insisting that during the war Pius XII engaged in “an intense campaign of charity in favor of the persecuted, without any distinction in terms of religion, ethnicity, nationality, or political affiliation.”

If he did not directly condemn National Socialism or the Holocaust by name, Benedict asserted, it was because “he understood that only in this way could he avoid the worst and save the greatest possible number of Jews.”

In the wake of those comments, many media commentators pointed to the controversy at Yad Vashem as a possible explanation for why Benedict XVI has not yet made firm plans for a trip to the Holy Land.

A placard concerning Pius XII, displayed alongside photos of the wartime pope as well as the signing of the Nazi concordat with the Vatican in 1933, has been on display at Yad Vashem since 2005. It appears under a large quotation from the Israeli poet Nathan Alterman, which reads in part:

“While the ovens were fed by day and by night,
The most Holy Father who dwells in Rome
Did not leave his palace, with crucifix high,
To witness one day of pogrom.”

The full text of the Yad Vashem placard reads:

Pius XII’s reaction to the murder of Jews during the Holocaust is a matter of controversy. In 1933 when he was secretary of the Vatican State he was active in obtaining a Concordat with the German Regime to preserve the church’s rights in Germany even if this meant recognizing the Nazi racist Regime. When he was elected Pope in 1939 he shelved a letter against racism and anti-Semitism that his predecessor had prepared. Even when reports about the murder of Jews reached the Vatican the Pope did not protest either verbally or in writing. In December 1942, he abstained from joining the allied declaration condemning the extermination of the Jews. When the Jews were deported from Rome to Auschwitz the Pope did not intervene. The Pope maintained his neutral position throughout the war with the exception of appealing to the rulers of Hungary and Slovakia toward its end. His silence and the absence of guidelines obliged churchmen throughout Europe to decide on their own how to react.”

The display has long been considered both provocative and historically inaccurate by defenders of Pius XII. To take one example, sympathetic historians assert that Pius XII did protest the round-up of Roman Jews immediately after it began, with the result that almost 6,000 of the 7,000 Jews in living in Rome in October 1943 were not deported.

Last year, the Vatican’s nuncio, or ambassador, in the Holy Land, Archbishop Antonio Franco, announced that he would not attend an annual memorial of the Holocaust at Yad Vashem in protest. Later Franco rescinded that decision after museum officials said they were willing to “reconsider” the text.

At the time, even some critics of Pius XII acknowledged that the caption may be one-sided.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told NCR that the caption is “too judgmental, too conclusory” based on what is presently known, calling it “inappropriate.”

In his statement, Lombardi expressed hope that the Yad Vashem display on Pius XII “will be the object of a new, objective, and deepened consideration on the part of those responsible for the museum.”


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