By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Pope Pius XII, whose role during the Second World War has long been a subject of Jewish/Christian controversy, is one step closer to sainthood after a vote in the Vatican’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints to approve a “decree of heroic virture.”
If Pope Benedict XVI approves the decree, Pius XII would formally be known as “Venerable.” At that point, promoters of the cause could begin examining reports of miracles with an eye towards the beatification, and eventual canonization, of the wartime pope. One miracle is required for each of those steps.
While Pius XII remains several steps removed from sainthood, this week’s vote nonetheless signals a determination on the part of the Vatican to press ahead despite objections from some quarters, including leading Jewish spokespersons.
A reminder of the volatility of the debates over Pius XII came just last month in Israel, when the nuncio, or papal ambassador, briefly threatened to boycott an annual memorial at Yad Vashem, Israel’s leading Holocaust museum, because of a dispute over how Pius XII was depicted. In the end, museum officials agreed to review the photo caption in question and the nuncio attended the memorial, but the standoff nevertheless indicated that tensions remain on edge.
The cause for sainthood for Pope Pius XII was formally opened in October 1967 under Pope Paul VI.
At this stage, it is up to Benedict XVI to decide how quickly to proceed. Under the weight of advice from some senior church officials, the pope could decide to take this week’s vote under advisement, allowing time to pass before formally approving a decree of heroic virtue. In theory, the decree could be issued in a matter of months, should Benedict choose to proceed more quickly.
How Benedict will weigh the decision is difficult to anticipate. His sensitivity to Jewish/Christian relations, howerver, was recently confirmed in his book Jesus of Nazareth, in which the exegete he cites at greatest length, and with greatest fondness, is the American Jewish writer Jacob Neusner. One sign that this was not mere academic formality is that when the pope recently met with the publishers of his books in different languages, he asked the American publisher specifically to extend his greetings to "Rabbi Neusner," and, taking the publisher's hands, stressed that it was important he do this.
Jesus of Nazareth will be released in English May 15 by Doubleday.