By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Pope Benedict XVI today defended his controversial predecessor, Pius XII, saying the wartime pope “spared no effort” to save Jews during the Holocaust. It marked the first time that Benedict has directly responded to charges that Pius XII remained aloof during the Nazi massacre.
Benedict said that many of the pope’s humanitarian initiatives were “made secretly and silently,” because “in that difficult historical moment, only in this way was it possible to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews.”
Pius XII was pope from 1939 to 1958, and Oct. 9 of this year will mark the 50th anniversary of his death. A decree of “heroic virtue,” the first formal step toward declaring Pius XII a saint, is currently awaiting Benedict’s signature.
In recent decades, controverdsy has swirled around whether Pius XII said enough, or did enough, to denounce Hitler and the Nazis. Among other things, the debate has complicated Catholic/Jewish relations.
Benedict spoke today at Castel Gandolfo during an audience for participants in a Sept. 15-17 conference dedicated to Pius XII, which was organized by an American foundation called “Pave the Way.” Its founder and president is an American Jew named Gary Krupp, and several rabbis were present at today’s event.
In an indirect reference to the controversies unleashed by critical works such as John Cornwell’s 1999 book Hitler’s Pope, Benedict said that although much has been written about Pius XII in recent years, “not all of the genuine facets of his diverse pastoral activity have been examined in a just light.”
Benedict praised the actions of Pius XII during the war years, “especially those in favor of the Jews who in those years were being targeted all over Europe, in accordance with the criminal plan of those who wanted to eliminate them from the face of the earth.”
“This courageous and paternal dedication was recognized and appreciated during and after the terrible world conflict by Jewish communities and individuals who showed their gratitude for what the Pope had done for them,” Benedict said.
“One need only recall Pius XII’s meeting on the 29th of November 1945 with eighty delegates of German concentration camps who during a special audience granted to them at the Vatican, wished to thank him personally for his generosity to them during the terrible period of Nazi-fascist persecution,” he said.
Benedict said that he hopes the 50th anniversary of Pius’ death will stimulate “in-depth studies of various aspects of his life and his works in order to come to know the historical truth, overcoming every remaining prejudice.”
In his remarks to the pope, Krupp said his foundation took up the question of Pius XII because the debate surrounding him is “a source of friction and misunderstanding,” and that what they’re uncovered is “stunning.”
“It directly contradicts negative impressions of the pope’s wartime record,” Krupp said, who wore the Jewish yarmulke while speaking to Benedict. He pointed especially to eyewitness accounts testifying to various efforts from Pius XII on behalf of Jews.
Krupp, who arranged an audience for a group of rabbis with John Paul II in January 2005 to thank him for his efforts to improve Jewish/Catholic relations, reminded Benedict that in the immediate wake of World War II many Jews thanked Pius XII. Some, he said, even proposed that a forest of 860,000 trees be planted in Israel, reflecting one estimate that Pius XII was responsible for saving 860,000 Jewish lives.
“We call upon these institutions to review the new information, in order to redefine perceptions of this papacy,” he said.
Also present for the audience were several leading Catholic defenders of Pius XII, including Filippini Sr. Margherita Marchione of Farleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey; Ronald Rychlak, a Catholic law professor at the University of Mississippi; William Doino, author of The Pius War; Andrea Tornielli, a prominent Italian journalist; and Fr. Peter Gumpel, relator for the sainthood cause of Pius XII. Eugene Fisher, a former staff expert for the U.S. bishops on Catholic/Jewish relations, was also part of the delegation.