By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In a move that veteran observers of Jewish/Christian dialogue describe as without precedent, the papal ambassador in Israel has said he will boycott the annual Holocaust Memorial Day events on April 16 at Yad Vashem, the country’s main Holocaust museum, in protest over what he considers an offensive caption under a picture of Pope Pius XII. The caption is critical of the pope's alleged failures to speak out about attacks on Jews during the Second World War.
Though controversies over the role of the wartime pope are nothing new, observers say it’s the first time a senior Vatican official has declined to take part in a memorial of the Holocaust because of them.
Museum officials said they were “shocked and disappointed” by the decision, and Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, told NCR that while he can understand the nuncio's complaint, boycotting the memorial is not the right way to express it.
"It's not enough to justify refusing to attend the official Israeli commemoration of six million victims of hate," Foxman said.
An official of the U.S. bishops’ conference, on the other hand, told NCR he finds the boycott “entirely understandable on all sorts of grounds.”
News of the decision by Archbishop Antonio Franco, the nuncio, or papal ambassador, to Israel since 2006, broke today in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth.
Franco also told Asia News, a Rome-based missionary news agency, that “as a person, a Christian, and representative of the Pope,” he will “never go to Yad Vashem” unless it agrees to change the caption of Pius XII.
Rabbi Eugene Korn, of the Center for Christian-Jewish Understanding at Sacred Heart University, told NCR that the Holocaust commemoration is a "major cultural and national event" in Israel, and predicted that "the conscious absence of the church will do harm." An Israeli foreign ministry official was quoted in Yedioth Aharonoth as saying, “If the Vatican ambassador does not come to the ceremony, his absence will definitely stand out.”
“We are shocked and disappointed that the Vatican's delegate to Israel has chosen not to respect the memory of the Holocaust and not to participate in the official ceremony in which the State of Israel and the Jewish people join in memory of the victims,” a Yad Vashem statement quoted by Yedioth Aharonoth said. “This contradicts the pope's statement during his visit to Yad Vashem regarding the importance of remembering the Holocaust and its victims.”
Eugene Fisher, responsible for Catholic/Jewish relations at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told NCR that, based on the text of the caption as read to him by a reporter, he can “well understand” Franco’s reaction, because it “misrepresents the facts.”
The caption has been on display at Yad Vashem since 2005, and was the object of an earlier protest by the former nuncio to Israel, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, today nuncio in the United States. Among the statements in the caption are the following:
Pius XII’s reaction toward the killing of Jews during the period of the Holocaust is controversial. In 1933, as the Vatican Secretary of State, in order to maintain the rights of the Church in Germany, he signed a Concordat with the Nazi regime even at the price of recognizing the racist Nazi regime. When he was elected Pope in 1939, he put aside an encyclical against racism and anti-Semitism prepared by his predecessor.... Although reports about the assassination of Jews reached the Vatican, the Pope did not protest either by speaking out or in writing. ... In December of 1942, he did not participate in the condemnation by members of the Allies regarding the killing of Jews. Even when the Jews were being deported from Rome to Auschwitz, the Pope did not intervene. ... He maintained a neutral position except toward the end of the war when he appealed on behalf of the government of Hungary and of Slovakia. His silence and the absence of directives obliged the clergy in Europe to decide independently how they should behave toward the persecuted Jews.
Speaking on background, an Israeli official defended the caption, saying, "History can't be tossed in the trash."
Fisher, however, argued that each of the claims quoted above is either inaccurate or misleading.
For example, Fisher said that while Pius XII did put aside a draft encyclical prepared under his predecessor, he did so in part because the language on anti-Semitism was “equivocal at best.” It endorsed, Fisher said, efforts of governments to protect their citizens from “the wiles of the Jews.” Instead, Fisher said, Pius XII put out his own encyclical in October 1939, Summi pontificatus, condemning racism and totalitarianism.
“In Europe in 1939, everybody understood that when you talked about ‘race,’ you meant the Jews,” Fisher said. “It was like talking about race in America during the Civil Rights movement, when everyone understood you meant African-Americans.”
Further, Fisher said, Pius XII did intervene in 1943 when the Jews of Rome were rounded up, not only bringing the deportations to a halt but personally authorizing food supplies for Jews who were given shelter in Roman monasteries and convents.
On the basis of such considerations, Fisher said, it is “inexcusable” that such a caption is on display at Yad Vashem.
Foxman said that, based on the version read to him, he feels the caption is "too judgmental, too conclusory" based on what is presently known, calling it "inappropriate" and saying, "I can understand the nuncio's displeasure." He insisted, however, that this does not justify refusing to attend the memorial, calling Franco's absence "an insult to the victims."
According to the account in Yedioth Aharonoth, Yad Vashem’s response to Sambi’s earlier protest was that it would revise the caption if the Vatican were to open its archives from the World War II period to its scholars. At present, only those materials up to 1939 have been fully made available. Fisher, however, said there’s more than enough material already on the record to demonstrate that the claims made in the caption are false.
Fisher stressed that Franco’s decision to boycott the April 16 ceremony – coincidentally, the 80th birthday of Pope Benedict XVI – should not be read as a lessened commitment on the Catholic side to recalling the Holocaust.
“If this were any other place, of course the church should go and must go,” Fisher said. “But in this case it’s Yad Vashem that offended the Holy See, and the nuncio doesn’t want to lend credence to what he regards as a public calumny to the name of Pius XII.”