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Vatican Defends Status of WWII Pope
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December 24, 2009 - 10:08 am
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December 24, 2009

ROME — In an effort to calm growing tensions with Jewish groups, the Vatican said Wednesday that Pope Benedict XVI’s decision moving the wartime pope Pius XII closer to sainthood was not a “hostile act” against those who believe Pius did not do enough to stop the Holocaust.

Pope Pius XII at the Vatican in 1945.

The Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, issued a statement saying that the beatification process evaluated the “Christian life” of Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, and not “the historical impact of all his operative decisions.”

Moving Pius toward sainthood “is in no way to be read as a hostile act towards the Jewish people, and it is to be hoped that it will not be considered as an obstacle on the path of dialogue between Judaism and the Catholic Church,” Father Lombardi wrote.

Benedict confirmed the “heroic virtues” of Pius — along with those of John Paul II — on Saturday, opening the door to beatification once a miracle is attributed to each. A second miracle would be required for sainthood.

The move created anger among many Jewish groups, which have argued that Pius did not speak out vocally enough against the Nazis or intervene to save Jews during World War II, and that the Vatican helped many former Nazis escape to South America after World War II.

The decision by Benedict — a German who was an unwilling member of the Hitler Youth — to move Pius closer to sainthood was the latest in a series of controversies. It came less than a year after he revoked the excommunication of a schismatic bishop who had denied the scope of the Holocaust, an act that caused the pope and the Vatican to issue a series of extensive clarifications. Benedict also upset many Jews when he did not directly mention the Nazis or Germany during a visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel in May, as John Paul II had done, although Benedict has denounced the Holocaust on many other occasions.

Even as the Vatican sought to separate the religious aspects of the beatification process from Pius’s historical record, observers said that Benedict’s decision to move Pius toward sainthood sent a strong message, effectively endorsing his actions.

Jewish groups had asked Benedict to delay Pius’s beatification process until the Vatican opened the archives from his papacy to scholarly scrutiny. Father Lombardi said that the Vatican “understood” the request to open the archives, and that the copious number of documents from Pius’s papacy were expected to take several more years to process.

Defenders of Pius, who was the Vatican secretary of state in the 1930s, say that his reticence was sound diplomacy, and that speaking out more directly against the Nazis would have caused more deaths in Rome and beyond. Benedict has said that Pius worked “secretly and silently” to save Jews.

In his statement, Father Lombardi said that confirming Pius’s “heroic virtues” was not intended “to limit discussion concerning the concrete choices made by Pius XII in the situation in which he lived.”

He added that the Vatican hoped the pope’s expected visit to the Rome synagogue next month would reaffirm ties between Judaism and the Roman Catholic Church. After days of tension, Roman Jewish leaders said that the visit was still expected to take place.

The legacy of Pius is particularly sensitive for the Jewish community in Rome. More than 1,000 of its members were rounded up in 1943 and deported to Auschwitz. Documents in the Vatican archives indicate that Pius knew of the deportation and did not act to stop it.

In a statement, the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, said he welcomed the Vatican’s statement. “Certainly the historical evaluation remains open and controversial,” Rabbi Di Segni said. “But the Vatican’s understanding of requests to open all paths to research is significant.”

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