Half Empty or Half Full?

by the play "The Deputy" by Rudolf Hochhuth, which convinced many around the world that Pius XII was complicit in the Holocaust by his sllence.


Pope Benedict XVI recently packed the Great Synagogue in Rome as he sought to mend fences with the world Jewish community over concerns about potential canonization of the controversial World War II Pope Pius XII. Did he succeed? Call it a mixed blessing, if you will.


We certainly share some concerns with those who believe Pope Pius XII does not deserve sainthood because of questions over his World War II conduct. On the other hand, we applaud Pope Benedict XVI for honoring the essential work of his immediate predecessor, the Polish-born Pope John Paul II, who did more to enhance positive Catholic-Jewish relations than perhaps any other Pontiff in the 2,000-year history of the Church.

While sainthood is strictly internal Church business, the decision can affect relations between faiths. A few years back, some European Jewish leaders complained when Edith Stein, who had been born Jewish but later converted to the Roman Catholic Church, was beatified as a step towards sainthood.

Benedict XVI inherited the long-standing controversy over the career of Pius XII, who reigned during the period commencing just before and through the years of the Shoah. Scholars have long debated over Pius XII’s actions during that period.

On one extreme are those who assert that Pius XII produced anti-Semitic statements in the period before he became Pope and that he was “absolutely silent” regarding the genocide of the Jews. This view was spread by the play “The Deputy” by Rudolf Hochhuth, which convinced many around the world that Pius XII was complicit in the Holocaust by his sllence.

On the other side are respected scholars who claim that Pius XII was severely limited by what he could say and do by the very fact that Vatican City is wholly within the city limits of Rome, which was the capital of Fascist Italy during World War II. Some of these same scholars claim that Pius XII worked quietly and behind the scenes to cooperate in the rescue of as many as 800,000 Jews during the Shoah years. Indeed, thousands of Jews were saved by being hidden with Catholic families during World War II, and many Catholic priests, nuns and laity have been recognized for risking their lives to save Jews from the Nazi death machine.

Jewish leaders familiar with the controversy have called upon the Vatican to release previously secret documents which view of Pius XII is most accurate. Release of those documents would be a helpful step in this process.

Contrast the uncertainty surrounding Pius XII with the legacy of John Paul II, who grew up in Poland and experienced the Nazi occupation and later Soviet domination of his homeland, and who as Pope visited the site of the death camp Auschwitz. At that time, he knelt before a monument to the more than 1 million Jewish victims of the mass murder there and denounced anti-Semitism as a grave sin.

John Paul II also established formal diplomatic relations between the Holy See of Vatican City State and the State of Israel. And on papal visits he arranged to meet with resident Jewish leaders, as he did here in 2000, inviting the late Rabbi Robert P. Jacobs to offer a blessing at an interfaith gathering at the Cathedral Basilica. Rabbi Jacobs praised Pope John Paul II for having “changed history” in regard to Catholic-Jewish relations.

Pope Benedict XVI, a deeply intellectual scholar who seems less comfortable in his public role than his charismatic predecessor, seems determined not to let the matter of Pius XII derail ongoing constructive dialogue between Catholics and Jews. This stance has been reflected locally as well. Recently, Archbishop Robert Carlson, the recently installed leader of the 500,000 Roman Catholics of the St. Louis Archdiocese, held a warm and cordial meeting with local Jewish leaders.

Those who attended that meeting came away with the strong positive belief that Archbishop Carlson, in keeping with Pope Benedict XVI, desires positive relations with the Jewish community. In that spirit, we should not let legitimate concerns about the matter of sainthood for Pope Pius XII undermine or derail those important positive relations.