Ratzinger moves WWII-era pope towards sainthood, sparks criticism by Jewish groups

Via The Guardian:

Jewish leaders from around the world expressed their outrage today after the Pope opened the way for his controversial wartime predecessor to be made a saint, with some calling the possible beatification of Pius XII as “inopportune and premature”.

Benedict signed a decree last Saturday on the virtues of Pius, who has been criticised for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust. The decree means he can be beatified once a miracle attributed to him has been recognised. Beatification is the first major step towards sainthood. But Benedict, who has long admired Pius, continues to draw fire for ignoring concerns over the controversial pontiff. Among those to criticise him was the World Jewish Congress, whose president, Ronald Lauder, said: “As long as the archives about the crucial period 1939 to 1945 remain closed, and until a consensus on his actions ‑ or inaction ‑ concerning the persecution of millions of Jews in the Holocaust is established, a beatification is inopportune and premature.

“While it is entirely a matter for the Catholic church to decide on whom religious honours are bestowed, there are strong concerns about Pius XII’s political role during world war two which should not be ignored.”

He called on the Vatican to immediately open the files on the controversial figure. “Given the importance of good relations between Catholics and the Jews, and following the difficult events of the past year, it would be appreciated if the Vatican showed more sensitivity on this matter,” he added, referring to Benedict’s rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying cleric, Richard Williamson.

Eugenio Pacelli (Pius XXII, hereafter “Pacelli”) is already afforded the title “Venerable.”  Throughout WWII, he enforced a policy of neutrality, following a precedent set by Giacomo Chiesa (aka Pope Benedict XV) during WWI. (Specifically, during the fascist era and WWII, Pacelli made numerous token remarks condemning anti-Semitism, but declined to comment on specific Nazi policies, pogroms, and camps.) Apologists say this compromise was prudentially necessary, given that the Vatican and the head of church infrastructure was situated within Fascist Italy. Opponents argue that Pacelli failed in his capacity as a purveyor of morals and human being to make heaviest sacrifices in openly opposing the most brutal regimes of the 20th century.

As noted in the Guardian article,

The Vatican argues that Pius worked quietly behind the scenes because direct interventions might have worsened the situation for Jews and Catholics in Europe. It is a position many Jews have rejected.

Though some pleas were answered, Pacelli did refuse many for various stated reasons. Some critics argued a significant degree of the support he did proffer was extended under pressure. As the Jewish Virtual Library notes

Historians point out that any support the Pope did give the Jews came after 1942, once U.S. officials told him that the allies wanted total victory, and it became likely that they would get it. Furthering the notion that any intervention by Pius XII was based on practical advantage rather than moral inclination is the fact that in late 1942, Pius XII began to advise the German and Hungarian bishops that it would be to their ultimate political advantage to go on record as speaking out against the massacre of the Jews. (27) One of the only cases in which the Pope gave early support to the allies was in May 1940. He received information about a German plan, Operation Yellow, to lay mines to deter British naval support of Holland. Pius XII gave his permission to send coded radio messages warning papal nuncios in Brussels and The Hague of the plot. The German radio monitoring services decoded the broadcast and went ahead with the plan.(28) This papal intervention is surprising due to the Pope’s persistent claim of neutrality, and his silence regarding almost all German atrocities.

My account of the debate is by no means comprehensive–I barely begin at exposition, and invite our readers to continue it in the comments. But I’ll end my commentary here:

Pacelli’s legacy is genuinely controversial–and by that I mean there is genuine room for disagreement in reasonable persons looking at the same evidence. But as noted in the article, that evidence is woefully incomplete. Reams of WWII-era Vatican records are sealed. Though their opening would probably not resolve every question with finality, it would certainly help clear muddied waters; and it is certainly easy to read guilt into the decision to keep them locked. Without giving the public the opportunity to review the Pacelli’s complete record, Ratzinger is asking the world to take a lot on faith in regards to the former pontiff’s merits. And claiming the 260th pontiff’s legacy is so pristine he is deserving of sainthood, it makes Benedict seem hopelessly out of touch with millions’ legitimate frustrations with Pacelli’s actions and inaction. Especially after Williamson, it brings Ratzinger’s sincerity in regards to mending rifts with international Jewish communities into question.

6 Responses

  1. Do you believe in the sainthood?

    • No, but that’s beside the point. It’s about the message Ratzinger’s decision sends, especially to Jewish people.

  2. I see what you are saying. I don’t know enough about the details (looks like no one does) to judge if or if not he should be made a Saint.

    However, I don’t think the Catholic Church should care either way. This is not to deny the feelings others may have in this regard. However, put yourself in the shoes of a true believer in the Sainthood. Suppose he is meant to be a Saint. In that case, it cannot and should not be prevented to indulge any human opinion on the issue. Likewise, no one should be made a Saint simply because someone would feel good if they were (the article seems to imply this may be what the Pope is doing–I don’t hold that view, but if it were true, it would be equally wrong).

    If you don’t believe in Sainthood, you won’t agree with any of that line of thought. However, I thought it would be helpful to see why the Church appears to disregard Jewish feeling on the issue.

  3. No offense, but the “true believer” in your formulation comes off as tremendously callous.
    They admit that canonizing Pacelli would be alienating to millions of people whose ancestors endured the Shoah and who still struggle with anti-Semitism. Given the genuine controversy* as to the value of Pacelli’s tenure, the “true believer” admits the Jews’ grievences are legitimate. But they still think conferring a paper honor to a dead man is more important than not alienating an entire nation.
    I don’t believe in sainthood or the perfection of the moral example of Jesus of Nazareth. But I do believe in intellectual consistancy, and think we ought to hold people to it. It would seem a minumum requirement to sainthood in the Roman church would be spectacular emulation of the character and example of Jesus of Nazareth. And I cannot imagine Jesus thinking he deserved the conference of any worldly honor more than millions of people deserve to have their historic suffering recognized, and all responsible parties brought to justice in the court of public opinion. Conferring sainthood on Pacelli is an effort to silence the real and pressing debate on that pope’s legacy. The church would essentially be declaring his handling of WWII and the Holocaust unimpeachable, where we have both acknowledged more evidence is needed to pass judgment.

    *And wouldn’t a saint have a less controversial legacy in the first place? I mean, yes, there is obviously room for debate on these questions–there used to be a “devil’s advocate” to make the controversial case. But you yourself admitted “no one” knows enough about the details to declare Pacelli a villain, saint, or mediocrity.

  4. The true believer admits nothing in this case except that the Pope’s worthiness (or lack thereof) of sainthood is independent of whether or not it offends anyone.

    The use of the phrases “paper honor” and “dead man” here are very far from the Catholic understanding of both the sainthood and the afterlife.

    Finally, I disagree about the silencing of debate here. There is no way to quantify it, but I would agrue that debate is amplified by these actions rather than silenced.

  5. Again, it simply strikes me as immoral and unchristian not to consider all the people who might be harmed by a course of action and making a choice that doesn’t strive to decrease as much harm as possible. It’s not that I don’t understand the motivations of the “true believer” you’re trying to describe. I think this “true believer” is a legalistic fanatic for believing following the letter of canon law is more important than respecting living persons.
    Granted, more people would be talking about Pacelli’s legacy if the Vatican were to move forward with the canonization, but the church would in effect be trying to discredit Pacelli’s critics. “His actions were saintly. How do you presume to chastise the works of a saint?”

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