VATICAN CITY—Less than two weeks after issuing a landmark document on the Holocaust, the Vatican held out hope it may open its archives from the World War II period to Jewish scholars.
Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the Vatican's top official for religious relations with Jews, suggested a team of Catholic and Jewish scholars review 11 volumes of archival material already made public as a first step.
“If questions still remained, they should seek further clarification,” an official statement said.
It followed four days of talks at the Vatican by the International Catholic-Jewish Liaison Committee (ILC). During the meeting, Jewish delegates repeated their “demand for impartial access to the relevant archival material” on Vatican and papal activity during World War II, according to the communiqué.
“Cardinal Cassidy did not rule out that if we have to turn to the archives, so we must to further clarify the Church's role during the Holocaust,” Rabbi Marc Schneier told journalists following the talks. “That was a very significant step in what we view as an ongoing process.”
The ILC talks March 23-26 represented the 16th time the interfaith group has met since its establishment in 1971. Much of the session focused on the importance of educating Catholics and Jews about each other's beliefs.
However, the meeting was particularly significant for two other reasons: first, because the ILC held the talks for the first time within the Vatican walls; and second, because the session immediately followed the publication of the Vatican's document on the Holocaust.
Although the meeting was arranged well before the release of the document, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, delegates said the text was a major topic of their discussions.
They described the document as “a beginning and not as an ending of a process” of reflection and examination. Cardinal Cassidy noted that Catholics still have much to learn, but he also pointed out that the Jewish community as well needs to understand better how the Catholic Church views itself.
Since its publication in mid-March, the Shoah document has prompted ongoing praise, criticism, and reflection from Catholic and Jewish leaders.
It has drawn universal approval for expressing repentance about past Christian discrimination against Jews and its strong condemnation of the practices and ideas that led to the Nazis' “final solution.”
However its defense of Pope Pius XII re-opened a bitter debate about the role of the wartime pontiff. The crux of the issue regarding the archives is whether Pius did all he should have done to save Jewish lives. While the pre-1922 archives are now open to outside historians, material from subsequent years is still being classified by Church scholars.
Years ago, trying to shed light on World War II, Vatican historians researched the wartime archives and produced an 11-volume study from 1965 to 1981. Their work, however, has not laid to rest calls for unfettered access to archival material from the period.
A joint statement at the end of the ILC meeting stated that participants agreed to establish a joint working group of historians and theologians, to pursue further studies on the period of the Shoah, and to seek together a “healing of memory.”
Pope John Paul II did not mention the Vatican's Holocaust document in a meeting with ILC delegates, but he said the continuing dialogue between Catholics and Jews was “an impressive sign of hope to a world marked by conflict and division.”
He also prayed that better methods would be found “to make known and appreciated by Catholics and Jews alike the significant advances in mutual understanding and cooperation that have taken place between our two communities.”
Jewish delegates thanked the Pope for his support of the dialogue and his promotion of respect for Jews and Judaism. However, Geoffrey Wigoder of the Israel Interfaith Committee repeated some criticisms raised by Jewish leaders about the Shoah document.
“It was felt that the self-criticism—for all its importance—did not go far enough,” he said in a prepared speech to the Pontiff.
At the same time, Wigoder noted, Jews share the document's concluding hope that an “awareness of past sins” can be transformed into “a firm resolve to build a new future based on a shared mutual respect.”
Speaking after the papal audience, Rabbi David Rosen, who also serves as the Anti-Defamation League's co-liaison to the Vatican, said the ongoing dialogue between Catholics and Jews has created “an increasing climate of trust.”
“Our ultimate goal is to work together to bring about the kingdom of heaven on earth—even if we may have certain different theological understandings of what that means,” he said.
The rabbi noted that both faith communities share many “profound social and ethical values” and that by concentrating on what unites them, Catholics and Jews could reach “a very high level” of cooperation.
When asked about the Holy See's wartime archives, Rabbi Rosen said he believed it was “in the interest of the Vatican” and of history to open them to international scholars.
“It is not a barrier to our future cooperation,” he said, “but it would be nicer if we could, as it were, reconcile memory and have some accepted analysis of the events.”
Following the publication of the Shoah document and the international debate it sparked, the Vatican's leading historian of the World War II era said he had no opposition to opening the archives, as many Jews have asked. Jesuit Father Pierre Blet said, however, that he doubted if they would find anything new. He also hit back at accusations made against Pope Pius XII.
Father Blet said the Pope did not speak out more forcefully for fear of worsening the fate of Catholics, as well as Jews, in Germany and Nazi-occupied countries.
“The apparent silence hid a secret action carried out [by Pius XII] through nunciatures [Vatican embassies] and episcopates to avoid, or at least to limit, the deportations, the violence, the persecutions,” he said.
Father Blet made his comments in the current edition of the scholarly journal, La Civilita Cattolica. He is the only surviving member of the team of historians that researched the Vatican's wartime archives and produced an 11-volume study.
He noted that when Pope Pius died in 1958, there were “unanimous” expressions of admiration for his work, including from Jewish leaders. But beginning in the 1960s, he said, a “black legend” about his presumed silence arose. The Vatican responded by authorizing an early publication of its archive materials from the period. Father Blet and three others worked some 15 years on the project. But today, he said, “few people have read the material.”
He also rejected recent scurrilous accusations that he and other members of the archival team intentionally overlooked documents detrimental to Pope Pius XII.
“We did not deliberately overlook any significant document that could have hurt the image of the Pope and the reputation of the Holy See,” the priest said. He emphasized that the research team went through every box of documents from the period and published those most relevant. The material included messages, speeches and letters of the Pope, as well as diplomatic and private notes and correspondence of other Vatican officials.
The archival finds include a series of letters from Pope Pius to the German bishops during the war period that show the Pope's strong feelings against the Nazi threat, he said.
Evidence showed that the Pope generally chose quiet diplomacy instead of public condemnations of Nazis, Father Blet said, because he was convinced that public statements would only “worsen the fate of the victims and increase their number.”
Stephen Banyra writes from Rome.