Pius XII: Less Heroic for Surviving?

Portrait of Pius XII
Portrait of Pius XII (photo: CNS photo)

The eyes of the mass media will be on Pope Benedict XVI this Sunday when he visits Rome’s synagogue.

After the furore among some Jewish leaders following his decree last month declaring Pius XII venerable, many are wondering what the Holy Father will say to bring Catholic-Jewish relations back on track.

But as with previous recent disputes between the Vatican and Judaism, after some initial protests, tempers die down and relations return to normal.

Speaking with me a few weeks after the Williamson affair last year, Father Norbert Hoffman, the Vatican’s Secretary for the Commission for Religious Relations with Judaism, said this quick resumption of dialogue shows just how far relations have come.

“Fifteen or even ten years ago, the Williamson affair or controversy would have had another effect - it would have broken down the relations for several years,” he said. “But now, you see, we could manage these things in a couple of weeks or months and so this is a good sign.” The fact that Sunday’s appointment is going ahead could be yet more proof of this.

But while protests over the Pope’s decree on Pius XII may have abated, the controversy over Pius XII’s war record will probably go on for some time yet – despite mountains of evidence acquitting him of the charge that he didn’t do nearly enough to save Jews during World War Two.

A prominent critic of the Pope’s decree last month was Rabbi David Rosen, the director of the American Jewish Committee’s Department for Interreligious Affairs.

Rosen, who is a moderate and well liked at the Vatican, said that although he acknowledges there is now “significant evidence” in Pius’s favour, he nevertheless wants the Vatican archives opened and believes “it is somewhat disingenuous” of the Vatican not to recognize how the beatification process “is perceived and will be perceived.”

So I asked him what Pius needed to have done to avoid upsetting today’s Jews over his beatification. Would only laying his down his life have sufficed?

“For most Jews, and many others, the only ones whom appear saintly in the face of that evil were those who lay down their very lives in opposition to it,” said Rosen. “I would dare to say that the Catholic Church should see matters in the same light. However even if it cannot, it should be able to understand that Jews perceive as insensitive the idea that anyone who did not put their life on the line at that time can be considered saintly or as warranting a move in that direction.”

Yet as most of us now know, straight after the war, Jews had only words of tribute for Pius’s heroism. And historians now say that he did put his life on the line, mainly through ordering 155 monasteries and convents to hide thousands of Rome’s Jews. Documents also show that Hitler wanted to kidnap and possibly kill him.

Just because Pius survived, does that make him any less heroic?