Catholic-Jewish Controversy Slows Path to Sainthood for Pope Pius XII

Did he turn a blind eye to the fate of the Jews during World War II?

By + More

A half-century after the death of Pope Pius XII, the pontiff who led the Vatican during World War II, the passionate debate over his wartime actions and his qualifications for sainthood shows no signs of fading. Critics have long insisted that Pius was no saint, accusing him of turning a blind eye to the fate of the Jews when he failed to publicly condemn the Holocaust. Pius's defenders disagree, and the former pope's legacy has become the center of a ferocious battle among the Vatican, church historians, and the Jewish community—a struggle, many experts believe, that has delayed Pius's sainthood for years.

Last month, when the Vatican commemorated the 50th anniversary of Pius's death, high-ranking members of the Roman Catholic Church seemed determined to renew the push for Pius's beatification—a declaration that he is blessed and worthy of veneration, and the last step before sainthood. Pope Benedict XVI himself, in one of the most forceful defenses by a pope of Pius to date, declared that his predecessor, who led the church from 1939 to 1958, had done all he could—and more than most—to stop the Holocaust. "Wherever possible, he spared no effort in intervening in [Jews'] favor either directly or through instructions given to other individuals or to institutions of the Catholic Church," said Benedict, who is ultimately responsible for deciding whether to sign the documents that would make Pius a saint.

Seeming to excuse Pius's silence during the Holocaust, when the Vatican, like the rest of Europe, was threatened by the Nazis, Benedict insisted the pope's wartime interventions were "made secretly and silently precisely because, given the concrete situation of that difficult historical moment, only in this way was it possible to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews."

This increasingly muscular defense of Pius, which experts viewed as an attempt to pave the way to sainthood, outraged many in the Jewish community. At a meeting of the Vatican's synod of bishops last month, Rabbi Shear-Yashuv Cohen, the first Jewish leader invited to such a Vatican gathering, urged the bishops not to make Pius a saint. Cohen, the chief rabbi of Haifa, Israel, said that Pius "should not be seen as a model." An Israeli cabinet minister went even further, terming it "unacceptable" for Catholics to proceed with canonizing Pius. "Throughout the period of the Holocaust, the Vatican knew very well what was happening in Europe," said Isaac Herzog, the Israeli government's social affairs minister. "Instead of acting according to the biblical verse 'Thou shalt not stand against the blood of thy neighbor,' the pope kept silent—and perhaps even worse."

Pius's critics acknowledge that the final decision on sainthood rests, of course, with the Holy See. "Normally, it's not the business of Jews whom the Catholic Church and the pope designate worthy of consideration to be a saint," says Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles. "But this was a seminal moment in world history. The genocide of all genocides occurred on [Pius's] watch, and the pope did not respond adequately. All he had to do was say, 'I am informed there are mass murders being committed against the Jews, and I condemn it.' He never said it. The Vatican doesn't have to listen to us, but a saint would never have done that."

As the uproar over Benedict's remarks seemed about to boil over—with one high-ranking Vatican official threatening to postpone any future papal visits to Israel in response to Jewish criticism—the Vatican began to backpedal. A spokesperson for the pope said his address had not been a sign that he was ready to proceed with beatification; it was simply a way to encourage reflection about Pius. "It isn't right to submit [Benedict] to pressures on one side or another," said the spokesperson, Father Federico Lombardi, who has insisted that beatification, should it occur, remains "in the kingdom of the future."

While the Vatican mulls over its options, the historical community remains deeply divided over Pius's actions. Most scholars agree that Pius, a former Italian cardinal named Eugenio Pacelli, knew the Jews were suffering. But many don't believe the pope did everything in his power to protect them. "He saw it as his responsibility to protect the institutional survival of the church, and everything else was secondary," says John Pawlikowski, director of the Catholic-Jewish studies program at Chicago's Catholic Theological Union. "There's more than ample evidence he did something. That's not the issue. The integrity of the Catholic Church as a moral voice would have been far better protected by speaking out."