VATICAN CITY (RNS) A decree moving the controversial wartime Pope Pius XII one step closer to sainthood is not a “hostile act towards the Jewish people,” the Vatican’s top spokesman said Wednesday (Dec. 23).
The Rev. Federico Lombardi, director of the Holy See Press Office, said in a statement that Pope Benedict XVI’s Saturday decree that recognizes Pius’ “heroic virtues” and declares him “venerable” reflects an evaluation of the late pope’s personal holiness, “and not the historical impact” of his decisions.
Pius’ new status makes him eligible for beatification, the rank just below sainthood. The move has drawn complaints of insensitivity from many Jewish leaders.
Critics say Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, failed to do or say all he could to stop the Nazi Holocaust. His defenders counter that he heroically condemned anti-Semitism throughout Hitler’s reign, and both directly and indirectly saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.
While insisting on Pius’ “attention to and concern for the fate of the Jews,” Lombardi said Saturday’s decree implied “no intention in any way to limit discussion” of the late pope’s record.
A number of historians and Jewish leaders have said that more study is necessary in order to evaluate Pius’ wartime actions, and have called for opening the Vatican archives from World War II, most of which are inaccessible to outsiders.
Lombardi said that organizing and cataloging the “enormous mass of documentation” in question “still requires a number of years’ work.” Last year, he told Vatican Radio that those documents would not be available to researchers until at least 2014.
The president of the Assembly of Italian Rabbis has said that anger over the decree could lead to canceling Benedict’s scheduled visit to Rome’s main synagogue next month. But Lombardi expressed hope that the visit would offer an “opportunity for the cordial reiteration and reinforcement of ties of friendship and respect.”
Lombardi also noted that the cause of Pius’s beatification is “completely independent” of that of the late Pope John Paul II, whom Benedict also declared venerable last week.
Before either man can be beatified, he must be credited with a miracle due to his intercession. A second miracle after beatification would be needed in order for canonization as a saint.