Popes with opposing views on Jews head to sainthood

ROME — Two very different popes — one who opened the way to Catholic-Jewish dialogue and one who was the last to confine Jews to the ghetto — have begun the process toward sainthoood.

Pope John Paul II has taken formal steps toward the beatification of two of his predecessors, John XXIII and Pius IX.

No similar actions have been announced regarding Pius XII, the controversial World War II-era pope. But the Vatican last week denied "rumors" that Pius XII's beatification process had been delayed or postponed.

"It is proceeding normally and some of the documents relating to the beatification have already been printed," Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints, told reporters Dec. 17.

"Rumors that the cause has been slowed down are thus totally unfounded."

On Monday, the pope signed decrees that recognized the "heroic virtues" of John XXIII and a miracle attributed to Pius IX.

The recognition of John's "heroic virtues" was the first step toward his beatification. It must now be followed by a decree recognizing a miracle.

John XXIII, who followed Pius XII and reigned from 1958-1963, was one of the most revered and beloved popes — by Jews as well as Catholics. In 1962 he called the Second Vatican Council, which revolutionized the Catholic Church.

Among the innovations of the Council was the 1965 Nostra Aetate decree, which repudiated the Catholic teaching that the Jews were collectively responsible for Jesus' death and opened the way to Catholic-Jewish dialogue.

Jewish leaders also have praised John because of his efforts to save Jews during World War II when he was apostolic delegate to Turkey.

Pius IX reigned from 1846 to 1878 and in many ways was John's opposite. For Jews, his beatification is, like that of Pius XII, problematic.

But Jewish groups that oppose the beatification of Pius XII are less concerned about Pius IX.

"We do not pass judgment unless it is someone who… distorts Jewish history," said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress.

Steinberg said Jews oppose Pius XII's beatification because he "distorted the truth" about what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust. "Besides this exception, it is not for the Jewish people to decide who the Catholic Church should make a saint," he added.

In the current issue of Shalom, the magazine of the Rome Jewish community, author Daniele Scalise describes the 19th century's Pius IX as "anti-Semitic and violent. His policy toward Roman Jews was that of trickery, arrogance and cruelty."

Deeply conservative, Pius IX rejected papal reconciliation with progress, liberalism and modern civilization and championed the concept of papal infallibility.

The last pope to wield temporal power, he saw the vast Papal States of central Italy wrested from papal control during Italy's unification process, beginning in 1848. The unification brought full equality to Jews in Italy, and many Jews were prominent in the movement.

Rome, the last stronghold of papal power, finally fell to Italian freedom fighters in 1870. Until then, Pius IX kept Roman Jews confined to the ghetto, in wretched conditions and under severe restrictions.

The most notorious single anti-Semitic event during Pius IX's reign, however, occurred in Bologna: the kidnapping in 1858 of 7-year-old Edgardo Mortara after a servant told a priest that she had secretly baptized the boy when he was a baby.

At that time, Bologna was under papal jurisdiction, and papal guards, saying they were acting on the pope's orders, seized the boy from his Jewish family and brought him to Rome to be brought up as a Catholic.

The incident sparked a public outcry and a wave of international protests. Emperors Franz Joseph of Austria and Napoleon III of France urged the pope to give up the child, but he remained adamant. Mortara eventually became a priest and died in 1940.

"It was a fearful crime against humanity," wrote Scalise, who authored a book on the Mortara affair.

"Mortara remained a hostage of the Catholic Church until the end of his life."