Pope stirs up more tensions, but will still visit synagogue

Despite renewed tensions over his decision to move a controversial wartime pope closer to sainthood, Pope Benedict XVI will still make a historic visit to the main Rome synagogue on Jan. 17, Italian Jewish leaders confirmed last week.

The leadership of Rome’s Jewish community issued the confirmation Dec. 23 after meeting with national Jewish institutions, rabbis and Holocaust survivors.

Pope Pius XII offers a papal blessing at the Vatican in 1945. photo/ap file

Four days earlier, Benedict had provoked outrage in the Jewish world when he signed a decree certifying Pope Pius XII’s religiously defined “heroic virtues,” a move that paves the way for his beatification, the first major step toward possible sainthood.

Benedict signed the same decree for the late Pope John Paul II, who made fostering Jewish-Catholic relations a keystone of his policy.

Benedict appeared to try to make amends in a speech Dec. 21 when he condemned the Nazis in recalling his visit last May to Yad Vashem.

“The visit to the Yad Vashem has meant an upsetting encounter with the cruelty of human fault, with the hatred of a blind ideology that with no justification sent millions of people to their deaths,” he said.

Additionally, the Vatican insisted the pope’s decision to move Pius closer to sainthood was not an act of hostility against those who say he failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust. The Vatican issued a statement saying the German-born Benedict feels great respect for and friendship toward Jews.

Some Jews and historians have argued that Pius, pope from 1939 to 1958, ignored Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to try to save Jews and that speaking out more forcefully would have resulted in more deaths.

In criticizing Benedict’s move, Jewish bodies renewed calls for the Vatican to open its secret World War II archives in order to clarify the issue. The Vatican has said those archives won’t be catalogued and ready until 2014 at the earliest.

“As long as the archives of Pope Pius about the crucial period 1939 to 1945 remain closed, and until a consensus on his action — or inaction — concerning the persecution of millions of Jews in the Holocaust is established, a beatification is inopportune and premature,” World Jewish Congress President Ronald Lauder said in a statement.

Italian Jewish leaders, including Rome Chief Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, issued a similar critique but also paid tribute to Catholic “individuals and Church institutions” that worked to save Jews from persecution.

In their statement, Italian Jewish leaders said they had “high expectations” for the pope’s upcoming visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome on Jan. 17, a day marked annually by the Italian Catholic Church as a day of dialogue with Judaism. However, the leaders added, it “should not be construed as an endorsement of the historic dispute over Pope Pius XII’s choice of silence” in the face of Jewish persecution during the Holocaust.

The Vatican said Benedict’s decision wasn’t intended to limit discussion on Pius’ decisions. But it repeated that as far as it was concerned, Pius showed great “attention and preoccupation” over the fate of Jews, “which is widely established and recognized even by many Jews.”

It added that the decree on his “heroic virtues” wasn’t so much a historical assessment of his pontificate as a confirmation that he had led a deeply Christian life.

“It’s clear that the recent signature of the decree shouldn’t in any way be seen as a hostile act against the Jewish people and one hopes that it isn’t taken as an obstacle to the path of dialogue between Judaism and the Catholic Church,” the statement said.

Jewish leaders have acknowledged that beatification is an internal church matter. But considering Benedict’s own past — he was forced to serve in the Hitler Youth and deserted the Nazi army — and his stated aim of continuing to improve relations with Jews, they have said more sensitivity is called for in dealing with the disputed figure of Pius.

Additionally, Benedict’s decree last week was the latest in a series of perceived affronts that have roiled Catholic-Jewish relations in recent years.

Elan Steinberg, the vice president of American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, complained last week about what he called a “pattern of harm” that seems to have emerged in Vatican-Jewish dialogue involving “missteps followed by less-than-convincing explanations and rationalizations.”

The Associated Press and JTA contributed to this report.