Vatican Memo Reignites Pius Debate

By Eric J. Greenberg

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.
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Jewish organizations are stepping up their pressure on the Vatican after the discovery of a memo suggesting that Pope Pius XII directed French Church officials not to return some Jewish children to their families after World War II.

Several American Jewish interfaith leaders said the document could reignite the long-simmering struggle between the Vatican and Jewish communal leaders over the proposed beatification of Pius XII, as well as Jewish calls to open the church’s secret wartime archives in an effort to resolve questions about its actions before, during and after World War II.

Beatification is the first step in the church sainthood process, and Pius XII advocates are pushing his candidacy hard.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is calling on the Vatican to halt the process to make the World War II pope a saint. Foxman was baptized while hidden by a Catholic woman who saved him from the Nazi murder machine.

Though the Church’s general policy about not returning Jewish children baptized while under Catholic care was not unknown, a Vatican letter, discovered in the diaries of French Archbishop Angelo Roncalli — who later became Pope John XXIII — appears to be the first hard evidence suggesting direct involvement of Pius XII in the controversial practice.

His critics contend it is further evidence of his indifference to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust.

“They should put up a stop sign in the movement to beatify him” until more archives are investigated, Foxman told the Forward. The letter, he said, “provides perhaps the strongest argument yet for the full and uncensored release of Vatican wartime baptismal records.”

Rabbi Joel Meyers, the co-chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation, the body recognized by the Vatican as its official dialogue partner in the Jewish community, told the Forward Tuesday that he intends to pursue the matter with his counterparts in the Church. “We’ll certainly voice our desire to have this opened up in a more public way,” he said. “I think the Vatican should be as open and forthcoming to examine who these children were as they are forthcoming in talking about how many [people] they saved.”

Dr. Eugene Fisher, associate director of the secretariat for ecumenical and interreligious affairs for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, supported the call for opening the baptismal records. But he cautioned that there are “many questions” about the French memo, including the fact that it is not signed.

Fisher noted that the Vatican already agreed two years ago to speed up the process of making available to scholars its secret wartime documents, an operation that he says is under way.

Perhaps more importantly, Fisher noted that baptismal documents for Jewish children might not be in Rome, but stored in local churches throughout Europe, making the effort more complicated.

Rabbi David Rosen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Interreligious Affairs department, said that while the directive is disturbing, “it is not our business to tell the Vatican whom it may or may not beatify.”

“But,” he added, “we may and must express our concerns - and have reason to expect the church to be sensitive to these.”

He cautioned Jewish groups about issuing new public calls for records, warning that such calls tend simply to get “the Vatican’s back up.”

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