In a move that is sure to anger Jews around the world, the Vatican appears on track to canonize Pope Pius XII, who ran the Roman Catholic Church during World War II, and whose relations with the Third Reich were at best ambivalent, and remain a point of contention. The San Francisco Chronicle reports on this development:

Pope Benedict XVI moved two of his predecessors closer to sainthood Saturday, signing decrees on the virtues of the beloved Pope John Paul II and controversial Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust.

The decrees mean that both men can be beatified once the Vatican certifies that a miracle attributed to their intercession has occurred. Beatification is the first major step before sainthood.

The Vatican had an odd relationship with the Nazi regime in Germany. In 1933 the R.C. Church became the first institution and sovereign state (i.e. Vatican City) to arrive at an explicit agreement with the Third Reich, called the Reichskonkordat. This agreement went a long way toward legitimizing the then-new regime in Germany. The Reichskonkordat was, in essence, a diplomatic coup for Hitler and his cronies. Also, although he was not Pope at the time this concordat was made, Pius XII was the papal nuncio who helped broker it. Later the R.C. Church appeared reluctant to do anything, even faced with the growing Nazi menace and the onset of the Holocaust.

Naturally, this backstory means that not everyone is thrilled with this development:

Some Jews and historians have argued that Pius should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. As a result, the German-born Benedict’s surprise decision to recognize Pius’ “heroic virtues” sparked immediate outcry from Jewish groups. …

“While it is obviously up to the Vatican to determine who its saints are, the church’s repeated insistence that it seeks mutually respectful ties with the Jewish community ought to mean taking our sensitivities into account on this most crucial historical era,” said David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.

The Church has long insisted that it was not, in fact, dormant in the face of Nazi atrocities:

The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to try to save Jews. Pius, a Vatican diplomat in Germany before being elected pope, did denounce in general terms the extermination of people based on race and opened Vatican City up to war refugees, including Jews, after Hitler occupied Rome in 1943.

But he didn’t issue scathing public indictments of Jewish deportations, and some historians say he cared more about bilateral relations with Nazi Germany regarding the rights of the Catholic church there, than saving Jewish lives.

The problem with the Church’s position is that, even if it’s true, it’s still not really a very flattering potrait of the papacy at that time. The Vatican’s “quiet diplomacy” was, quite obviously, totally ineffective in doing anything to quell the Third Reich’s excesses. At some point Pius XII — if he were truly committed to stopping the Nazis — should have recognized the utter failure of his several years of “quiet diplomacy,” and tried a different tactic.

But he never did.

The reasons for this are not clear, but it was likely because, as one of the forgers of the alliance between the Church and the Third Reich, he was trying to salvage what remained of his own personal dignity.

At any rate, the impending canonization of Pius XII is yet another source of Jewish irritation with Pope Benedict XVI, who’s already in hot water over the re-admittance to Catholicism of bishop Richard Williamson of the Society of St Pius X, who has denied the Holocaust, and about whom I’ve blogged already. Benedict stands at the edge of alienating the world’s Jews … and not for any good reason that I can see.

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