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Pope Benedict’s praise of predecessor reawakens controversy


A Roman Catholic journalist has said her church should wait "at least one hundred years" before canonising a controversial pope, who one critic has accused of "sheer cowardice" but who the current pontiff recently said "spared no effort" in trying to save Jews from the Nazis.

Fifty years after his death, the role played by Pope Pius XII during the Second World War continues to fascinate scholars, Christians and newspaper editors, and stir debate.

Pius XII, born Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli in 1876, died on 9 October 1958, having been Pope since March 1939.

A report in the British Roman Catholic magazine The Tablet dated 27 September noted that many people believe the current pope’s recent defence of his "beloved predecessor" will be seen as a public endorsement of efforts to beatify Pius XII, whose "cause" has been hindered over his much-debated wartime activities.

Critics accuse Pius of remaining silent during the Second World War about the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews died. Others say he supported efforts to save Jews, and that the criticism is unjustified.

"Supporters of the cause, including the man promoting it, Father Peter Gumpel, said they were ‘sure’ that ‘sooner or later’ Pope Benedict would sign the decree to advance Pius XII’s beatification process," The Tablet reported under the headline, "Pope Benedict makes first public defence of ‘courageous’ Pius XII’."

David Kaplan, a Scottish-born director of a Jewish youth group known as The Tribe, told Ecumenical News International, "The Pope and his behaviour during the Second World War has always been a curiosity for many young Jews today. Some say he did a lot behind the scenes to save Jews but many say his silence spoke volumes … I can only put his inability to condemn in public down to sheer cowardice. After all, some Catholic priests did speak up for Jews and saved Jews."

Catholic journalist and Irish author Mary Kenny told ENI, "I do not think sainthood should be rushed into. St Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in 1431 and made a saint in 1920. They are just considering Cardinal Newman’s case now, and he died in 1890. I think it is wise to wait at least 100 years. The Vatican always said it ‘thought in centuries’, so it should do so now. Pius XII needs more time."

On 18 September at Castel Gandolfo, near Rome, Pope Benedict XVI said that during the war Pius XII did all he could to save Jews from Nazi and Fascist persecution. "Whenever possible, he spared no effort in intervening in their favour, either directly or through instructions given to other individuals or institutions of the Catholic Church," Benedict stated.

A three-day symposium to study the papacy of Pius XII, who was Pope from 1930-1958, opened in Rome on 15 September. It was organized by the U.S.-based Pave the Way Foundation, which said the meeting had been held to "dispel misconceptions regarding the Pope who steered the church through World War Two".

Organizers of the symposium had said that many of the scholars who criticised Pius XII during the war years were invited to attend, although representatives of at least three Jewish groups reportedly declined the invitation.

The Tablet reported that Benedict applauded the U.S. foundation for drawing attention to his predecessor’s "many interventions" on behalf of imperilled Jews, and said that the current Pope endorsed the views that these actions were made "secretly and silently". The Tablet added that Benedict had argued that this was the only way "to avoid the worst and save the greatest number of Jews", a view that has long divided scholars.

In a new introduction to his 1999 best selling book, "Hitler’s Pope", the historian John Cornwell says of Pius, "It was incumbent on him to offer an explanation to the world after the war in light of the scandal he thereby occasioned by his silence."

Long considered critical of what is seen as silence from Pius XII about his activities during the Second World War, Cornwell says, "He not only failed to do this but he claimed he had been constantly outspoken."

(c) Ecumenical News International