Vatican Note on the Heroic Virtue of Pius XII

There really hasn’t been all that much negative reaction, as far as I can tell, from our Jewish brothers and sisters to the recognition of the “heroic virtue” of Pope Pius XII. The usual characters have made a noise – Foxman (Anti-Defamation League) and Heir (Simon Wiesenthal Centre) – but otherwise fairly quiet – unless I haven’t been listening. Yet this morning’s Sydney Morning Herald reports a rather definite point of view from Sydney Rabbi, Jeremy Lawrence. According to the paper, the Rabbi said that:

Pope PIUS XII was a moral coward and his advancement towards sainthood demeans the memory of Holocaust victims and the Christians who helped them.

”How can one venerate a man who showed such cowardice, who was so close a bystander that he seemed to give his passive permission to the Nazis as the Jews were prised from his doorstep in Rome?” Rabbi Lawrence said. The decision demeaned all the ”truly holy” people who had previously been beatified and canonised.

”He insults the memory of the innocents who were martyred [in the Holocaust] and the saintly and courageous souls who risked and gave their lives to save others,” said the rabbi, who is adviser to the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies.

Well, Rabbi Lawrence seems to have a better hold understanding of what was going on in the heart and mind of Pope Pius than many would claim with any certainty.

According to the same SMH story, the president of the NSW Council of Christians and Jews, William Szekely, said that “‘There is a moral ambiguity about Pius’s actions.” It is ambiguous because we simply don’t know. Yet given Pius’ positive actions to help the Jews of Rome and elsewhere, it would seem a little incongruous to interpret Pius’ “silence” during the Shoah as arising from malicious or even merely culpable neglect of the needs of the Jewish people. Such evil simply does not fit with the rest of what we know of Pius XII. So let’s not argue, and rather agree on two things:

1) Although it appears to many that Pius’ “silence” caused and increased the suffering of the Jews at the hands of Nazi’s, we simply cannot know if that is the case or not, because we do not know what would have happened if he had spoken out more clearly and forcefully.

2) We will never know the mind of Pope Pius XII in making the particular decision not to speak out publically about the danger to and plight of the Jewish people at the time. Not even Paul O’Shea, in his book on the matter, comes to a conclusion about that.

But there is also a third thing that we can be certain of, thanks to a Vatican Note issued yesterday by the Vatican Information Service. In the “note”, Fr Lombardi says that:

“When the Pope signs a decree ‘on the heroic virtues’ of a Servant of God – i.e., of a person for whom a cause for beatification has been introduced – he confirms the positive evaluation already voted by the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. … Naturally, such evaluation takes account of the circumstances in which the person lived, and hence it is necessary to examine the question from a historical standpoint, but the evaluation essentially concerns the witness of Christian life that the person showed (his intense relationship with God and continuous search for evangelical perfection) … and not the historical impact of all his operative decisions”.

“At the beatification of Pope John XXIII and of Pope Pius IX, John Paul II said: ‘holiness lives in history and no saint has escaped the limits and conditioning which are part of our human nature. In beatifying one of her sons, the Church does not celebrate the specific historical decisions he may have made, but rather points to him as someone to be imitated and venerated because of his virtues, in praise of the divine grace which shines resplendently in them’.

“There is, then, no intention in any way to limit discussion concerning the concrete choices made by Pius XII in the situation in which he lived. For her part, the Church affirms that these choices were made with the pure intention of carrying out the Pontiff’s service of exalted and dramatic responsibility to the best of his abilities. In any case, Pius XII’s attention to and concern for the fate of the Jews – something which is certainly relevant in the evaluation of his virtues – are widely testified and recognised, also by many Jews.

“The field for research and evaluation by historians, working in their specific area, thus remains open, also for the future. In this specific case it is comprehensible that there should be a request to have open access to all possibilities of research on the documents. … Yet for the complete opening of the archives – as has been said on a number of occasions in the past – it is necessary to organise and catalogue an enormous mass of documentation, something which still requires a number of years’ work.

So, at least in the eyes of the Vatican, Pius’ policy of silence during the Shoah has no moral significance as regards the judgement of Pius XII’s “heroic virtue” (that we can be certain of, anyway), and its historical significance is still wide open for study and interpretation.

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