By John Thavis
VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The Vatican has defended Pope Benedict XVI’s decision to advance the sainthood cause of Pope Pius XII, saying the late pope’s eventual beatification would not represent an endorsement of all the choices he made during World War II.
While Jewish groups are understandably sensitive to all historical actions during the period of the Holocaust, the church is evaluating Pope Pius on another level — primarily that of inner virtues, grace and the witness of a Christian life, the Vatican spokesman, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, said in a statement Dec. 23.
Given Pope Benedict’s respect for Jews, his signing of a decree of the “heroic virtues” of Pope Pius “should in no way be seen as a hostile act against the Jewish people,” it said. Once a miracle has been attributed to the intercession of Pope Pius, he can be beatified, the next step on the road to sainthood.
The Vatican statement came in the wake of criticism from several Jewish groups, which said the advancement of Pope Pius’ sainthood cause was premature because the historical record of his pontificate — particularly during World War II — is incomplete. Most of the archival material from his 1939-58 pontificate remains sealed.
The Vatican statement acknowledged that it would take several more years to catalog and prepare those archival documents for consultation by scholars. But it said the scholarly review of Pope Pius and World War II was a separate question from his beatification, which focuses mainly on “the fact that the candidate has lived the Christian virtues in an eminent way and has manifested his faith, hope and charity at a superior level.”
It quoted a point made by Pope John Paul II in 2000 during the beatification of Popes Pius IX and John XXIII, that “in beatifying one of its own, the church does not celebrate the specific historical decisions he may have made.”
That principle holds true in the case of Pope Pius XII, the Vatican said. While a sainthood cause must take into account the historical circumstances in which a person lived, it is “not a judgment on the historical effects of all his operative choices,” it said.
An eventual beatification of Pope Pius XII, the Vatican said, was not aimed at limiting the historical discussion of his actions during World War II. It added, however, that “the concern of Pius XII for the fate of the Jews — something that certainly is relevant for the evaluation of his virtues — has been widely attested and recognized even by many Jews.”
Taking issue with some commentators, the Vatican statement also said the fact that Pope Benedict had approved the “heroic virtues” of Popes Pius XII and John Paul II on the same day did not represent a “pairing” of the two causes, or indicate that they would eventually be beatified together. The two sainthood causes are “completely independent and will each follow their own path,” it said.
The statement expressed the hope that the advancement of Pope Pius’ cause would not be considered an obstacle in Catholic-Jewish dialogue. It said Pope Benedict’s planned visit to Rome’s synagogue in mid-January should provide an occasion for “reaffirming and strengthening” the ties of friendship and respect he has formed with the Jewish people.
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