An Israeli Cabinet minister ventured onto sensitive, hallowed ground in Vatican-Israel relations Wednesday when he proclaimed his opposition to efforts to make Pope Pius XII a saint.
Social Affairs Minister Isaac Herzog’s statement, reported in an interview with Ha’aretz, echoed complaints of Jews and others that Pope Pius could have saved thousands of lives if he had condemned the Holocaust publicly during World War II instead of remaining silent. The Pope’s defenders counter that he saved lives by working behind the scenes.
Those arguments have created tension between the Vatican and Israel during Pius XII’s controversial trek toward sainthood.
“The intent to turn Pius XII into a saint is unacceptable," said Herzog, who in addition to his main job as social affairs minister is also in charge of Diaspora affairs, the fight against anti-Semitism and ties with Christian communities.
"Throughout the period of the Holocaust, the Vatican knew very well what was happening in Europe," Herzog said in remarks that Israel Today described as unprecedented. "Yet there is no evidence of any step being taken by the Pope, as the stature of the Holy See should have mandated. The attempt to turn him into a saint is an exploitation of forgetfulness and lack of awareness. Instead of acting according to the biblical verse, ‘Thou shalt not stand against the blood of thy neighbor,’ the Pope kept silent — and perhaps even worse."
Although Ha’aretz noted that Herzog was responding to reports that the Vatican may speed Pius’ track to sainthood, Pope Benedict XVI recently surprised Pius advocates when he did not declare the World War II-era Pope venerable. That designation is a step toward beatification along the route to sainthood.
During an Oct. 9 Mass commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pope Pius’ death, Pope Benedict praised Pope Pius and prayed for progress toward sainthood, but he set no dates.
The Pope was demonstrating "spiritual union" with those hoping for canonization, without defining further steps, said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, a Vatican spokesman, Catholic News Service reported.
Last year, the Catholic Church’s Congregation for Causes of Saints unanimously recommended that the pope declare Pope Pius venerable. Instead of endorsing that recommendation, the pope appointed a commission late last year to study new information about Pope Pius and how his beatification would affect Catholic-Jewish and Vatican-Israeli relations.
The commission has finished its work, Catholic News Service reported. But no report has been made public, and the pope is reflecting on the issue, said Lombardi, a Jesuit.
Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, who has collected evidence to support the sainthood, told CNS that millions of Catholics back the sainthood. They are upset that Pius isn’t advancing, said Gumpel, who also acknowledged that Jewish opinion is divided about the Pope’s wartime role.
And Pope Benedict noted the sentiments of a group of Jewish scholars who recently told a Rome symposium that Pius had worked quietly but courageously to save Jews.
CNS reported that the canonization conundrum may be a different one for Pope Benedict: “that the elevation of a saint should not be a cause of division or discontent.”
But division there is. For example, Ha’aretz quoted the central umbrella organization for Jewish groups in France, the Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France, as warning recently: "Pope Pius XII, worried about burning bridges with Germany, never made a clear statement denouncing the singular monstrosity of the extermination of millions of Jews. Moreover, he did not do so after the war either, which is profoundly shocking.”
Declaring the Pope a saint would be a blow to Jewish-Catholic relations, the group said.
Rebutting that group is Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone, a Vatican official who wrote in the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano to mark the anniversary of Pius’ death: "It was precisely by means of a prudent approach that Pius XII protected Jews and refugees. If he had made a public intervention, he would have endangered the lives of thousands of Jews who, upon his directive, were hidden, in 155 convents and monasteries in Rome alone."
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