A Son of the Church of Pius XII Breaks the Silence on His Sanctity

Sandro Magister

The beatification of pope Pacelli brings division again. Some Jews and Catholics reject it. Pietro De Marco defends it. And he explains what is the real miracle accomplished by this pope

ROMA, January 27, 2005 – In relations between the Jews and the papacy, lights alternate with shadows. 

One great moment of light was the January 18 meeting in the Vatican between John Paul II and 130 Jewish rabbis from various countries. 

The purpose of the meeting – initiated by the rabbis and organized by the Pave the Way Foundation, headed by Gary Krupp – was to thank the pope for his extraordinary commitment to reconciling Jews and Christians and to defending the Jewish people, ever since he was a young priest in Poland. After saying "thank you" and "shalom" with great emotion in their voices, three rabbis blessed John Paul II with formulaic prayers in Hebrew and English. 

The previous evening, in a conference in Rome at the Pro Unione center, rabbi Jack Bemporad of the Center for Interreligious Understanding had faced the question of Pius XII and his much-discussed "silence" on the exterminations carried out by the nazis. 

"By his judgement Pius XII did what he had to do," he said. "Look at what happened in Greece and Thessalonika, where over 96 percent of the Jews were rounded up and sent to the camps. There both the Catholic and the Orthodox bishops did speak out, and they were rounded up and shipped off too." 

In Poland, too, the bishops repeatedly asked the pope to raise a public protest against the killing of priests and religious sisters. But he didn't do it. "Are we supposed to think that Pius XII was anti-Catholic because he didn’t condemn the killing of Catholics in Poland?" 

Bemporad concluded that it is extremely difficult to express judgments on Pius XII, given the extreme threats he had to face. "It was not clear who was going to win the war, and if the Church would even be able to survive." 

He was echoed by another rabbi of the delegation, Moses A. Birnbaum of the Plainview Jewish Center in Long Island, New York: "Let’s not forget that Jewish groups praised Pius XII after the war." The Jews, he added, should stay out of the discussion about the possibility of his beatification. 


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But the chief rabbi of Rome, Riccardo Di Segni, had indeed spoken out against the beatification of Pius XII a few days earlier. 

Using as his launching point the new Vatican documents that had appeared in the newspapers, dealing with the Jewish children sheltered during the war by Catholic families and institutes – documents he defined as "horrible" – Di Segni told the news agency Apcom on January 11: 

"The Church has every right to elevate to the altars whoever suits it. If anything, the problem is ours, because if the Church beatifies someone it is doing nothing other than indicating a model of spiritual perfection to Christians. Faced with a Church that identifies as a spiritual ideal a subject who has behaved in a certain way, we [Jews] can, as a consequence, also decide whether and how to engage in dialogue." 

During those same days, Catholic historian Alberto Melloni, of the Institute for Religious Studies in Bologna founded by Fr. Giuseppe Dossetti and headed by Giuseppe Alberigo, also spoke out against the beatification of Pius XII, started by Paul VI in 1965. Melloni wrote in "Corriere della Sera" on January 9: 

"A process [of beatification] is not a dogma before which historians and Catholics, and above all Jews, must bow down in order not to block its development." 

Pius XII, in the judgment of Melloni and Alberigo, was "a solitary and calculating pope, whose person was dominated by the internal logic of political factors." 

But curiously, in the most recent edition of the magazine directed by Alberigo and Melloni, "Christianity in History," there appears an essay by Kenneth L. Woodward which records the unanimously positive opinions about Pius XII that appeared in the English-language press after his death in 1958. 

"For example," Woodward writes, "an editorial in ‘The New York Times,’ now one of the most sympathetic forums for Pacelli criticism, praised the pope for standing up to the Nazis [...] noting [his] intense spirituality." The only criticism that the most critical newspaper at the time, the liberal 'The Reporter', directed against the deceased pope was his "failure to replenish the much-depleted College of Cardinals." 

Woodward adds that judgments on Pius XII would change in "another five years [with] the publication of Rolf Hochhuth’s play, ‘The Deputy,’ generally regarded as the event that precipitated the revised and largely negative assessment of Pacelli in our own time, at least in some circles." 

In short, Pius XII continues to be a sign of contradiction, both within and outside of the Church. And he would be so even more as soon as he was proclaimed blessed. 

But behind the curtain of the polemics, the authentic Pius XII is in danger of disappearing. And any understanding of his sanctity remains elusive. 

In the note below, Pietro De Marco – who was a son of the Church of Pius XII – penetrates this wall of incomprehension and traces a profile of this pope free from the usual categories. Free, and liberating. 

Pietro De Marco, a specialist in religious geopolitics, is a professor at the University of Florence and the Theological Faculty of Central Italy. He wrote this note for www.chiesa: