Proceed with caution

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Now is not the time to rush World War II's pope to a place among the beatified.

"But why now?" came the bewildered question from my fellow journalist, the editor of a Chicago Jewish newspaper. His query came at the end of a radio discussion about Pope Pius XII, the World War II-era pope whom many accuse of silence in the face of the genocide of Europe's Jews. Since I was the only non-Jew among the four journalists in the studio, I think I can be forgiven for feeling the weight of 40 years of improved Jewish-Catholic relations riding on my answer.

My colleague was asking about Pius XII's first step toward beatification, which some expected during 2008, the 50th anniversary of Pius' death. All the paperwork had been submitted to Pope Benedict XVI to advance Pius to the rank of "servant of God"-the first step in the long journey to the altars. The dossier poured salt into the wounds of many, and one group of Jewish and Christian scholars called for a halt to the process, expressing concern in the U.K. Times about "the impact of beatification/canonization on the remaining survivors of the Holocaust."

Jesuit Father Peter Gumpel, the official Vatican advocate for Pius XII's cause, added heat to the debate by insisting that Pope Benedict XVI would not visit Israel until Pius XII was removed from the ranks of the "unjust" at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, though it seems Benedict may travel there in May.

The controversy continued into late November, when the pope publicly praised Pius' personal relief efforts on behalf of Rome's civilians after the Allied bombing of Rome in July 1943. As if in response Italian Jewish leaders declined to attend a Vatican interreligious ceremony, ostensibly because of Benedict's restoration in 2007 of the pre-Vatican II liturgy, which contains prayers for the conversion of Jews.

Though most American Catholics probably aren't aware of Pius' position on the road to sainthood, his case is an important test for the fragile relationship between Jews and Catholics. In mere decades dedicated scholars and laypeople of both religions, aided by the late Pope John Paul II, have begun to heal the centuries-old rift between Jews and Christians. Still, the road to reconciliation remains long.

It's easy to forget that even in the 20th century Christians blamed all Jews, living and dead, for the death of Jesus, a charge rooted in the gospels. The Shoah made the ultimate, violent consequences of that belief tragically obvious, and in 1965 the Second Vatican Council's Nostra Aetate (Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions) definitively condemned anti-Semitism, along with the claim that the Jewish people as a whole bear responsibility for the Crucifixion.

But Nostra Aetate was only the beginning of the "healing of memories" that Pope John Paul II called for in his 2000 visit to Israel. That process is still taking its wobbly early steps, and an attempt to rescue Pope Pius XII from his place in Europe's troubled 20th century will not foster the new relationship Catholics and Jews are seeking.

The fact of the matter is, though we Catholics lift up those few Christian objectors to Nazi anti-Semitism, the vast majority of Catholics, indeed Christians, in Germany, the rest of Europe, and even the United States, were shockingly silent. While we may laud those few moral giants, we must sit with the fact that in the heart of the Christian world, God's chosen people were slaughtered by the millions.

As for Pius himself, only history will tell us whether he was a hero or the villain that some have painted him to be. The Vatican says it will take seven more years to catalog and make available to historians the millions of documents from that era. I imagine that when all is said and done, Pius XII will turn out to be neither saint nor villain, simply a human being swept up in terrible events.

In the meantime I think my questioner was right to ask, Why now? For the sake of the healing of the Catholic-Jewish relationship, in which most of the sins committed came from "our" side, charity demands that we put Pius' cause on hold. His eternal fate rests in God's hands, and I've no doubt he received the mercy we all hope for. Whether he ever becomes Pope St. Pius XII really is beside the point.

This article appeared in the February 2009 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 74, No. 2, page 8).