Accord to Review Vatican Material Seen by Jews As a ‘useful First Step’

The Vatican and an international committee of Jewish leaders have agreed to set up a team of Jewish and Catholic scholars to review published Vatican archival material relating to World War II.

The move, announced Tuesday, stops short of complying with long-standing Jewish demands that the Vatican open its wartime archives to outside researchers in order, among other things, to clarify the actions of the wartime pope, Pius XII.

Controversy over the wartime role of the church, and particularly of Pius XII, has been highlighted recently, in part because of possible plans by the Vatican to beatify Pius.

In addition, a new book about Pius by British historian John Cornwell, “Hitler’s Pope,” uses documentary evidence to show that Pius was an anti-Semite who facilitated Hitler’s rise to power.

Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, known as IJCIC, welcomed the agreement as “a useful first step in resolving the matter of the Vatican’s role during World War II.”

He and others said the move is significant because the committee will have the imprimatur of the Vatican and could ultimately lead to access to secret wartime archives.

It would also, he said, aid in “resuming the Catholic-Jewish dialogue that has helped advance the evolving relationship between our two faiths in recent decades.”

The agreement was announced after a more than three-hour meeting at the Vatican on Monday between Reich and Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. Other IJCIC and Vatican representatives also took part.

The accord stems from a suggestion made by Cassidy at a meeting between his commission and IJCIC representatives in Rome in March 1998.

A statement issued Tuesday said a team of three Jewish and three Catholic scholars will be named soon.

Their duty will be to examine 11 volumes of Vatican archival material published between 1965 and 1981 that relate to the church’s role during World War II.

But they also will be empowered to seek clarification from other sources on questions left open by these documents.

“The team of scholars is expected to raise relevant questions and issues that, in its opinion, have not been adequately or satisfactorily resolved by the available documentation, and to issue and report on their findings,” the Vatican and IJCIC said in the statement.

It quoted Cassidy and Reich as hoping that “any question and differences that now exist or may arise can be resolved through the joint review approach.”

Reich, elected chairman of IJCIC last month, told JTA that material from the closed Vatican archives may be necessary to resolve issues.

“What is important,” he said, “is that the team will have the imprimatur of the Vatican. It will be difficult to ignore findings or questions posed by them.”

He said IJCIC still ultimately wants the Vatican archives to be opened, but would not press on this matter while the review process is going on.

“At the moment we agree that this approach is best,” he said. “It’s a useful first step toward arriving at what we want.”

On the question of the beatification of Pius XII, Reich said that although nothing was stated explicitly, he got the sense that “there was no rush” on the Vatican’s part to beatify Pius.

For his part, Cassidy expressed “satisfaction” at the agreement and said he was “convinced that what is needed in this connection is a joint study by competent Jewish and Catholic scholars of the available documents from the troubled period of the Second World War.”

IJCIC is the main institutional Jewish partner in formal dialogue with the Vatican.

Its membership includes the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith International, the Israel Jewish Council on Interreligious Consultations, the World Jewish Congress and representative bodies of Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jewry.

For a variety of reasons, the body has all but ceased activities in recent years.

Reich said the meeting with Cassidy — believed to be the first substantive meeting by IJCIC leaders and Cassidy since the March 1998 session — got formal interfaith dialogue “back on track.”

Last February Cassidy shook up the interfaith community by declaring that IJCIC essentially was “no longer in existence.”

In speeches, he complained that “aggressive” anti-church attitudes by some Jewish organizations threatened Jewish-Catholic relations and said an “uncertain atmosphere” was “beginning to cloud over our present relationship.”

Reich said the concerns Cassidy expressed were a “wake-up call” that pushed IJCIC member groups to revive the body’s operations.

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