Behind the Headlines: Declaration on Anti-jewish Pope is Called ‘a Beatification Too Far’

Pope John Paul II will formally set his 19th century predecessor Pope Pius IX on the road to sainthood in a solemn beatification ceremony on Sept. 3 that declares him “blessed.”

Beatification, in the Roman Catholic Church, is the last step before sainthood. The honor has raised a chorus of protest among Jews, who have warned that the move could have serious repercussions on Jewish-Catholic relations.

Pius IX, who reigned from 1846 to 1878, was the last pope to confine Jews to the ghetto and became infamous for ordering the 1858 kidnapping of a young Jewish boy, Edgardo Mortara, who had been secretly baptized as a baby.

His policy toward Jews was described by one Italian historian as “trickery, arrogance and cruelty.” British Jewish historian Cecil Roth compared conditions for Jews under his reign to those of Jews under pre-war Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

For Jews, the beatification of Pius IX simply doesn’t square with repeated recent church apologies for past anti-Semitism, which culminated with John Paul’s prayers in Jerusalem in March.

The latest such apology came this past weekend, when church leaders in John Paul’s native Poland asked forgiveness for the church’s toleration of anti- Semitism and disdain of non-Catholics.

The contradiction is particularly striking because Pius IX is not being beatified on his own.

In the same ceremony, John Paul will beatify another, quite different, past pope – Pope John XXIII, the revered, universally beloved pontiff who died in 1963 and whose five-year reign marked a turning point in church history and in Jewish-Catholic relations.

John XXIII helped Jews during the Holocaust and convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962. The Council’s decisions revolutionized the church and opened it up to the modern world.

Among its pronouncements was the Nostra Aetate declaration in 1965, which formally absolved Jews from having killed Jesus and opened the way for Jewish- Catholic dialogue.

“If saintliness is seen as the goodness, wisdom and courage to behave righteously and right wrongs regardless of when they occur, then Pius IX’s conduct falls far short of saintliness,” Seymour Reich, the chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, wrote in a letter to the Vatican last week.

“His papal role stands in sharp contrast to that of the saintly Pope John XXIII and John Paul II, who recognized the wrongs of the past and sought to rectify them,” he wrote to Archbishop Jose Saraiva Martins, chairman of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints.

Reich called Pius IX “the pope who perpetuated centuries-old church contempt and hatred for Jews” and branded the kidnap of Edgardo Mortara an “assault on Judaism and parenthood.”

He reiterated that “only the church itself” had the right to determine who are its saints, but he stressed that “when the issue of sainthood embodies matters of major Jewish concern, we believe the Jewish community has an obligation to voice its reaction.”

The conflicting message inherent in twinning the beatifications of two such utterly different popes has raised questions among many liberal Catholics and other observers, as well as among Jews.

James Walston, a professor of political science at the American University in Rome, called the pairing “appallingly dishonest.”

Said the Catholic weekly The Tablet, “Two popes of a more different temper would be hard to find.” It called the decision to beatify Pius IX “a beatification too far.”

British church historian Owen Chadwick was quoted as stating that Pius’s record “verges on the criminal.”

The Mortara affair was emblematic of Pius IX’s policy toward Jews. Seven-year- old Edgardo was seized from his home in Bologna on the pope’s orders, after a servant told a priest that she secretly baptized the boy when he was a baby.

The boy was brought to Rome, where he was virtually adopted by Pius IX and brought up as a Catholic.

“Some have sought to justify the coming beatification on the grounds that Pius IX’s actions should not be viewed through 21st century eyes and that he was merely following the practices of the times,” Reich wrote in his letter. “But even in the 19th century, actions such as the Mortara kidnapping were viewed with shock and condemnation.”

Indeed, the incident sparked loud international protests. Emperors Franz Joseph of Austria and Napoleon III of France urged the pope to give up the child, but he remained adamant. Mortara eventually became a priest and died in 1940.

But in addition to his policy toward Jews, it is Pius IX’s role as a bastion of reaction in Catholic terms that also alarms many contemporary observers.

The last pope to wield temporal power, Pius IX saw the vast Papal States of central Italy wrested from papal control during Italy’s Risorgimento unification process, beginning in 1848.

Deeply conservative, he condemned anyone who believed that the pope “can and should reconcile himself with progress, liberalism and modern civilization.” He also fervently championed the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Beatifying Pius IX and John XXIII together sends a message that is troubling to observers who fear long-term implications in Vatican policy as the Roman Catholic church enters its third millennium.

“The joint ceremony will form a coded warning that liberalism can only operate within strict limits,” wrote Rupert Shortt, a former assistant editor of The Tablet.

He warned that it exemplified Pope John Paul II’s own highly conservative agenda regarding dissension within the church – just as the Vatican’s “regular silencing of independently minded theologians” has done throughout John Paul’s reign.

Said Walston, “With the joint beatification, John Paul and conservatives want to put these very different two popes, John XXIII and Pius IX, on the same plane.”

Essentially, he said, the decision reaffirms papal infallibility – whatever the policy and politics of the pope.

“The message is that popes are equally authoritative, always right, regardless of whether one says something is white and the other says it is black,” he said.

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