NEW YORK, July 26 (JTA) — Pope John Paul II is widely praised by Jews for the strides he has taken to repair Jewish-Catholic relations.
But some Jewish observers now wonder if John Paul’s legacy may be tarnished by the Vatican’s apparent reluctance to budge on perhaps the most contentious of remaining intercommunal issues — a thorough exploration of the church’s role during the Holocaust, and especially the part played at the time by Pope Pius XII.
John Paul long has planned to beatify Pius XII — a step toward his sainthood. Because of Pius’ silence in the face of genocide, some Jews accuse him of virtual complicity with the Nazi regime.
In a July 20 letter to the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, a Vatican-approved, Catholic-Jewish panel of historians announced it would suspend its work because it had been denied full access to the Holy See’s wartime archives.
In two years of activity, the five historians were provided with only 11 volumes of archives — what may be just a small fraction of the total.
The historians’ latest bid for access was rebuffed recently by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Vatican’s interreligious commission. The archives are inaccessible for unspecified “technical reasons,” Kasper said.
To some observers, it seemed that Rome expected a final conclusion drawn about the Vatican’s role in the Holocaust — specifically, whether it could somehow have prevented the mass murders or worked to save more Jews — based entirely on those 11 volumes.
This led the historians, who were concerned for the credibility of their research before their peers, to notify Kasper that “we cannot see a way forward at present to the final report you request, and believe we must suspend our work.”
It also sparked criticism from Seymour Reich, chairman of the International Jewish Committee on Interreligious Consultations, an umbrella group known as IJCIC that includes Jewish groups working toward Jewish- Catholic reconciliation.
Reich distributed a statement Monday in which he expressed “deep disappointment” with the Vatican and revealed the historians’ letter to Kasper.
That, in turn, prompted the two Catholic members of the historical commission to issue their own statement, distancing themselves from Reich and reassuring the Vatican that it was not “a sense of any protest” that drove them to sign the letter to Kasper.
As for Reich, when the Vatican established the historical commission in October 1999, “I believed then that it was a sincere effort to have some of these open issues resolved,” he told JTA.
Today, though, he is “troubled by the lack of positive response,” he said.
Ironically, the controversy has emerged toward the end of a pontificate widely hailed as revolutionary in terms of church attitudes toward the Jews.
Among other advances, John Paul was the first pope to visit a synagogue and apologize for the church’s historic role in fomenting anti- Semitism.
“This pope is a good pope, and no one will ever forget his unprecedented trip to Israel in March 2000, but this represents another bump in our relations,” Reich said.
Some Jewish leaders were more scathing in their criticism.
“Ineluctably, one must conclude that they are engaged in a cover-up,” said Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, which is a member of IJCIC.
“The documents already available in the U.S. indicate that Pope Pius XII was well aware of the enormity of the atrocities against the Jews, and the record is clear that the pope never once spoke out against these Nazi acts. I have no doubt that the documents in the archives will confirm this moral failure,” Steinberg said.
Eugene Fisher, a U.S. spokesman for the Catholic Church, denied any attempt to stonewall, and warned that overheated rhetoric may damage intercommunal relations.
Steinberg’s charges involve “strange, conspiratorial language and, frankly, I resent it. We should be well beyond such dangerous, groundless language about each other,” said Fisher, who directs Catholic-Jewish relations for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“This was never a question of whether the archives will be available, but a question of when,” he continued.
“They’ve got hundreds of boxes containing tens of thousands of documents from a very long pontificate” — Pope Pius XII served from 1939 to 1958 — “and there are only two archivists working on preparing the material. They’ve got to go through it, bind it, register it and move it.”
Fisher declined to estimate when the task would be completed.
When the historical commission was first formed, there was no guarantee the Vatican would allow open perusal of its archives.
But Reich and others embraced the notion of a commission as a “useful first step” that they hoped would lead to the opening of all archives.
The original panel of six historians — there now are just five, following the unrelated resignation of a Catholic historian half a year ago — forged ahead with its research based on the 11 volumes.
They came up with a list of 47 questions, but answering them required access to the rest of the archives, the historians said.
Then came the stalemate.
“This is a setback in the story of improved Catholic-Jewish relations, and the way forward is transparency and to fully come to terms with the past,” said Michael Marrus, one of the Jewish historians on the team and the dean of graduate studies at the University of Toronto.
It’s unclear if the research will resume.
“The ball’s in the Vatican’s court,” Reich said.
Jewish leaders note that while every European state, including Russia, has now opened its archives, the Holy See has not.
They want the pope to fulfill what they see as the Vatican’s moral obligation — especially while Holocaust survivors are still alive.
“If the archives are released 100 years from now, I’m really not interested,” said Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, another member of IJCIC.
“This pope has gone so far and has spoken out against the Holocaust and gone to Auschwitz, but this remains one of the most painful questions. We’re living under the shadow of that time,” Foxman said.
“Now is when it’s important to know, not four or five generations from now, when the Holocaust could become like Genghis Khan — a footnote in history,” he said.
Even if the archives are opened, some questions about Pope Pius XII and the Vatican may never be resolved, said Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee.
“We’re dealing with a hypothetical question,” Rosen said: If Pope Pius had done all he could on behalf of the Jews, would the history of the Holocaust have been different?
“Even if all the archives are available, then there probably will still be a difference of opinion between the Jewish community and the church,” he said.
“There are certain issues we will have to learn to agree to differ on, and the way we view historical memory is one of those.”