After nine months of critical analysis, a team of Jewish and Catholic scholars has completed an unprecedented study of the role of the Vatican during the Holocaust.
And the scholars have some questions: 47, to be exact. They were to be presented in a preliminary report to Vatican officials this week in Rome.
The most significant inquiries seem to share the same underlying theme: What did wartime Pope Pius XII know about the extermination of Europe’s Jews, and when did he know it? And perhaps more important, what did he do about it?
Seeking answers, the international group of six scholars is requesting the Vatican to open its secret World War II-era archives: a controversial issue that continues to be a thorn in the side of the Jewish-Catholic dialogue. The Vatican consistently has rejected opening further its hidden archives.
So how will the Vatican respond?
"This is a litmus test for the Vatican in its relations with Jewish communities throughout the world," declares Rabbi James Rudin, a noted interfaith expert.
The fruit of the scholars work, begun in December 1999, was expected to be released Thursday.
A 21-page report by the team, officially called the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, was to be presented to the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, or IJCIC.
The scholars include two from New Jersey, Dr. Eva Fleischner of Montclair State University and the Rev. John F. Morley of Seton Hall University; the Rev. Gerald P. Fogarty of the University of Virginia; Dr. Michael Marrus of the University of Toronto; Dr. Bernard Suchecky of the Free University of Brussels; and Dr. Robert S. Wistrich of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
Their request for more documents comes through loud and clear in the report.
"It is plain from the ADSS that important pieces of the historical puzzle are missing from that collection," including internal Vatican communications, diaries, memoranda, appointment books, minutes of meetings and draft documents, the report said.
ADSS are the 11 volumes of edited archival materials published between 1965 and 1981. These volumes were first exempted from the Vatican’s closure policy following the 1960s production of the play "The Deputy," a thinly disguised critique of Pius XII.
At first the Vatican had claimed ADSS represented all its relevant wartime documents. It later admitted there were more but claimed they needed to be kept secret for personnel and religious reasons.
"The published documents themselves often raise important questions to which they do not provide answers," the report said. "No serious historian could accept that the published, edited volumes could put us at the end of the story."
The team states that one of its goals "is to understand the actions of Pius XII and the Vatican during World War II, how the Vatican decided upon its policies and why. But the scholars also make clear they desire an objective.
"Our task is not to sit in judgment of the Pope and his advisors. Rather … we hope to contribute a more nuanced understanding of the role of the papacy during the Holocaust."
Most of the report details the 47 questions. Twenty-seven arise from specific documents seeking any Vatican response to Nazi atrocities of Jews and others in Germany, France, Romania, Poland, Hungary and Ukraine.
For example, the scholars ask whether Vatican officials ever discussed or responded to the 1938 Kristallnacht pogrom, reported to them by German prelate Bernhard Lichtenberg.
Another question asks what happened to funds raised by the United Jewish Appeal earmarked to save Jews but instead used in an aborted Vatican project to secure Brazilian visas for Catholics of Jewish origin.
The scholars seek further documentation about the Vatican’s secret policy against Jewish immigration to Palestine and its possible impact on the Church’s Jewish rescue efforts. Their query includes a quote from the wartime Vatican saying "the Holy See has never approved of the project of making Palestine a Jewish home" and "Palestine is now holier for Catholics than for Jews."
One question asks why there is no reference in ADSS to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, despite requests to the Vatican for help by North American rabbis on March 12, 1943.
The last five questions deal with broader themes, notably why there is a paucity of evidence documenting the Vatican’s fear of communism during this period: a fear cited for years to explain why Pius XII muted his criticism of Nazi atrocities.
Interestingly, it was the Vatican’s top Jewish liaison, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, who two years ago suggested that a team of Catholic and Jewish scholars study the issue.
Cardinal Cassidy’s proposal, first reported by The Jewish Week in March 1998, was seen as a compromise between two forces: Jewish groups and the Clinton administration on one side, Church hard-liners on the other.
The former calls for fully opening the Vatican archives to obtain a full and speedy accounting of the Catholic Church’s role during World War II. Some Jewish groups contend Pius XII failed to act more forcefully while Jews were being killed. Catholic scholar John Cornwell made similar charges in a book published last year titled "Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII."
The hard liners refuse to make available any new wartime documents beyond ADSS.
To break the stalemate, Cardinal Cassidy called for the historic re-examination of ADSS by Catholics and Jews. Afterward, if the scholars had more questions, they could "take it further," Cardinal Cassidy was quoted in 1998.
But it’s not clear what Cardinal Cassidy meant. Some Jewish interfaith leaders believe he meant the scholars would be granted access to the archives. Others note that Cardinal Cassidy does not have the authority to grant access: that power lies with the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Sodano.
Rabbi Rubin says the scholars have faithfully fulfilled Cassidy’s proposal and now the Vatican must grant them access within a reasonable time frame.
"The world will be watching," said Rabbi Rudin, who hailed the report as " a major piece of work."
In asking for full access to the archives, the team concludes that "we believe that this would be a very significant step forward in advancing knowledge of the period and enhancing relations between Jewish and Catholic communities.
"It seems to us that the search for truth, wherever it may lead, can be best promoted in an environment in which there is full access to archival documentation and other historical evidence. Ultimately, openness is the best policy for a mature and balanced historical assessment."