I’ve written in this space before about Jewish-Catholic issues and in particular the Jewish community’s awkward relationship with Pope Benedict XVI. Whether he’s in DC, Israel or Vatican City, this Pope has made us squirm in our seats whether with his own personal history as a reluctant member of the Hitler youth, his sins of omission at Yad Vashem, his repeal of the excommunication of a prominent Holocaust denier and now the latest flare-up, his beatification of World War II-era Pope Pius XII.
The controversy stems from the ongoing and unresolved debate over the extent of Pope Pius’ possible actions and lack thereof to save Jews during World War II. Some say he made a political decision not to extend the Vatican’s protection to Rome’s Jewish community which resulted in the deportation of over 1,000 Jews to Auschwitz. Others, including the current Pope claim that Pius worked silently and secretly to save Jews and that the proof of this resides in the as-of-yet unreleased archives of Pius’ papacy.
The issue has flared up at every step in Pius’ march toward sainthood. Over the weekend came the announcement that Pope Benedict was moving both the beloved Pope John Paul II and the historically dubious Pius XII through the beatification process towards official sainthood — they both now need a miracle ascribed to them to complete the process. The pairing of the Jew-rescuing John Paul with the more ambiguous Pius seemed to many to be salt on the wound of the Catholic Church’s continuing reluctance to openly and honestly confront its legacy in relation to the Shoah. Others bemoaned that all the progress that had been made in Jewish-Catholic relations during the papacy of John Paul II was being undone by Benedict XVI.
Even without the announcement coming in the same news cycle as the theft of the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign from Auschwitz and the accompanying over-wrought reactions, the Vatican seemed once-again surprised by the Jewish community’s outrage at Pope Benedict’s decision. So unsettled was the Vatican that they released a statement today clarifying that the beatification of Pius XII was not an “act of hostility” against the Jewish community or those who criticize Pius’ historical role. And I believe them when they say that.
The problem is we’re judging Pius from two different sets of criteria. The Vatican statement emphasizes that Pius is being evaluated on his “Chrisitan life” rather than the “historical significance of his choices.” By that they mean, “his intense relationship with God and continuous search for evangelical perfection.” I have an incomplete understanding of that last phrase, but one definition I found explained, “evangelical perfection… is nothing but inward sincerity, and uprightness of heart toward God, although there may be many imperfections and defects intermingled.” In other words, one can become a saint on the basis of their faith and devotion even if their actions were less than saintly. I also get the unstated implication that there would be something unseemly in the Vatican denying any Pope eventual sainthood. While the actions of any particular Pope may have been fallible, their election as Pope in and of itself signifies “evangelical perfection” worthy of sainthood.
This is a very difficult concept for me to wrap my head around as a Jew — actions and devotion are inextricably intertwined. At the same time, one can only expect Catholics to choose their saints based on the criteria of their own determining. Which points to the limits of interfaith dialogue. There are certain things we are never going to agree on — and the Vatican has reminded us of that, yet again.