Pius XII canonization painted in shades of grey

  • March 25, 2010
{mosimage}TORONTO - Politics is at play in the so-called “Pius wars,” the debate surrounding Pope Pius XII’s likely canonization, says renowned Jewish studies scholar Michael Marrus.

Although the controversy has been framed as a struggle between Christians and Jews, Marrus said he also sees the issue as “an internal debate in the Catholic Church.”

Marrus addressed a March 23 board meeting of the Christian-Jewish Dialogue of Toronto at the Toronto School of Theology where he pointed to the “many different Catholic perspectives” on the issue, from those who champion Pius XII as the great rescuer of Jews, to his critics, including 18 prominent Catholics who recently urged Pope Benedict XVI to slow down the process of the wartime pope’s canonization to allow for further study.

But Marrus said viewing Pius XII as either a great champion of the Jewish cause or as “Hitler’s pope” during the Second World War erases any nuances about the issue.

“The truth of the matter is there are shades of grey,” he said.

There are two sides to the coin on Pius’ wartime papacy: some believe he did too little to help Jews facing Nazi wrath, others say he worked behind the scenes to save Jews so as not to antagonize Hitler and the Nazis into unleashing a greater fury on Jews and others.

On whether Pius XII should be made a saint or not, Marrus told the 18 board members that as a non-Catholic, he has “no part in this debate whatsoever.” But he said perhaps it is time to “take a deep breath,” proceed with patience on the issue and open up the Vatican’s wartime archives to “let the scholars go to work.”

“It’s important that the debate leads to the victory of all, not that one side should triumph over the other,” he said.

In his talk, Marrus also highlighted a clash between the “history and memory of the Holocaust” and the campaign for the sainthood of the late pope. He said supporters see Pius XII as being the “great pope of the (Catholic) church triumphant, the church of centralized authority.”

But this symbolic standing has been challenged by the “reformers” within the church who have been cautioning against the speedy canonization of Pope Pius XII.

Meanwhile, Marrus pointed out that there are “politics from the Jewish side.”

The promotion of any wartime pope, especially from the viewpoint of a victimized group that has suffered a catastrophe, is bound to spark a strong reaction, he said.

“Whoever the wartime pope would have been, one could fairly say, as one could say of every wartime leader, ‘Did they do enough?’ ” Marrus said. “Of course they didn’t do enough. Did anyone do enough, as it were?”

in 1999, Marrus served on the Vatican-appointed International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission, a team of scholars given the task of studying Second World War documents in the Vatican’s archives. The commission disbanded in 2001 after it was denied further access to Vatican documents.

Marrus said he doesn’t understand why opening up the Vatican’s wartime archives is like “pulling teeth, so painstaking, so protracted, so disputed.”

Yet it appears that there is some movement in opening up access. In February, the Vatican announced plans to publish several documents from the Vatican Secret Archives relating to the Second World War online, free of charge.

Board member Judy Csillag, director for community outreach at the Canadian Centre for Diversity, and a child of Holocaust survivors, said if Pius XII is being held up as an example, then it’s important to shed light on his role during the war by opening up all relevant documents.

“The first thing is we need to know the truth,” she told The Catholic Register.

Fr. Damian MacPherson, S.A., the archdiocese of Toronto’s ecumenical and interfaith director, echoed Marrus’ observations about the Vatican’s approach of taking “a long view” on issues, adding that this could be applied to Pius XII’s canonization.

Meanwhile, Sr. Lucy Thorson of the Sisters of Sion said she agreed with Marrus’ point that perhaps a new generation of scholars can take a look at the issue with fresh eyes and new perspectives.

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