Coverage of Pope Benedict XVI's new book-length interview has focused almost exclusively
on his remarks about using condoms to prevents AIDS, but Jewish leaders are voicing objections to his unqualified praised for his war-time predecessor, Pius XII, whose record during the Holocaust is a perennial source of frictions between the Vatican and the Jewish community.
"For his part, [Pius XII] did all that he could to save people," Benedict tells German journalist Peter Seewald in the book, titled "Light of the World: The Pope, the Church and the Signs of the Times," which is to be formally released at the Vatican on Tuesday. The pontiff, who was raised in Nazi Germany, adds that Pius "was one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else."
Jewish leaders and some historians have long argued that Pius, a career church diplomat who became pope in 1939 and died in 1958, did not speak out as strongly as he could when he realized that Adolph Hitler was systematically exterminating Jews and that he did not do as much as he could to save Jews in Italy.
"Pope Benedict's comments fill us with pain and sadness and cast a menacing shadow on Vatican-Jewish relations," said
Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
"The assertion that Pius saved more Jews than anyone else during the Holocaust is categorically contradicted by the known historical record," Steinberg said. "As survivors of the Holocaust we have a solemn obligation to the memory of those murdered to defend the truth of the tragedy till our last breath."
Rabbi David Rosen, international director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, said that there "is certainly enough evidence to refute those who charge that Pius XII stood idly by while the lives of Jews and others were imperiled." But, he added, "not only did Pius XII never directly challenge the Nazi regime regarding the extermination of the Jews; perhaps even more dramatically, he never publicly expressed any condemnation, let alone express of regret, subsequent to World War II."
"How can one say that any persons did all they could have done in the face of such evil unless they laid down their life to oppose it?" Rosen said.
In France, the umbrella representative group of Jewish organizations, CRIF, said that Pope Benedict's opinion "wasn't shared by any serious historian," according to Agence France Presse
Benedict, who was born Joseph Ratzinger in Bavaria and who as a teenager was conscripted against his will into the German Army by the Nazis, has had a troubled relationship with Jewish groups throughout his five-year papacy.
As Benedict notes in his interview with Seewald, he has always appreciated Judaism and its intrinsic role in the birth of Christianity -- our "fathers in the faith," as Benedict calls Jews. But his relations with the contemporary Jewish community, and the role of his church and his homeland in the Holocaust and in current relations with the State of Israel have been a source of constant friction
In January 2009, for example, Benedict lifted the excommunication of four bishops -- one of them, Richard Williamson, is an outright Holocaust-denier -- from a right-wing splinter group that tends to be persistently critical of Jews. He also restored a version of the old Latin Rite mass that included prayers for the conversion of Jews that in the past sparked pogroms against European Jews. After protests, Benedict altered the offending passages. In "Light of the World,"
Regarding Williamson, Benedict says he regrets that the Vatican did not do due diligence to discover his views before lifting the excommunications, and says he would have dealt with Williamson separately from the other three if he had known what Williamson -- who is about to go on trial in Germany for denying the Holocaust -- believed.
Benedict also firmly believes that Pius XII has been unfairly treated by critics. As pope, he ordered archivists to scour the Vatican records from that era to ensure that they contained nothing to counter his view that Pius was a holy man who did the best he could under the circumstances and therefore should be made a saint. The Vatican says the "hundreds of thousands" of documents will be opened up to scholars when archival work is finished, probably within a few years.
In the meantime, however, Benedict has rendered his verdict on behalf of Pius XII.
"Of course one can still always ask, 'Why didn't he protest more clearly?' I believe it was because he saw what consequences would follow from an open protest," Benedict told Seewald in the interviews, which were conducted over the course of a week last July. "We know that personally he suffered greatly because of it. He knew he actually ought to speak out, and yet the situation made that impossible for him."
He also tweaks "new clever people" who say that while Pius did save many lives, he did not have a modern view of Jews and Judaism, and therefore should not be made a saint.
What Pius believed about Jews and Judaism "is not the question," the pope continues. "The decisive thing is what he did and what he tried to do, and on that score we really must acknowledge, I believe, that he was one of the great righteous men and that he saved more Jews than anyone else."