ROME (Reuters) - Top Catholic scholars have written an unusual and impassioned private letter to Pope Benedict urging him to slow down the sainthood procedure for wartime Pope Pius XII, accused of turning a blind eye to the Holocaust.
The letter, which was made available to Reuters by a source familiar with the initiative, is extremely rare because in the past it has mostly been Jewish groups and not Catholic academics who have written to popes about the issue.
The 18 Catholic scholars from United States, Germany and Australia, used the word “implore” twice in the letter, saying that if Pius was made a saint before the historical record is cleared up, it could irreparably harm Catholic-Jewish relations.
“Holy Father, we implore you, acting on your wisdom as a renowned scholar, professor and teacher, to be patient with the cause of Pius XII,” the scholars wrote in their letter.
Many Jews say Pius, who reigned from 1939 to 1958, did not do enough to help Jews facing persecution by Nazi Germany.
The Vatican maintains that Pius chose to work behind the scenes, concerned that public intervention would have worsened the situation for both Jews and Catholics in a wartime Europe dominated by Hitler.
The Catholic scholars suggested that they had to take a hard-line judgment on Pius until Vatican archives were open for more study by historians.
“Currently, existing research leads us to the view that Pope Pius XII did not issue a clearly worded statement, unconditionally condemning the wholesale slaughter and murder of European Jews,” the scholars told the German pope.
In December, Benedict angered Jews when he approved a decree recognizing Pius’s “heroic virtues”, moving him one step closer to sainthood. The two remaining steps are beatification and canonization.
“The movement to press forward at this time the process of beatification of Pius XII greatly troubles us,” the scholars told the pope.
The scholars included Rev. Dr. John Pawlikowski of the Catholic Theological Union, a leading historian on Judaism and the Holocaust and Dr. Eugene Fisher, the retired expert on Jewish relations for the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference.
Copies of the letter were to be sent to Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican official in charge of relations with Jews, and Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, a leading figure in Catholic-Jewish dialogue in the United States.
Jews have asked repeatedly that the Vatican’s wartime archives be opened for study and Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Silvan Shalom repeated the request to the pope directly when the pontiff visited Rome’s synagogue last month.
“We implore you to ensure that such a historical investigation takes place before proceeding with the (sainthood) cause of Pope Pius XII,” the scholars told the pope.
They said that Pius had become in essence, a de facto “symbol of Christian-anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism” and added:
“Proceeding with the cause of Pope Pius XII without an exhaustive study of his actions during the Holocaust might harm Jewish-Catholic relations in a way that cannot be overcome in the foreseeable future.”
Benedict, a German who was drafted into the Hitler Youth and German army as a teenager during World War Two, has had a more difficult relationship with the Jewish community than his predecessor Pope John Paul II.
Many are still seething at his decision last year to start the rehabilitation process of traditionalist Bishop Richard Williamson, who denied the full extent of the Holocaust.