Vatican defends move on World War II-era pope

Vatican City - The Vatican sought Wednesday to quell its latest public dispute with Jewish groups, saying the pope's decision to move Pope Pius XII closer to sainthood isn't an act of hostility against those who say he failed to sufficiently denounce the Holocaust.

In what has now become a routine effort at fence-mending, the Vatican issued a statement saying the German-born Benedict feels great respect for and friendship toward Jews - a sentiment he hopes to reinforce during his first visit to Rome's synagogue next month.

Benedict sparked renewed outrage among some Jewish groups on Saturday by signing a decree on Pius' heroic virtues, paving the way for him to be beatified once a miracle attributed to his intercession is confirmed.

Some Jews and historians have argued Pius, pope from 1939-1958, should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II.

The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to try to save Jews and that speaking out more forcefully would have resulted in more deaths.

Jewish groups have denounced the decision, noting that they had previously asked Benedict to suspend his cause until the Vatican archives on Pius' pontificate are opened to outside scholars. The Vatican has said those archives won't be catalogued and ready until 2014 at the earliest.

In its statement Wednesday, the Vatican confirmed that timeframe and said Benedict's decision wasn't intended to limit discussion on Pius' decisions.

But it repeated that as far as it was concerned, Pius showed great "attention and preoccupation" over the fate of Jews, "which is widely established and recognized even by many Jews."

It added that the decree on his "heroic virtues" wasn't so much a historical assessment of his pontificate as a confirmation that he had led a deeply Christian life.

"It's clear that the recent signature of the decree shouldn't in any way be seen as a hostile act against the Jewish people and one hopes that it isn't taken as an obstacle to the path of dialogue between Judaism and the Catholic Church," the statement said.

Yet the decision was the latest in a series of perceived affronts that have roiled Catholic-Jewish relations in recent years.

It followed on the heels of Benedict's rehabilitation of a Holocaust-denying bishop in January, what some say was a missed opportunity during his visit to Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in May and his 2007 decision to revive the old Latin Mass, which includes a prayer for the conversion of Jews.

In each of those cases, the Vatican responded to the ensuing criticism by issuing clarifications, explanations or apologies after the fact - including a remarkable papal admission that mistakes were made when Benedict lifted the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, who had said no Jews were killed in Nazi gas chambers.

During the pope's trip to Israel, the Vatican spokesman, Rev. Federico Lombardi had to come to Benedict's defense amid criticism he didn't mention the words "Nazi" or "murder" at Yad Vashem, or apologize for Catholic anti-Semitism, as Pope John Paul II had during his Israeli visit.

Lombardi said at the time that Benedict "can't mention everything every time he speaks."

In the case of the Latin Mass, the Vatican changed the Easter Week prayer calling for the conversion of Jews in a bid to assuage complaints, but some Jewish groups argued the new prayer was still offensive.

Elan Steinberg, the vice president of American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, complained Wednesday about what he called a "pattern of harm" that seems to have emerged in Vatican-Jewish dialogue involving "missteps followed by less-than-convincing explanations and rationalizations."

"Representing those of us who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust, the pain of the silence of Pius XII during the Second World War cannot be eased by blithe indifference to the historical record. We suffered in his silence," said Steinberg.

But Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni, the chief rabbi of Rome who invited Benedict to visit the city's main synagogue Jan. 17, welcomed the Vatican statement, saying it was a welcome effort at calming tensions.

"Certainly, the historic evaluation remains open and controversial, but the Vatican's understanding of the request to open all the possibilities of research is relevant," he said in a statement.

In the case of Pius, Jewish leaders have acknowledged that beatification, the first major step toward possible sainthood, is an internal church matter and that it's not for Jews or anyone else to tell the church who should or shouldn't be a saint.

But considering Benedict's own past - he was forced to serve in the Hitler Youth and deserted the Nazi army - and his stated aim of continuing to improve relations with Jews, they have said more sensitivity is called for in dealing with the disputed figure of Pius.

Pius, a Vatican diplomat in Germany and the Vatican's secretary of state before being elected pope, did denounce in general terms the extermination of people based on race and opened Vatican City to refugees, including Jews, after Hitler occupied Rome in 1943.

But he didn't issue public indictments of Jewish deportations, and some historians say he cared more about bilateral relations with Nazi Germany and the rights of the Catholic church there than saving Jewish lives.

Benedict signed the decree on Pius along with a similar one recognizing the virtues of his immediate predecessor, John Paul II. This led many to believe the two causes would proceed together - and elicited further outcry since John Paul was admired by so many Jews.

The statement said there was no reason to believe that any possible beatification would take place at the same time.