Skip to content
Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Jewish-Vatican Relations: The Possible Beatification of Pius XII and other Unresolved Issues

Filed under: Anti-Semitism
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism


The attitude of the Catholic Church toward the Jews has radically changed in recent decades, followed by a transformation in its position vis-à-vis Israel. Aharon Lopez, Israel’s former ambassador to the Vatican, illustrates this turnaround by citing two events.

“In 1904 Theodor Herzl requested Pope Pius X’s support for Zionism and the return of the Jewish people to their homeland. In response, the Pope said: ‘I cannot support you, as you have rejected Jesus. If you go to the Holy Land, I will gladly open our church doors so the priests can baptize you as Christians.’ Nearly a century later, in 1997, Pope John Paul II’s personal representative, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, lit the Hannukah candles initiating the festivities for the State of Israel, marking its 50th birthday.”


Theological Change

When asked what major factors led to this turnaround in the Church’s position toward the Jews, Lopez answers: “One important element in the transformation was theological. According to Catholicism, the ‘despised Jewish nation’ was dispersed throughout the world for its rejection of Jesus as the Messiah. Now this nation has gathered in its land and become independent, complete with an army and a multifaceted existence. Catholic theologians perceived a different reality than did earlier Christians.

“Another major reason was the shock of Catholic leaders after the Holocaust when they realized what anti-Semitism had led to. The Pope and other Church leaders defined Nazi anti-Semitism as pagan and unchristian. There can, however, be no doubt that Nazi anti-Semitism was embedded in religious anti-Semitism. Catholics had been indoctrinated with religious anti-Semitism from their youth.

“These two factors combined, have led to a new way of thinking. A few years ago the American Cardinal O’Connor referred to them by saying to me: ‘The ways of the Lord are hidden.'”


The Nostra Aetate Declaration

“The major official turning point in the Church’s attitude toward the Jews came at the second Vatican Council, which met in 1962 on Pope John XXIII’s initiative. Its position was approved by his successor Pope Paul VI on October 28, 1965, with the publication of the Nostra Aetate declaration. This text eliminated the Jews’ collective guilt for Jesus’ crucifixion and stated that ‘Jews were most dear to God’ and that ‘the great spiritual patrimony was shared by Christians and Jews.’ Hatred of the Jews thus became incompatible with formal Church doctrine.

“Until then Church doctrine had asserted that, due to Jesus’ execution, God had removed the covenant from the people of Israel and transferred it to the Church, the ‘true Israel’ (Verus Israel). Now the Church accepted the existence of an ongoing covenant between God and the Jewish people, which constituted a major theological breakthrough in its relationship with it.”


Change Permeates Slowly

Lopez points out that the change in attitude became effective over the years in some parts of the Church, but not in many others. The major turnaround at the highest levels has yet to permeate the entire Church, which is quite extensive: “For example, one Jewish expert told me that, even when he visits some parish churches in Rome, sermons do not reflect the change in official theology of 40 years ago. In Sicily, every year around Easter, a passion play is enacted depicting the Jews in a very negative light. During my ambassadorship, my request to change this yielded no result.

“Just before my appointment in 1997, an anti-Semitic book was published in Italy by a senior lecturer at a Catholic University. When I discussed this during my first meeting with Cardinal Cassidy, he responded that implementing the official change would be a lengthy process. During my ambassadorship, I always stressed that, despite the dramatic change introduced by Nostra Aetate, major emphasis would have to be given to education. Otherwise, the new theology would never permeate the entire Church structure.

“I often realized how difficult affecting change is, even at the highest levels. In 1998, for the festivities celebrating 20 years of John Paul II’s papacy, a mass was held, preceded as usual with the recital of texts from the Tanach and the New Testament. The Tanach text chosen spoke about the Israelites’ battle against Amalek, which relates that when Moses raised his hands the Israelites were victorious and when he lowered them Amalek was victorious. Thereafter the Pope asked: ‘Is anybody more suited to fight the Amalekites than the “true Israel,” the Church?’

“Despite these occasional inconsistencies, the Pope considered it important that the new theology toward the Jews permeate the Catholic community. He mentioned the need for such education several times, saying that Jesus was Jewish, thus referring to the Jewish origin of Christianity. The Catholic Church has indeed come a long way. There is also no longer a centrally organized effort to convert Jews.

“It remains, however, difficult for the Church to reverse its 2,000 year-old position. This may take another generation or two. Education has started at the Gregorian University – the most prestigious Catholic academic institution – where Jewish academics also teach. Yet it is important that the new Christian-Jewish relationship is also introduced into training colleges for priests and other educational institutes. Pupils have to hear from their own teachers – not Jewish ones – that the Jews did not crucify Jesus. Doctrine is crucial to education, and spreading it will require endlessly repeated efforts.”


The Document on the Shoah and its Dilution

“The Church has also made substantial official reference to the Holocaust. The Vatican’s document on the Shoah, published on March 16, 1998, was an important milestone in the reconciliation process between the Church and the Jewish people. It was prepared by the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews. The Pope praised its chairman, Cardinal Cassidy, in a letter sent to him. The document said the crime which has become known as the Shoah – using the Hebrew term – remains an indelible stain on the almost ended century. Toward the end of the text, however, the Middle East, Cambodia and other political events are mentioned, which were undoubtedly inserted by Vatican politicians to dilute the document’s significance.

“My own reaction was that, if the document’s purpose was to discuss the tragedies of the 20th century, it should have been entitled as such. Two interpretations were possible. Either the Church wanted to elevate the Middle East conflict to the level of the Holocaust, or it wanted to minimize the significance of the Shoah to that of the other conflicts. The document on the Shoah also spoke only about individual guilt and was thus inadequate.

“Despite many terrible acts undertaken by the Church during the Second World War, several churches also did much good when they opened their doors to persecuted Jews. Some claim this attitude was influenced by the Vatican: others, that it was done despite it. Earlier, Pope Pius XI, who died before the Second World War, intended to publish a document sharply condemning Nazism and anti-Semitism. He was close to signing it when he passed away. Pius XII, a cardinal in his predecessor’s cabinet, shelved the document. The Vatican today tries to present Pius XII in a more favorable light by publishing documents by Pius XI. The issue, however, is not what the Church’s positions were before the war, but during it.”


The True Litmus Test: The Beatification of Pius XII

The question is thus: If the change in the theological attitude toward the Jews, even after several decades, has only permeated the Church to a limited extent, how can one determine whether there is ongoing progress in the Church’s reconciliation with the Jewish people? Lopez considers the true litmus test to be the possible beatification and canonization of Pope Pius XII. “The first step toward this is for a committee to determine whether the candidate – who must have passed away more than five years ago – is suitable. This has already been answered in the affirmative.

“If the candidate is not a martyr, he has to perform one miracle to be beatified and another to be canonized, usually in the health field. A commission of doctors must testify that the medical problem concerned was incurable, and that the patient was close to a certain death.

“I have tried to explain the sensitivity of Jewish feelings with respect to the possible beatification of Pius XII to Church leaders. At a press conference held in November 1998, I was asked about my attitude on this issue. Shortly before, a full-page article appeared in the Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s official paper, in which a former chairman of the Austrian parliament defended Pope Pius XII’s war-time behavior. I maintained it to be the Church’s prerogative alone to decide whom it beatifies.”


Justice must be Seen to have been Done

“Justice, however, should not only be done, it must be seen to have been done. Hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors are alive. They are entitled to have all their questions on Pius XII’s and the Church’s behavior answered. It was the least one could expect from the Vatican, an important component of the international community.

“I explained how emotionally loaded the subject was. Whatever one side says, provokes the other in an imbalanced way. I wondered why the beatification could not be delayed for another 50 years. Why rush into it? I had attended, in my diplomatic capacity, many beatifications and canonizations of people who had died hundreds of years ago. Thereupon, Father Gumpel, the priest who has worked for almost 40 years on the beatification process of Pius XII, sharply attacked me saying that anywhere else I would have been sent home.

“In order to defend Pius XII’s behavior, Father Gumpel brought Jewish testimonies and said that the Pope was praised by Israeli Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog, whom he received after the war. Furthermore Israel’s Prime Minister Golda Meir eulogized Pius XII in 1958 as someone who had helped the Jews during the Holocaust. Opinions on the Pope’s behavior only changed after Rolf Hochhuth had written his play Der Stellvertreter (The Substitute) in the early 1960s. That portrayed Pius XII as the Pope who remained silent about the Jews’ fate during the Holocaust.

“These developments have made the beatification of Pope Pius XII a traumatic test case. Even more so, as the Vatican speaks about expiation and atonement and its desire to contribute to the correction of the terrible moral evil done to the Jewish people.”


The Irrelevance of Early Testimonies

“It was the Eichmann trial in 1961 – not Hochhuth’s play – which altered the world’s perceptions,” says Lopez. “During the process many new important facts about the Holocaust became widely known, which gave Hochhuth the stage on which to present his accusations. Thus, one can no longer base oneself on what Chief Rabbi Herzog or Prime Minister Meir had previously said about Pius XII.

“In many conversations with key figures in the Vatican, I noted how the changed relations between the Church and the Jews are like a new sapling, which might be destroyed if not dealt with carefully. The Church often demonstrates total unawareness of Jewish sensitivities. Father Gumpel argued that Rome’s chief rabbi, who converted to Christianity after the Second World War, adopted Pius XII’s first name, Eugenio, in gratitude for what he had done for the Jews.

“In a meeting with the president of the Gregorian University, I had the occasion to explain how this reflected major ignorance. Whether somebody wants to become a Christian or not is his personal affair. It was absurd to try using this as a supporting argument for convincing Jews that Pius XII was a just man.”


Giving Historians Adequate Time

“I proposed an alternative to the current beatification process and suggested that historians should be given enough time to research the period’s events in detail. After discussions at the aforementioned press conference of the Israeli embassy and subsequent developments, the Vatican and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations appointed a mixed committee of Jewish and non-Jewish historians to study the issue. From 1965 until 1981 the Church had pulled many documents related to its role during World War II out of its archives. These were bound into eleven publicly available tomes. Yet they admitted that, for various reasons, other relevant documents were not included.

“The two parties asked the historians to study this material telling them that additional requests should be made in writing. After studying the documents, 47 preliminary questions were put forward by the entire commission. Thereupon the Vatican got cold feet, and refused to give the scholars access to the unpublished material in its archives. In July 2001 the mixed committee suspended its activities. This was followed a few months later by the resignation of two of the three Jewish members, Professor Robert Wistrich and Professor Bernard Suchecky.

“During all these discussions I never uttered one detrimental word about Pope Pius XII, consistently declaring that the historians had to give their professional judgment and, therefore, it was imperative to give them time to investigate all relevant material. Any other approach by the Church would indicate that it was ignoring the feelings of the Jewish people on the sensitive subject of the beatification. I believe this to be the best test to determine whether a new attitude indeed prevails in the Church’s thinking, and whether it truly desires to undo the past’s injustices.”


Ongoing Difficulties

Other important hurdles have been encountered in recent years on the road to reconciliation. Lopez notes how difficulties in bringing the two parties together continuously resurface. “In March 2000, before his visit to Israel, the Pope spoke about a mea culpa with seven chapters entailing seven demands for pardon. One referred to the Jewish people and included a far-reaching request for forgiveness read out by Cardinal Cassidy. My public reaction was that this request only mentioned the mistakes made by individuals who did not stand up to the evil of the Holocaust, rather than the Catholic Church as a collective.

“It is difficult for the Church to take that additional step. Cardinal Biffi of Bologna publicly announced that the Church cannot make mistakes and thus does not have to request forgiveness for anything. In other words, if the Church admitted its errors, its theology would be destroyed. My response was that the Church was quite capable of bridging the gap between its theological problems and the facts and, therefore, it should admit collective responsibility. Only if one accepts responsibility for one’s deeds can the demand for forgiveness become meaningful.”


Israel-Vatican Relations

Another important issue concerns the evolving relations between the Vatican and the State of Israel. Says Lopez: “The Vatican was moderately negative toward the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Yet it did not approach Catholic countries to vote against its recognition. The Vatican assumed Jerusalem would become an international city. When King Abdullah of Jordan conquered Jerusalem’s Holy Places, the matter was laid to rest until the Six Day War, during which the Jordanians were defeated and Israel took over the Holy Places. The Vatican then realized internationalizing Jerusalem was no longer realistic.

“Initially, the Vatican, rather strangely, saw Israel as a protagonist of communism, because its establishment was backed by the Soviet Union. Only when Nasser, with the support of the Soviet Union, began stirring up trouble in 1955, did the Vatican realize that the Soviet Union was not only their enemy, but also that of Israel.

“Although the Church changed its relationship with the Jewish people in 1965, it did not establish diplomatic relations with Israel due to its unsolved political situation vis-à-vis the Arabs. Indeed, many Catholics in Israel and neighboring countries were Arabs. Only after the Madrid conference in 1991, did the Vatican realize that, without relations with Israel, it risked being left out of discussions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would also weaken its position with respect to the Holy Places.”


Fighting Anti-Semitism

“The main turning point in the Israel-Vatican relationship came on December 30, 1993, when the two parties signed a ‘Fundamental Agreement’ that they would establish diplomatic relations, which happened six months later. This also further changed the relationship between Catholicism and Judaism.

A central element in the agreement was Article 2 which adopts a decisive position against anti-Semitism. The Vatican’s commitment is expressed in its condemnation of the hatred, the persecution and other manifestations of anti-Semitism perpetrated against the Jewish People and individual Jews anywhere. ‘Never again anti-Semitism, never again genocide,’ said John Paul II at the ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp.

“One would thus have expected the Catholic Church to become a forerunner in the fight against the recent rash of major anti-Semitic outbreaks, particularly since it has promoted hatred for so many centuries and since it now holds that anti-Semitism is a sin in the eyes of God and man. A major complication is, however, that many in the Moslem world are hitching a ride on Christian anti-Semitic models and motifs. Although the Church should show courage and continuously fight anti-Semitism, it also has opposing political considerations. The position of Arab Christians in the Middle East is already difficult; and the Christian Holy Places will be increasingly empty.

“When I presented my letters of accreditation, I quoted the text from Habakuk ‘the righteous will have to live by their belief’ to the Pope. I said that only by walking on parallel roads, where each side sticks to its heritage, dialogue on subjects of common interest would be possible. When there is no threat to the smaller party, then moral principles, the Tanach, the vision of the prophets and other issues can be more readily discussed. This may not suit Catholic theology, because it recognizes only one truth. Yet I am convinced that dialogue is only possible if one recognizes the principle of parallel ways.”


Three Spheres

“The main aspects of the relationship between Israel and the Vatican concern three spheres. The first one is the political and diplomatic relations between Israel and the Vatican, two political entities. The second concerns the relationship between the State of Israel and the Church in Israel. In this sphere the Fundamental Agreement referred to honoring the Church’s rights in Israel, in accordance with the laws of the Jewish State: freedom of religion, freedom of worship and freedom of access to the Holy Places.

“Extensive negotiations went on for years, thereafter, regarding the legal status of the Church and its institutions in Israel. A Legal Agreement was concluded on November 10, 1997 and ratified on February 3, 1999. It regularized the status and legal personality of the Catholic Church and its institutions in Israel. This status had not been defined for 500 years under the Ottoman Empire, the British mandate and Israeli rule. In this context, there have been discussions about plans to build a major mosque in Nazareth, which would hurt the Church.

“The third sphere deals with the relationship between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church, which cannot be compared to any other relationship. The Vatican’s document on the Shoah relates to this sphere. This relationship is tested in many ways.

“Another complicating factor in Israel’s relationship with the Vatican is the personality of the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, who should be a religious not a political leader. A religious leader has to speak about consolation, understanding, justice, love and hope. The Latin Patriarch, however, makes anti-Israeli political statements also in international forums.”


What will the Future Bring?

How will the Church’s attitude change following the passing of Pope John Paul II? Given his major role in transforming Catholic-Jewish relations, one wonders what one might expect from his successor. Lopez offers some perspectives: “Pope John Paul II’s attitude toward the Jews was influenced by Polish reality. He was raised among many Jewish friends who were murdered in the Shoah. One indication of how his personality was influenced by his upbringing is his usage of the Hebrew expression Shoah, rather than Holocaust.

“In his book Crossing the Threshold of Hope, the Pope wrote: ‘Then came World War II, with the concentration camps and the planned extermination. First it was the Jews who suffered, just for being Jews. Anyone living in Poland at that time had contact with that reality, even if only indirectly…this was, therefore, my own experience too; an experience that I carry with me to this day…Auschwitz, perhaps the most eloquent symbol of the Holocaust of the Jewish people, shows how far a system built on premises of racial hatred or a passion to dominate can lead a nation. Auschwitz continues to sound its warning to this day, reminding us that anti-Semitism is a grave sin against humanity; that every racial hatred inevitably leads to the infringement on human dignity.’

“It is impossible to make detailed forecasts what the future holds in almost any field. Whoever the next Pope will be, he is, however, unlikely to make a radical political turn, let alone a radical change in theology, as far as Catholic-Jewish relations are concerned.”

Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld

*     *     *

Aharon Lopez’s last posting before retirement was as Israel’s Ambassador to the Vatican from 1997-2000. Prior to that he was a career diplomat in Israel’s Foreign Service and served previously as Israel’s Ambassador to Cyprus. He also served in diplomatic posts in Burma, Finland and Australia.

* From: Manfred Gerstenfeld: Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism (Jerusalem: Jerusalem, Center for Public Affairs, Yad Vashem, World Jewish Congress 2003).