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Catholics join latest debate on Pope Pius XII

Controversy is once again swirling around the memory of Pope Pius XII, with the publication of a Vatican document dating from 1946, regarding the treatment of Jewish children who were baptized during World War II.

On 28 December, the Italian daily Corriere della Sera published a story based on the newly revealed document, in which a Vatican official said that children who were baptized during the Nazi occupation of France "may not be entrusted to institutions that are not in a position to guarantee them a Christian upbringing."

Catholic World News reports the story provoked outrage among Jewish leaders, who saw it as evidence that the Vatican, under the leadership of Pope Pius XII, refused to return Jewish children to their parents. Pius XII has frequently been charged with indifference or hostility toward the Jewish victims of the Holocaust-- a charge that Catholic officials have heatedly denied. In the latest round of polemics, Catholic historians again defended the reputation of the late Pontiff, who is now a candidate for beatification.

The Vatican document, unearthed by the Italian historian Alberto Melloni, is a letter offering instructions to the apostolic nuncio in France, Archbishop Angelo Roncalli, who would later be Pope John XXIII. This letter, which was discovered in Church archives in France, was written by an official of the Holy Office (now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith); the author claims that his instructions have the approval of Pope Pius XII.

The Vatican instructions involve the treatment of Jewish children who were placed in the care of Catholic institutions during World War II, in order to protect them from the Holocaust. In many cases these children were now orphans, in many other cases their families were still missing, and the chaos of post-war France, Church-run institutions were trying to formulate policies on how they should provide for the future of these children.

The document encourages then-Archbishop Roncalli to consider the cases of Jewish children individually, and to ensure that children who have become Catholics receive the benefit of proper training in their faith. Orphans who have been protected from the Holocaust in Catholic institutions should not be handed over to "persons who have no rights over them," the instruction adds. If the children's parents remain alive, the Vatican document says, the children should be returned to them "provided that these children did not receive Baptism."

Alberto Melloni, the historian who discovered the archival document, claims that Archbishop Roncalli did his best to return Jewish children to their families, in spite of the instructions contained in the letter. Melloni points out that in a letter to the grand rabbi of Palestine, Isaac Herzog (the father of future Israeli President Chaim Herzog), the future Pope said that that the Jewish leader should "invoke [Roncalli's] authority with the institutions concerned, whenever it is useful" to ensure that Catholic orphanages would "return the children to their original places."

But Father Peter Gumpel, the Jesuit priest who is preparing the case for beatification of Pius XII, charges that Melloni showed "remarkable negligence" in publishing the document, adding that the latest complaints against the wartime Pope lack "all historical rigor."

There are many unanswered questions about the document on which the controversy is based, Father Gumpel observed. The letter is unsigned; it is addressed to the apostolic nunciature in Paris, but there is no indication that Archbishop Roncalli actually read it. (Thus Melloni's claim that the future Pope ignored Vatican directives may be completely unwarranted.) And the document contains only what the author presents as a summary of Vatican policy decisions. Although the letter claims that "this decision has been approved by the Holy Father," it is not clear whether which decision(s) gained the Pope's approval.

The letter published by Melloni is written in French, and was found in French archives rather than among the papers of the apostolic nunciature in France. Those factors lead Father Gumpel to question whether the document was indeed intended for Archbishop Roncalli. The Jesuit historian points out that the Holy Office, which was staffed predominantly by Italian clerics, would ordinarily write to an Italian prelate in his own language.

Catholics join latest polemics on Pope Pius XII (Catholic World News 6/1/05)

Vatican Secret Archives

Vatican set to publish documents from World War II archives (CathNews 10/6/04)
Lutherans on board for Pius XII smear reversal (CathNews 4/4/03)
Vatican archive opening gets more attention from media than scholars (CathNews 18/2/03)
Delay in release of Vatican war documents (CathNews 19/12/02)
Pius XII's secret efforts on behalf of Jews (CathNews 5/8/02)

7 Jan 2005