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The Commission That Couldn’t Shoot Straight

THE VATICAN: GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT?

By Dimitri Cavalli | July/August 2002
Dimitri Cavalli writes biographies for the H. W. Wilson Company, a reference publisher, in the Bronx, New York. He is planning to write books about Pope Pius XII and Joe McCarthy, the late manager of the New York Yankees.

On July 23, 2001, Seymour Reich, the chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC), announced the suspension of The International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission evaluating a collection of Vatican documents on Pope Pius XII’s actions during the Holocaust. The Commission, which was set up by the IJCIC and the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with Jews, concluded that the documents left many unanswered questions and requested the opening of the Vatican archives. Reich told the press that Walter Cardinal Kasper, the current president of the Pontifical Commission, explained that “technical reasons” were keeping the archives closed for the present. Without additional materials, the scholars on the panel said that they could not continue their inquiry. Reich expressed his “deep disappointment” with the Vatican’s decision, and the Jewish scholars on the Commission publicly criticized the Vatican.

On August 8 L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, published a reply by the Rev. Peter Gumpel, S.J., the Vatican official who is the independent judge for Pius XII’s beatification. Gumpel asserted that the Commission did a poor job of evaluating the material and accused some of the Jewish scholars of undermining the Vatican’s initial co-operation with the Commission by leaking confidential information to the press and making false, inflammatory statements against the Vatican. Many Jewish groups were angered by Gumpel’s statement, insisting that his charges were “totally unfounded.” How did the International Catholic-Jewish Historical Commission come into existence, and what went wrong?

In March 1998 the Vatican issued its statement on the Holocaust, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, which was drafted by a committee headed by Edward Cardinal Cassidy, then president of the Pontifical Commission. Some Jewish organizations strongly objected to the statement’s defense of Pope Pius XII and called on the Vatican to open its archives from World War II. The Vatican replied that it already published many documents from its archives in the 11-volume collection with the French title Actes et documents du Saint Siège relatifs a la Seconde Guerre Mondiale (Actes), which has received little attention from historians and journalists.

In response to Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy (1963), which condemned Pius XII for his “silence” during the Holocaust, Pope Paul VI in 1964 asked a team of three Jesuit historians, the Rev. Pierre Blet, S.J., the Rev. Burkhart Schneider, S.J., and the Rev. Angelo Martini, S.J., to conduct research in the Vatican archives and publish the relevant documents from the war. A few years later, the three Jesuits were joined by the Rev. Robert A. Graham, S.J., the author of an acclaimed book about Vatican diplomacy. The first volume was published in 1965, the last in 1981.

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