Historical Research Effort Strikes Nerve at Vatican

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Jerusalem (CNSNews.com) - Jewish-Catholic relations may be strained in the short term but not in the long term, an Israeli expert said, after the Vatican on Tuesday accused Jewish scholars of waging a "slanderous campaign" against the church.

The Jewish scholars are part of a joint Jewish-Catholic panel that is studying the role of the Vatican during World War II.

Comprised of three Jewish and two Vatican-appointed Catholic scholars, the panel on July 20 unanimously decided to suspend its research after the Vatican refused to give the historians access to archived documents dated after 1923 - for "technical reasons," it said.

Israel has stayed out of the resulting row, although several Jewish groups have appealed to the Vatican to open its archives and make the information available to historians.

This week, the Vatican responded to a letter from the panel of Jewish-Catholic scholars, saying the Jewish scholars were publicly spreading the suspicion that the Vatican is hiding documents "that in their judgment could be compromising."

Peter Gumpel, a German Jesuit, is leading the campaign for the beatification of the wartime pope, Pius XII, whom critics accuse of standing by and doing nothing while the Nazis slaughtered Jews during World War II.

Last October, a preliminary report from the panel indicated that the pope had focused on fruitless diplomacy while reports of Nazi atrocities were pouring into the Vatican.

It was Gumpel who wrote the three-page letter blasting the Jewish scholars, and his letter is considered the official Vatican response to the panel's decision to suspend its research.

"The initiative which should have improved relations between the Catholic Church and the Jewish community has failed due to the direct responsibility of those who, flouting the most basic rules of academic and human behavior, committed irresponsible actions," the Vatican's Gumpel charged in his letter.

Despite the letter's tone, Rabbi David Rosen, director of inter-religious affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said he did not believe the incident would have a long-term effect on relations.

"I don't think it will have any bearing on Israeli-Vatican relations [but] it is distressing for Jewish-Catholic relations," said Rosen, who has worked for years to improve ties between Jews and Catholics.

Rosen said he did not believe there would be "long-term damage."

"There's a bigger issue here - historical memory," he said, in reference to the fact that Jews and Catholics have their own unique perceptions about the war and the Holocaust.

Pius XII, for instance, is under consideration for beatification, but critics charge that he did not do enough to speak out against Nazi atrocities at the time. It is impossible to look back and hypothesize about how things could have been different if he had behaved in a different way, Rosen said.

The panel, set up in 1999 by the Vatican to investigate its own role in World War II, had access to 11 volumes of material but the scholars said they had more than 40 additional questions for which they needed access to other documents.

The Vatican responded by saying that the materials had not been catalogued and therefore could not be made available.

According to Rosen, the fact that the Jewish Committee for Inter-religious Consultations, the body responsible for the Jewish scholars on the team, issued a public statement in July saying it was halting its work temporarily because of the Vatican's refusal to grant researchers access to the material, put the Catholic scholars on the spot.

"[Nevertheless,] the way the Vatican is handling the matter is not serving Vatican interests," he said. "It looks as if the Vatican has something to hide." It would be in their "best interest to facilitate the work of the scholars," he added.

Regarding the beatification of Pius XII, Rosen said, the fact that it has been pending for decades seems to indicate that the Vatican realizes that it is a sensitive issue.