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Religious Studies has multiplied like loaves and fishes at U.Va.
Fogarty part of Vatican's study of pope's role in WWII
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Gerald Fogarty
Stephanie Gross
Gerald Fogarty

Fogarty part of Vatican's study of pope's role in WWII

By Charlotte Crystal

Reaching a consensus on the truth is rarely an easy task. When the stakes are high and the group is divided, it can be even tougher than usual.

That was the challenge facing Gerald Fogarty, a Jesuit priest and the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Religious Studies and History, this past year as he struggled to find a consensus among his colleagues on an international, interfaith committee investigating an explosive historical topic: why didn't Pope Pius XII do more to save the Jews from the Holocaust?

Pope Pius XII was criticized in the mid-1960s as being an anti-Semite who stood silent while millions of Jews were murdered in the Nazi death camps. So, between 1965 and 1981, the Vatican published 11 volumes of diplomatic documents, expecting to lay to rest questions about Pius XII's role during the war, Fogarty said.

However, questions about Pius XII's role remained, in part because few scholars have studied the untranslated documents. Last year, in an effort to improve relations between the Catholic Church and the world Jewish community, a committee of three Catholic and three Jewish scholars was formed to examine the published volumes and determine whether they left a major gap in the historical record.

Like many civil governments, the Vatican delays the release of official documents to protect the people and information mentioned in them. To date, it has released official documents only through 1921 with the exception of the World War II volumes. It's been a rocky year.

Before the group could reach a consensus for its final report, word was leaked to Haaretz, a major daily newspaper in Israel, that the committee's findings criticized the actions of Pius XII. That, however, was not the case, Fogarty said.

In October, the group traveled to Rome with its final report, but a day before its scheduled press conference, an article ran in Le Monde, the major French daily, again based on leaked information. The article, critical of Pius XII, was picked up by all the major Italian dailies and caused a stir throughout Italy and in the Vatican.

A fundamental difference in historical perspectives toward World War II has made cooperation difficult between the Jewish and Catholic members, Fogarty said.

"Catholics need to realize that the Holocaust was such a horrific experience that Jews need to keep it in the public's mind so that it never happens again," Fogarty said. "But for the Vatican and the Allies, the Holocaust was only one aspect of World War II," he said. "It was not the reason for defeating Hitler, it was one more reason for defeating Hitler."

Add to that a difference in priorities. The pope's role, as head of the Catholic Church, is to protect and further the interests of the Church throughout the world. Pius XII was worrying about the treatment of German Catholics and the safety of the Catholic church in Germany while also supporting the Allies in their bid to defeat Hitler, Fogarty said. In contrast, Jewish leaders, then and now, focused on the Nazis' treatment of the Jews.

The difference in priorities and perspectives led two of the committee's Jewish members to try to use the media to pressure the Vatican to open its archives.

"It was their intent to keep the Holocaust uppermost in everyone's minds and to do that they tried to use the same kind of pressure on the Vatican that they have used successfully on civilian governments," Fogarty said. "However, the Vatican does not respond to pressure from the press. They shut down."

Indeed, that is Fogarty's concern as he waits for the Vatican's response to the committee's report, which is expected in January.

"It's too early to evaluate the achievements of the committee, but at least some of us learned the value of Jewish and Catholic scholars working together," Fogarty said. "And I think all of us came to understand that Pope Pius XII was a complex man."


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