Thursday, April 14, 2011

N.Y. Archbishop Urges Vatican to Expedite Opening of Its Holocaust Archives

Access to World War II Files Seen as Crucial to Evaluation of Pope Pius XII

By Josh Nathan-Kazis

Published April 13, 2011.

Catholic scholars, no less than Jewish scholars, are frustrated over the Vatican’s decades-long delay in the opening its closed Holocaust archives, New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan told a Jewish audience April 12.

Dolan, the city’s highest Catholic official, stopped short of calling for the immediate opening of the Vatican Secret Archives for the papacy of Pius XII, who some have accused of failing to help Jews during the Nazi genocide. But Dolan said that the church should not fear whatever it is the archives hold.

“Whatever is needed to complete this project, even in phases rather than only as a whole, I suggest must be explored,” Dolan told a gathering at New York’s Jewish Theological Seminary.

In his address, the archbishop called for a shift in the dialogue between Jews and Catholics away from what he called a “dialogue of grievances” to conversations about mutual challenges.

The former Archbishop of Milwaukee, Dolan, 61, was made Archbishop of New York – a city whose name he pronounces with a very un-local “New Yawrk” - by Pope Benedict XVI in 2009. Dressed in a black cassock and purple skullcap, he joked easily with the crowd at JTS, Conservative Judaism’s most prominent academic institution.

Dolan called for a change in the tone and character of interreligious dialogue. “Too often in the past, I’m afraid, our grievances, however legitimate, with each other have been our sole topic of discussion,” he said.

Dolan also spoke of Jews’ and Catholic’s shared reverence for Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005. “I continue to be inspired by the passion of your love for John Paul II,” he told the mostly Jewish audience.

The Archbishop approached the subject of the Vatican archives through a discussion of disputed plans for the beatification of Pius XII, who Dolan called “a somewhat unique challenge to Catholic-Jewish relations.”

“The current debate about Pius XII has become shrill, hasn’t it?” Dolan said.

Dolan argued that the historical record was still unclear on Pius XII’s responsibility for the deaths of Jews in the Holocaust, and said that more study was needed – including study of the Vatican archives.

“Whatever the archives hold, the Catholic church cannot fear the truth about the often heroic and sometimes disgraceful conduct of her leaders and members during the Second World War,” Dolan said.

Jewish groups have long called for the opening of Vatican archives relating to Pius XII’s papacy, particularly in light of Catholic efforts to put the former pope forward for canonization. The Vatican first promised to open the files for scholarly review in 1986, following a meeting between Pope John Paul II and American Jewish leaders.

“They have indicated it is a tedious process,” said Seymour Reich, a former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations who participated in that meeting. Reich continued to pursue the issue with the Vatican as chairman of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultation.

Reich said that the Vatican claims that its scholars are putting the archives in order, but that his offers to raise money to expedite the process have been ignored.

“They’re plodding along and it’s very frustrating, and it’s important that the archives be open while Holocaust survivors are still living so they can get a sense of what occurred.”

Reich said that he was pleased by Dolan’s support for the archive’s opening. “It’s gratifying that Archbishop Dolan is supporting an early opening of the archives, and I just hope the Vatican hierarchy take note of his message.”


The address can be found on YouTube at

It is well worth watching and listening.  Dolan's address is a very positive assessment of the current state of Catholic-Jewish relations.  His comments on Pius XII begin at 9.20 and continue in Part 2 (  They are balanced and non-defensive.  Dolan attempts to distinguish the beatification process from the historical analysis of Pius.  

He asks whether the standard question about Pius, namely, "Was Pius XII guilty of failing to save Jewish lives in the Holocaust?", should be replaced by "What does the historical record tell us?"  For those of us who work in this area, it is an obvious question, but in fairness to Dolan, I think he is right to ask it.  He continues with a challenge to the Vatican archivists:  open the relevant archives, even if it is done in phases.  Dolan's frank acknowledgement of the frustration experienced by historians, Catholic, Jewish and others, is welcomed. 

On a touching pastoral note, the archbishop said it was part of the responsibility of the archivists to open the war files for the sake of the survivors and their families.

In Part 4 Dolan discusses the Oberammergau Passion Play.

In Part 5 at 4.20 the 1962 Good Friday liturgy was raised.  After some semantic points, Dolan called up Dennis McManus, the archbishop's theological advisor on inter-religious matter, who explained the prayer from the 1962 text and Benedict's re-write, after significant Jewish (and Catholic!) protest, in 2007.   It was, I think, the best spin on what is an unnecessary text.  The 1970 Good Friday text is a superior text.  McManus ended on that point.

Dolan is an excellent speaker and clearly engages his audience.  His text was substantial and erudite, balanced and clearly articulated.

Archbishop Timothy Dolan

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