Vatican archives coverage was missed chance to dig into John Paul II's Jewish outreach

The announcement by Pope Francis that the Vatican had decided to open up the its archives on World War II-era Pope Pius XII — long criticized by many for staying largely silent during the Holocaust and the horrors committed by the Nazis — flooded the internet.

Got news? Words like “secret” and “files” are catnip for editors looking to fill news budgets at the start of the week.

That’s why the so-called “Friday news dump” has become such a thing in recent years, especially among politicians attempting to bury bad news at the start of the weekend when people pay less attention. In the case of Pope Francis, there’s no hiding an announcement that could forever alter Catholic-Jewish relations going forward.

Lost in all the intrigue of these Holocaust-era archives was the chance by mainstream news outlets to give some broader context for what all this means regarding Catholic-Jewish relations and the complicated history between these two faith traditions. There are several factors as to why the news coverage didn’t feature more depth. The lack of religion beat writers (an issue discussed on this website at great length over the years) and the frenetic pace of the internet to write a story (and quickly move on to another) are two of the biggest hurdles of this story and so many others.

A general sweep of the coverage shows that news organizations barely took on the issue — or even bothered to give a deeper explanation — of past Christian persecution of Jews and the efforts made since the Second Vatican Council, and later by Saint Pope John Paul II, to bring healing to this relationship.

The news coverage surrounding the announcement that the archives would be released in 2020 — eight years earlier than expected — was largely collected from an article published in Italian by Vatican News, the official news website of the Holy See. In it, Pope Francis is quoted as saying, “The church is not afraid of history. On the contrary, she loves it and would like to love it more and better, just as she loves God.”

What would have triggered a “sidebar story” or a “timeline” in the days of newspapers, is largely lost in the digital age. Both would have certainly included the name and work of John Paul II. After all, the move to advance the sainthood of Pope Pius XII — of which the release of these archives is all about — was first advanced by John Paull II, In fact, during a 1998 trip to Africa, John Paul was asked about what he thought of his wartime predecessor.

“He was a great pope," he replied.

The Polish-born John Paul II had Jewish friends as a child and entered the priesthood during the World War II years. John Paul II was the first head of the Catholic church to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1979 and his visit to the Great Synagogue of Rome in 1986, just a 10-minute taxi ride (not during Rome’s rush hour) across the Tiber River from St. Peter’s Basilica, was a first by a modern-day pope. In the year 2000, he visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem while on a trip to Israel, marking a major turning point in Christian reconciliation.  

Failing to mention any of these key dates paints an incomplete picture of this very complicated Catholic-Jewish relationship and the potential damage the release of these archived materials can ultimately inflict at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise. Failure to mention JP II could also be more sinister — a way for liberal Catholics to discredit the conservative pontiff — and something that has happened in the past.

With that, let’s take a look at some of Monday’s coverage. The Associated Press story, written by correspondent Frances D’Emilio, handled the story like so many other major outlets. The AP, widely distributed to subscriber newspapers, has by far the largest reach in the English-speaking world when it comes to this type of story.

Here’s a look at the bottom of the story packed with context, where even a line about Vatican II or John Paul II would have helped:

Defenders of Pius’ wartime actions have noted that some convents and other religious institutes in Italy helped hide Jews, including during the Nazi occupation of his native Rome.

It was during Benedict’s papacy that the Vatican in 2009 formally recognized the “venerable” qualities of Pius, an early step along the possible path to sainthood.

Historians will also be keen on examining documents from Pius XII’s papacy in the years after the war ended in 1945.

In 1983, the Vatican dismissed as “absolutely absurd” a claim in a Jewish magazine that the Vatican aided Klaus Barbie and other high-ranking Nazi war criminals in their escape from Europe, along with legitimate refugees, after the war.

The competing Reuters story, by longtime Vatican correspondent Philip Pullella, did a better job, but also failed to mention John Paul II. Here’s the key section that features some background:

In 2009, former Pope Benedict angered Jews when he approved a decree recognizing Pius’s “heroic virtues”, an initial step toward the sainthood Pius’ defenders say he deserves.

Catholic scholars later wrote to Benedict urging him to freeze the sainthood cause, saying that exhaustive study of Pius’ actions during the Holocaust had to come first, otherwise Jewish-Catholic relations could be greatly harmed.

Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial center, commended Pope Francis for the decision on Monday, as did the Israeli foreign ministry and Naomi Di Segni, the head of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities.

Di Segni said she hoped it would “further clarify the position of the Church” during the Holocaust.

The controversy over Pius’ actions during the war exploded in 1963 when German playwright Rolf Hochhuth wrote the controversial drama “The Deputy, a Christian Tragedy”, which accused Pius of silence in the face of the Holocaust.

Like the AP story, these paragraphs provide key context to how we got to this place and what transpired in the years before Francis decided to unlock the archives. Major media outlets such as The New York Times also posted a story, as did CNN on its website. While they both make passing references to John Paul II — and limited to his involvement with the archive — but at least the former pope is mentioned.

The internet demands speed from journalists, even for those working for wire services used to extremely tight deadlines, but that’s no excuse for not mentioning the man who did more to heal Catholic-Jewish relations while also getting the Pius XII sainthood process going. Of course, it doesn’t help that many newsrooms do not contain veteran, experienced religion-beat professionals.

Pius XII was either “Hitler’s pope,” as his critics call him, or a “quiet diplomat” as some at the Vatican have labeled him?

For that, we will have to wait a year. What we do know is the Catholic-Jewish relations have come a very long way and JP II is a major reason for it.

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