VATICAN CITY - Pope Benedict XVI moved two of his predecessors closer to possible sainthood yesterday, signing decrees on the virtues of the beloved Pope John Paul II and controversial Pope Pius XII, who has been criticized for not doing enough to stop the Holocaust.
The decrees mean that both men can be beatified once the Vatican certifies that a miracle attributed to their intercession has occurred. Beatification is the first major step before possible sainthood.
Some Jews and historians have argued that Pius should have done more to prevent the deaths of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. Thus, the German-born Benedict's surprise decision to recognize Pius' "heroic virtues" sparked an outcry from Jewish groups.
The Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee said the move was premature since the Vatican has not opened to outside historians its secret archives from Pius' 1939-58 pontificate. The Vatican says the 16 million files won't be ready until 2014.
"While it is obviously up to the Vatican to determine who its saints are, the church's repeated insistence that it seeks mutually respectful ties with the Jewish community ought to mean taking our sensitivities into account on this most crucial historical era," said David Harris, American Jewish Committee executive director.
Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the Anti-Defamation League's national director, said he was disappointed that the pope had taken the step while the historical jury is still out on Pius' record.
The Vatican insists Pius used quiet diplomacy to try to save Jews.
Pius, a Vatican diplomat in Germany and the Vatican's secretary of state before being elected pope, did denounce in general terms the extermination of people based on race and opened Vatican City up to war refugees, including Jews, after Hitler occupied Rome in 1943.
But he did not issue scathing public indictments of Jewish deportations, and some historians say he cared more about bilateral relations with Nazi Germany regarding the rights of the Catholic Church there, than saving Jewish lives.
The Vatican argues that Pius, who officially maintained neutrality during the war, couldn't publicly denounce the Holocaust because he believed public outcry would only enrage the Nazis and result in more deaths.
In contrast to Pius, John Paul is greatly admired by Jews. During his 27-year pontificate he forged diplomatic ties with Israel; prayed at the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site; and was the first pope in history to visit a synagogue.
Benedict, too, made an official visit to Israel and two visits to synagogues. But his decision on Pius outraged those still incensed over his rehabilitation this year of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson.