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Document Renews Debate On Vatican Role in WWII

Just after World War II, the Vatican instructed French Catholic authorities not to hand baptized Jewish children back to their parents, according to a recently revealed document. The discovery has re-rekindled disputes over the wartime role of Pope Pius XII.

An Italian newspaper recently published the 1946 Vatican directive, approved by Pope Pius, which contained no reference to the Holocaust.

For Catholics, baptism means belonging to the Church. As for non-baptized children, the directive said the church would deal with each request on a case-by-case basis.

Amos Luzzatto, president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities, said the document left him speechless.

"I was astonished," Luzzatto says. "It shocked me. These were children sent to the convents in order to be saved, while elder persons were taken away to Auschwitz, to camps to be killed. And you have nothing to say about that, is it possible?"

Publication of the directive has infuriated conservative Catholics. Some claim it was part of an anti-Catholic conspiracy aimed at derailing the beatification of Pius XII.

It's not known how many of these children were saved from the Holocaust by the Church and how many were prevented from returning to their families and communities.

The Vatican has said Pius XII did not speak out more forcefully against the Nazis because he was afraid of making things worse for both Jews and Catholics.

Cardinal Waltar Kaspar, who heads the Vatican commission for religious relations with Jews, urges for caution in judging past Vatican policies.

"We cannot judge on the basis of what we know today, there are things we didn't know in the '50s and '40s. The Holocaust changed everything. Before, nobody could have imagined such a terrible injustice could have been possible."

Below is the text of a 1946 Vatican directive on Jewish children shelted by French Catholics. Sources: The New York Times and a translation from the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera.

Vatican Directive

With regards to Jewish children, who during the German occupation, were entrusted to Catholic Institutions and families and whose return is being sought by Jewish Institutions, the Holy Congregation of the Holy Office has taken a decision that can be summarized thusly:

1) Avoid, whenever possible, replying in writing to Jewish authorities, do so orally

2) Every time it is necessary to reply, it must be said that the Church has to investigate and study each individual case

3) Children who have been baptized must not be entrusted to institutions that would not be in a position to guarantee their Christian upbringing

4) For children who no longer have their parents, given the fact that the church has responsibility for them, it is not acceptable for them to be abandoned by the church or entrusted to any persons who have no rights over them, at least until they are in a position to choose for themselves. This, obviously, is for children who have not been baptized

5) If the children have been turned over (to the Church) by their parents, and if the parents reclaim them now, providing that the children have not received baptism, they can be given back

It should be noted that this decision taken by the Holy Congregation of the Holy Office has been approved by the Holy Father.

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Corrected: January 27, 2005 at 7:16 PM CST
A section of this piece was omitted. As a result it fails to adequately represent the views of Catholics advocating the beatification of Pope Pius XII.
Sylvia Poggioli is senior European correspondent for NPR's International Desk covering political, economic, and cultural news in Italy, the Vatican, Western Europe, and the Balkans. Poggioli's on-air reporting and analysis have encompassed the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the turbulent civil war in the former Yugoslavia, and how immigration has transformed European societies.