Pope Benedict XVI moved two of his predecessors closer to possible sainthood Saturday, signing decrees on the virtues of 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 Pius should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators. As a result, the German-born Benedict's surprise decision to recognize Pius' "heroic virtues" sparked immediate outcry from Jewish groups.
The Anti-Defamation League said the move was premature since the Vatican still hasn't opened up to outside historians its secret archives from Pius' 1939-1958 pontificate. The Vatican says the 16 million files won't be ready until 2014 at the earliest.
"We are saddened and disappointed that the pontiff would feel compelled to fast-track Pope Pius at a point where the issue of the record - the history and the coming to a judgment - is still wide open," said Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the Anti-Defamation League's national director.
Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants, called the announcement "particularly disturbing and callous" because it was paired with that of John Paul, who endured the Nazi invasion of his native Poland.
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 didn't issue scathing public indictments of Jewish deportations, and some historians say he cared more about securing a concordat with Nazi Germany 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.
The Rev. Peter Gumpel, who has worked for two decades shepherding through Pius' cause and has long championed him as a great defender of the Jews, said he was "delighted" with the pope's decision.
"I'm glad that the truth has been professed," Gumpel told The Associated Press.
He said he had read "every scrap" on Pius that is in the Vatican archives and said "the accusation that he was anti-Semitic or anti-Judaic is absolute nonsense."
Last year, Jewish leaders asked the pope to speed up the opening of the archives on Pius' papacy to settle the issue of what he did or didn't do to save Jews.
According to participants in the October 2008 meeting, Benedict had said he would give "serious consideration" to their request to freeze the sainthood process until the archives were opened.
As a result, Saturday's announcement about Pius came as a surprise, whereas the decree on John Paul was expected.
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, already has made two visits to synagogues and has a planned visit to Rome's main synagogue next month. But his decision to take a step forward in Pius' long-delayed beatification process sparked further outrage among Jews still incensed over his rehabilitation earlier this year of a Holocaust-denying bishop, Richard Williamson.
"Less than a year after the so-called "Richard Williamson affair," we are left bereft in our feelings and appeal to the Vatican to prevent the inevitable blow to interfaith relations which will follow from this," Steinberg said.
No dates for the beatification ceremonies were announced, but Italian and Polish media widely reported that John Paul could be beatified as early as October.