VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI moved two of his predecessors closer to possible sainthood Saturday, 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 Pius should have done more to prevent the deaths of 6 million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. 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 and American Jewish Committee said the move was premature given that the Vatican still hasn't opened up to outside historians its secret archives from Pius' 1939-58 pontificate. The Vatican says the 16 million files won't be ready until 2014 at the earliest.
"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, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
Abraham Foxman, a Holocaust survivor and the Anti-Defamation League's national director, said he was disappointed that the pope had taken the decision while the historical jury is still out on Pius' record.
"I can't understand the rush, especially while there are still survivors who are alive who feel the issue very, very deeply and are being told the files need time to be processed. What's the imperative?" Foxman told the Associated Press.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry concurred, saying Pius' actions are worthy of a "thorough historical examination. History will be the judge of this matter," the ministry said in a statement.
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.
But he didn't 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.
The Vatican argues that Pius, who officially maintained neutrality during the war, couldn't publicly denounce the Holocaust because he believed public outcry would result in more deaths.