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. 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 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.
"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?" Foxma told The Associated Press.
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," said Elan Steinberg, vice president of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors and their Descendants.
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.
Benedict put John Paul on the fast-track for possible sainthood just weeks after his April 2, 2005, death, heeding the calls of "Santo Subito!" or "Sainthood Immediately!" that erupted in St. Peter's Square during the funeral of the much-loved pontiff.
Benedict waived the customary five-year waiting period and allowed the investigation into John Paul's life and virtues to begin immediately.
Monsignor Slawomir Oder, who has spearheaded John Paul's cause, told Polish reporters at the Vatican that this was a moment of "great joy and satisfaction."
"An important stage in the process was closed, but we still need to complete the procedure concerning the assumed miracle," he said.
Panels of doctors, cardinals, bishops and other experts must still sign off on a purported miracle concerning the cure of a young French nun who suffered from Parkinson's disease and prayed to John Paul.
Two months after he died, she woke up free of the same disease that had impaired the late pontiff himself.
In Poland, word of John Paul's saintly progress was greeted with joy Saturday.
"This is necessary to the church, but to me he is already holy," said Jakub Tomica, 22, a seminarian in Krakow who said he already prays to John Paul but now can venerate him officially.
The decision, said the Rev. Adam Boniecki, chief editor of the Catholic Tygodnik Powszechny weekly, is a "response to the expectations of millions of people."
John Paul's cause has moved ahead at record speed and his beatification could be the fastest in modern time, if the miracle is approved soon. The Vatican had only waived the five-year waiting period once before, for Mother Teresa, who died in 1997, and was beatified by John Paul in 2003.
In addition to John Paul and Pius, the pope also declared that a young Polish priest, Rev. Jerzy Popieluszko, was a martyr for the faith after he was kidnapped and killed in 1984 by Poland's communist-era secret police. The martyr designation means he can be beatified without a miracle.
That will give Poland a local beatification ceremony next year since the Polish-born John Paul will most likely be beatified in Rome.
Benedict approved a second miracle for an Australian woman, Mary Mackillop, paving the way for her to be declared Australia's first saint.