Describing Pius XII as "the pope of the Holocaust," the center's founder and dean charged last week that throughout World War II, the pontiff "sat on the throne of St. Peter in stony silence, without ever lifting a finger, as each day thousands of Jews were sent to the gas chambers with his full knowledge."
While expressing his highest respect for the current pope, John Paul II, Hier said the Catholic Church's anticipated move in proposing Pius XII as a candidate for sainthood would "demean the meaning of sainthood "and "desecrate the memory of the Holocaust."
Hier made his remarks as part of a wide-ranging address on the "State of World Jewry," delivered May 13 at the 92nd Street Y in New York.
He called on the Vatican to open its wartime archives, a move he said "would prove conclusively that Pius XII knew all about the 'Final Solution.'"
Hier also asked "every person of conscience, Jew and non-Jew, to write to Pope John Paul II, asking him not to go forward with Pius' nomination, because "such an act would rewrite history."
Catholic leaders interviewed by the Los Angeles Times sharply criticized Hier's remarks, warning that they could lead to a worsening of already strained relations between Catholics and Jews.
Church spokesmen were particularly outraged by Hier's charges, first reported in 1983, that Pius, while serving as the papal nuncio in Munich, had given church money to Hitler to fight communism, and later, as pope, had prayed for Nazi Germany's victory after its attack on the Soviet Union.
Eugene Fisher, director of the U.S. Bishops' Secretariat on Catholic-Jewish Relations, denounced the charges as "a selective reading of history" and "patently absurd."
"This is a matter for many, many Catholics of reverence and it deserves, therefore, not hurtful rhetoric, but an approach of objective scholarship," Fisher said. "One has to de-escalate a lot of this language."
Some Jewish leaders also criticized Hier's remarks.
Rabbi Jack Bemporad of New Jersey, a leading figure in Catholic-Jewish dialogue, told the Los Angeles Times that the "Catholic Church is not going to change its attitude through these kinds of attacks."
Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Los Angeles, a leading voice in the Conservative movement, warned of a "general breakdown in Jewish-Catholic relations on the highest level." What is needed now is religious statesmanship on both sides, he added.
The controversy comes at a time when some Catholic leaders feel that the Jewish community has failed to acknowledge far-reaching changes in the church's stance toward Jews.
In February, Cardinal Edward Cassidy, president of the Vatican Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, noted that ties between the two faiths were threatened by a systematic campaign by one large group, reportedly the World Jewish Congress, "to denigrate the Catholic Church."