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 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.
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 came as a surprise, without any indication that it was in the works, 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.
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.
Before signing the decree Saturday, Benedict met with members of the Vatican's saint-making office and told them their work was instrumental in giving the faithful models for Christian life.
"Each beatification and canonization is for Christians a strong encouragement to live intensely and enthusiastically Christ's path toward the fullness of Christian existence and the perfection of charity," he said.
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.