Pope Benedict XVI stunned many observers just before Christmas by advancing the sainthood cause of his predecessor, the wartime pontiff Pius XII (see story, Page 5).

For decades, Pope Pius has come under fire by critics — including many Jewish groups and later, some Catholics — who say he failed to speak out loudly enough against Adolf Hitler or do enough to save Europe’s Jews from Nazi concentration camps.

Pope Benedict appeared to take those charges seriously, even as he defended his predecessor’s record. Two years ago he shelved the recommendation of a Vatican committee that Pope Pius’ sainthood cause move forward. He commissioned a Vatican historian to pore over the Holy See’s wartime records for any hint that Pope Pius acted in a way inconsonant for a Christian. He ordered the Vatican’s wartime records be catalogued and organized so they can be opened to the world’s historians (a process the Vatican spokesman recently said will take another several years to complete).

These may all have been prudent steps, but they were also a signal of respect for the sensitivities of Pius’ modern-day critics. Pope Benedict has no desire to hinder or set back relations with the Jewish people, with whom the Catholic Church has made major advances in recent decades. Pope John Paul II epitomized the warming ties, with his lifelong relationship with a boyhood Jewish friend, his unprecedented visit to Rome’s synagogue and his drafting of a document on the Holocaust.

Pope Benedict has continued to build the relationship. He’s visited concentration camps, Israel and Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum. Later this month he is scheduled to become the second pontiff to visit Rome’s synagogue, which is laden with significance not only because of the Nazi deportation of thousands of Jews from Rome’s ghetto but also because of the awful treatment of Rome’s Jews by some pontiffs in centuries past.

Despite these efforts, however, the case of Pope Pius XII has become in many ways a persistent symbol of all the Catholic Church has done wrong to the Jews in the past. Critiques of his wartime record at best imply that he was a weak man; a few have even suggested that he was anti-Semitic.

With his latest decision, Pope Benedict seems determined to turn a page on this debate. There is no longer any mistaking the Church’s definitive defense of Pope Pius as a Christian doing his best and, in fact, largely succeeding at it.

By declaring Pius a man worthy of consideration for possible canonization, Pope Benedict advances the debate beyond the scrum of name-calling and insinuations, and leaves to (more or less) dispassionate historians to weigh whether the pontiff made errors of judgment in Nazi-occupied Rome.

Once the full record is detailed, it may very well turn out that Pope Pius should or could have done things differently. After all, saints can fail as spectacularly as anybody else.

But Pope Benedict’s decision may also have the welcome effect of restoring some balance and fairness to the assessment of Pius. After all, Pius was widely praised by his Jewish contemporaries; the chief rabbi of Rome even converted after the war largely because of the pontiff’s example. And The New York Times editorialized in 1941 that Pope Pius “is a lonely voice in the silence and darkness enveloping Europe.”

The debate about the role of Catholics and Catholic leaders in resisting the Nazi nightmare will continue, but Pope Benedict is clearly of the belief that the debate about the role of Pius XII should be drawing to a close.