VATICAN CITY (Reuters) - Pope Pius XII, accused by critics of turning a blind eye to the death of Jews during World War Two, has moved a step closer to sainthood nearly five decades after his death, a Vatican source said on Wednesday.
The Vatican's saint-making Congregation has voted in favour of a decree recognising Pius' "heroic virtues", a major hurdle in a long process toward sainthood begun in 1967, he said.
If German-born Pope Benedict approves the decree, as expected, Pius would be officially given the title "venerable". The Vatican would then move towards beatification by looking for miracles performed by the late Pope.
The pontificate of Pius has been one of the trickiest problems in post-war Catholic-Jewish relations.
Jewish groups have accused Pius of being indifferent to the Holocaust and diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel were briefly tested last month over a depiction of him at a state Holocaust memorial in Israel.
A caption under a photo of Pius XII said he "abstained from signing the Allied declaration condemning the extermination of Jews" and "maintained his neutral position throughout the war".
The Vatican's envoy to Israel threatened to boycott a Holocaust memorial ceremony over the caption, but ultimately agreed to attend.
Before being elected Pope in 1939, Pius XII was Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli. He served as the Vatican's ambassador to Germany in 1917-29 and was Vatican secretary of state in 1930-39. He died in 1958.
The Vatican maintains that Pius did not speak out more forcefully because he was afraid of worsening the fate of Catholics and Jews and worked behind the scenes to save Jews.
Pope Benedict flagged the Holocaust as an important issue to his papacy by praying at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz last year. Calling himself "a son of Germany", he asked why God was silent when 1.5 million victims, mostly Jews, died.
As a youth during the war, Joseph Ratzinger -- as Benedict was called before being elected Pontiff -- was forced to join the Hitler Youth movement briefly. But he never joined the Nazi party and his family opposed Hitler's rule, biographers say.
Jewish groups have pressed the Vatican for years to either freeze the sainthood process of Pius XII or shelve it altogether for fears that it would worsen Catholic-Jewish relations.
Sainthood can sometimes take hundreds of years, although Pius' case is hardly speeding along -- especially compared to the breakneck pace of the cause of Pope John Paul II, Benedict's predecessor who died in 2005.
Benedict put the case on a fast-track and promoters of John Paul's sainthood offered proof last month of a purported miracle needed for beatification, the last step before sainthood.
John Paul strongly defended Pius and once called him "a great pope".