Prominent Jewish groups are condemning Pope Francis’ decision to push Poland’s top Roman Catholic priest during and after World War II further along the road to sainthood, claiming the would-be saint’s legacy is tainted by anti-Semitic views.
Pope Francis confirmed the “heroic virtues” of Cardinal August Hlond in late May, which means that he put a stamp of approval on a Vatican body’s initial review of the priest’s candidacy for sainthood. The Vatican now needs to confirm Hlond’s involvement in two miracles before the priest, who died in 1948, can become a saint.
But two leading U.S.-based Jewish organizations, the American Jewish Committee and the Simon Wiesenthal Center, have already stepped in to question Hlond’s attitude toward Polish Jews.
Rabbi David Rosen, the AJC’s director of interreligious affairs, criticized Hlond in a letter to the pontifical commission tasked with maintaining good relations with Jews.
Moving forward with the canonization process “will be perceived within the Jewish community and beyond as an expression of approval of Cardinal Hlond’s extremely negative approach towards the Jewish community,” Rosen wrote in the letter.
Hlond, who led the Roman Catholic Church in Poland between 1926 and his death, is revered in the country for opposing Nazi Germany’s occupation of the country and attempting to maintain the Catholic Church’s independence when communism took root after the war, The Associated Press reports.
But Jewish groups believe Hlond’s legacy is tainted by his anti-Semitic views. In a 1936 pastoral letter sent to Polish churches, Hlond warned his flock to stay away from the “harmful moral influence of Jews” and to avoid Jewish shops and publications.
“It is a fact that the Jews are fighting against the Catholic Church, persisting in free thinking, and are the vanguard of godlessness, Bolshevism and subversion,” Hlond wrote in the letter, according to a translation provided by AP.
Hlond wrote in the letter that “not all Jews” exhibited those qualities, and there were many “ethically outstanding, noble and respectable” Jews. He also urged Poles not to attack Jews or their property. Still, the priest ultimately criticized Jews for rejecting Jesus, Rosen wrote.
Philip Cunningham, director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations at Saint Joseph’s University, told HuffPost that Hlond’s views reflected the nearly universal attitude of Christians of that era. It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council in 1965 that the Catholic Church officially denounced anti-Semitism.
Hlond was outspoken in his public condemnation of the Nazis’ attacks on Catholic priests, property and people in Poland, Cunningham said. However, he said the priest “spoke ambivalently” about the Nazis’ racist ideology.
“He seems to have denounced the Nazi persecution of Jews while simultaneously speaking of Jews as alienated from God and enemies of the church,” Cunningham explained in an email.
In addition, the AJC said Hlond failed to publicly speak out against anti-Jewish violence in Poland after World War II. During a press conference after a 1946 pogrom in Kielce that left at least 40 Jews dead, Hlond refused to condemn the attack or urge Poles to stop murdering Jews, Rosen wrote.
“Rather, he pointed out that the Jews were all communists or supporters of communism and that the pogrom was their own fault,” Rosen wrote.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center urged Pope Francis to put an end to Hlond’s candidacy for sainthood.
“Jews do not usually speak out about a candidate for Sainthood, but such a move by Pope Francis to elevate a lifelong anti-Semite to Sainthood would be shameful,” the center’s leaders said in a statement.
The center also warned that canonizing Hlond would further embolden far-right, nationalist movements in Poland. Polish lawmakers sparked international criticism in February for passing a law, backed by the right-wing Law and Justice party, that made it a crime to suggest Poland was complicit in the Holocaust. In June, the country’s parliament tweaked the law to ensure that violators would not be imprisoned.
Before World War II, Poland was home to Europe’s largest Jewish population. About 90 percent of Polish Jews ― more than 3 million people ― were murdered during the Holocaust.
Despite the criticism, Hlond is still a well-respected figure in Poland, which is still an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Archbishop Wojciech Polak of Gniezno, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Poland, tweeted that he hoped Hlond would be “beatified and canonized as soon as possible.”
The Polish Bishops’ Conference insisted in a tweet Thursday that Hlond had saved many Polish, German and French Jews from deportation to death camps ― and had condemned the Kielce pogrom during a conversation with a Jewish professor in 1946.
The Rev. Boguslaw Koziol, a priest who has been campaigning for Hlond’s sainthood, rejects claims that Hlond was anti-Semitic. He told AP that Hlond’s 1936 letter was progressive for its time. Although it contained questionable elements by today’s standards, the letter’s overarching aim was to protect Jews, he said.
Critics “have focused on this negative part of the letter, but are not quoting any other part,” Koziol told AP.
In addition, Koziol said that Hlond was restricted from speaking up about the Kielce pogrom after the war because of Poland’s communist-controlled media.
Koziol told the Catholic News Service that Hlond’s canonization process could face delays if the Vatican seeks further clarifications about this issue.
When a canonization has the potential to generate divisiveness and hostility, the Vatican usually chooses not to move the process further, Cunningham said.
In 2005, Pope Benedict XVI suspended the beatification of French priest Leon Dehon after receiving complaints about his anti-Semitic writings.
Cunningham said he believes the current discussions about Hlond actually illustrate the vitality of modern-day Jewish-Catholic relations.
“It is strong and resilient enough to enable and to cope with controversial and painful topics that probably by their very nature cannot be fully resolved to everyone’s satisfaction,” he said.