WARSAW, Poland – Pope Francis' decision to move the World War II-era head of Poland's Catholic Church a step closer to possible sainthood has hit a stumbling block, after two leading Jewish organizations and even Polish Catholic publications called him out for anti-Semitic views.
It's not clear if the protests will derail the sainthood cause of Cardinal August Hlond, but in the past the Vatican has taken such protests seriously and at the very least put the cases up for closer review.
In May, Francis approved a decree recognizing Hlond's "heroic virtues." Now the Vatican must confirm a miracle attributed to Hlond's intercession for him to be beatified, and a second one for him to be made a saint.
Hlond, born July 5, 1881, was the highest-ranking church official in Poland from 1926 to his death in 1948. He is highly respected in this overwhelmingly Catholic country for having rejected Nazi Germany's proposals for a collaborative government, and for protecting the church's independence during the first years of communism.
In its protest, the American Jewish Committee pointed to a passage in a 1936 pastoral letter by Hlond, who was Poland's primate then, that showed his attitude toward Jews and echoed the general line of the Catholic Church of the time.
The group also criticized Hlond's failure to condemn the killings of at least 40 Jews in Poland in 1946 by a mob and secret security. It argued that moving forward with the canonization process will be seen as an "expression of approval of Cardinal Hlond's extremely negative approach toward the Jewish community."
"It's very difficult to see how you can still claim that the man was a paragon (of saintliness) when the data is so explicit," AJC's director of interreligious affairs, Rabbi David Rosen, told The Associated Press.
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Nazi-hunting body, said making Hlond a saint would "further embolden" Poland's right-wing government in its "headlong efforts to selectively rewrite Polish activities from that tragic era."
The disputed passage in Hlond's letter reads: "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."
It has frequently been cited as evidence of the Catholic Church's institutional anti-Semitism prior to the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
But Hlond also wrote that there are many "ethically outstanding, noble and respectable" Jews, and that all Jews should be "respected and loved as persons and as neighbors."
In what appeared to be a condemnation of German Nazi laws, the letter warned against "imported from abroad" anti-Semitism that's "incompatible with Catholic ethics."
"It is not allowed to attack Jews, beat them, injure them or slander them," Hlond said in the letter, which priests read out in churches at Lent in 1936.
He said it was "good" to support Polish businesses and avoid Jewish ones, but it was "forbidden" to "ravage Jewish shops, destroy the goods of the Jews, break windows, throw firecrackers at their homes."
Rosen, who has decades of experience in Catholic-Jewish relations, said the process of making Hlond a saint should be halted.
But the Polish priest promoting Hlond's case before the Vatican's Congregations for the Causes of Saints said the criticism is "unfounded" because Hlond's words had been taken out of context. Mgr. Boguslaw Koziol has discussed all the documents with Vatican experts, and insists Hlond preached love regardless of nation or religion.
Koziol believes that the whole passage — titled "From our Sins" — was progressive for its time and aimed to protect Jews from violence. But he admits it also included questionable ideas.
Hlond's critics "have focused on this negative part of the letter, but are not quoting any other part," he told the AP.
Catholic weekly Tygodnik Powszechny argued that the letter failed to protect Jews from the attacks of Polish nationalists.
It said Hlond didn't "suggest any way out of the 'Jewish problem,' or any good plan for a dignified and peaceful coexistence in one country. One could protest: these were not yet the times of dialogue. But one may also reply: shouldn't we expect candidates for sainthood to be larger than the routine thinking of their times?"
Referring to the July 4, 1946 pogrom in the town of Kielce — where a mob and secret security forces killed at least 40 Jews and two Poles who were defending them — Rosen said that Hlond "did not condemn the pogrom nor urge Poles to stop murdering Jews. Rather, he pointed out that the Jews were all communists or supporters of communism and that the pogrom was their own fault."
Koziol, however, blames Poland's post-war communist rule for Hlond's reticence. Any direct condemnation would have meant a confrontation with the regime and repercussions for the church.
In 2005, the Vatican shelved the planned beatification of French priest the Rev. Leon Dehon and launched an inquiry after complaints about his anti-Semitic views.