Pope Francis’ move earlier this year to propose sainthood for Cardinal August Hlond — who, according to historians, refused to publicly condemn Nazi persecution of Jews during the Holocaust — was controversial enough. Jewish groups strongly criticized the Hlond canonization effort at the time.
Now, nearly six months after Poland’s Senate passed a law that made discussions of Poles’ complicity in the Holocaust a criminal offense (it has since been slightly amended) and with surveys showing a surge in anti-Semitism as a result of the bill, the public debate over Hlond has grown even stickier.
“There was no direct relationship [to the new law], but obviously Jewish objections regarding Hlond are picked up by extreme Polish nationalists as additional proof of a conspiracy to besmirch the name of the Polish nation,” Rabbi David Rosen, the AJC’s director of international interreligious affairs, told The Jewish Week in an email interview last week.
James Carroll, a former priest who is a prolific author about religious matters, called the Polish legislation “a revisionist manipulation of the history of the Holocaust” in a New Yorker essay last week. And he asked, “Why would the Church elevate this man [Cardinal Hlond] as a moral exemplar today? … with the reemergence of anti-Semitism in Poland, paired with the Holocaust-distorting government’s populist xenophobia, this renewed Vatican impulse is vastly more troubling.”
Polish Catholics are also taking note of the current atmosphere in the country as the Hlond sainthood effort is being debated.
“Old demons began to wake up: the trust of many thousands of people has been strained and the work of many decades has been tarnished,” Henryk Muszynski, archbishop emeritus of the Archdiocese of Gniezno, said about the new Holocaust law in an interview with the Polish-language Catholic Guide magazine, as reported in JTA.
Proposing Cardinal Hlond, who led the Catholic Church in Poland from 1926 to 1948, as a candidate for sainthood “will be perceived within the Jewish community and beyond as an expression of approval of [his] extremely negative approach towards the Jewish community,” Rabbi Rosen wrote in a letter to Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews.
Rabbi Rosen’s letter was shared with the Vatican Secretariat of State and Congregation for the Causes of Saints, the bodies responsible for the canonization process.
In a 1936 pastoral letter, Cardinal Hlond “condemned Judaism and Jews for rejecting Jesus” and “advocated a virtual boycott of Jewish establishments,” writing that “one should stay away from the harmful moral influence of Jews, keep away from their anti-Christian culture,” according to Rabbi Rosen.
In 1946, the Cardinal refused to meet with Polish Jewish leaders who sought to discuss “the constant circulation of accusations of ritual murder and the consequent danger of mass pogroms” in Poland after the war.
Hlond “probably” reflected the feelings of many Polish Catholics, Rabbi Rosen told The Jewish Week. “We are certainly not saying that Hlond was any worse than most, perhaps the contrary. However, he still harbored an anti-Semitic attitude and thus should not be presented as a paragon of virtue to be emulated.”
A priest who is involved in Cardinal Hlond’s sainthood cause has rejected claims that the cardinal fostered anti-Semitism and refused help for endangered Jews. “These charges are manipulative and untrue,” Fr. Boguslaw Koziol told the Catholic News Service. “There’s no way he can be accused of anti-Semitism.”
Jewish leaders don’t agree. “Hlond is not an acceptable role model for today’s Catholics,” said Michael Schudrich, the Long Island-born chief rabbi of Poland.
Pope Francis probably had not learned about the actions that have drawn Jewish criticism, Rabbi Rosen said. “I hope [the canonization process] will not move any farther.”
For Francis, who enjoys a strong relationship with Jewish leaders, the atmosphere in Poland today likely makes the Hlond decision that much more complicated.