Roman Catholic canonization is always as much about the present as about the past. So why would the Church elevate the Polish Cardinal August Hlond as a moral exemplar today?Photograph by Tony Linck / The LIFE Picture Collection / Getty
In Poland, a revisionist manipulation of the history of the Holocaust is under way, and Pope Francis may be its unwitting ally. A bill sponsored by the governing nationalist Law and Justice Party and signed into law in February bans any discussion of Poland’s co-responsibility for or complicity in the Shoah, but how far can such disavowal go? The Vatican recently advanced the sainthood “cause” of Cardinal August Hlond, the Primate of Poland during the Second World War, and a famous opponent of the Nazis. Indeed, he was the only cardinal to be arrested by the Gestapo, which occurred in 1944, when he was in exile in France. In May, Pope Francis certified Hlond’s “heroic virtues” and declared him “venerable,” an assessment based in part on Hlond’s defense of Jews.
In 1936, Hlond issued a long pastoral letter addressed to the Catholics of Poland. Read by priests from pulpits during Lent, the letter included a short section on “the Jewish problem.” The Cardinal wrote, “So long as Jews remain Jews, a Jewish problem exists and will continue to exist.” But, the letter went on to declare, “It is forbidden to assault, beat up, maim or slander Jews. One should honor and love Jews as human beings and neighbors . . . . Beware of those who are inciting anti-Jewish violence. They are serving a bad cause.”
Given that clear defense of Jewish lives and safety, it may seem surprising that leaders of Jewish organizations are objecting to the Holy See’s glorification of Hlond. But critics, including Polish Catholics, have drawn attention to other lines in that same letter: “It is a fact that Jews are waging war against the Catholic Church, that they are steeped in free thinking, and constitute the vanguard of atheism, the Bolshevik movement, and revolutionary activity.” The letter’s litany of such “facts” goes on, blaming Jews for their “corruptive influence on morals,” “pornography,” “fraud,” “usury,” and “prostitution.” The letter, written three years before the Nazi occupation, encourages Poles to boycott Jewish businesses.
After Pope Francis approved the prelate’s advancement toward sainthood, Rabbi David Rosen, the American Jewish Committee’s international director of interreligious affairs and a widely respected veteran of Jewish-Catholic dialogue, warned that the valorizing would be “an expression of approval of Cardinal Hlond’s extremely negative approach towards the Jewish community.” But the Polish priest in charge of the sainthood cause derided critical focus “on this negative part of the letter,” complaining that critics “are not quoting any other part.”
Giving Hlond a large benefit of the doubt, one could imagine his defenders characterizing his anti-Jewish expressions as typical of the era, integral to certain forms of mainstream Polish nationalism, and therefore forgivable. To the Vatican, clearly, the question is one of balancing the man’s human limitations against his established virtues. Like many Catholics of the time, the Cardinal may have harbored anti-Semitic beliefs, but didn’t he rise above them when Jewish lives and safety were at issue?
Yet a moral arithmetic in which a man’s negatives can be sufficiently cancelled out by positives to make him worthy of sainthood misses the most important calculation, and equals a failure to reckon honestly with history. Hlond’s balance sheet shows that the positives and the negatives required each other: his ambivalence was the point, and it was rooted in the Church’s centuries-old self-contradiction about Jews.
In order to directly face this more complicated meaning of Hlond’s double-edged pronouncement, the Vatican would have to confront the consequences of its own double-edged history, going back a full millennium. After the savage assaults on Jewish communities that accompanied the First Crusade (Crusaders killed thousands of Jews along the Rhine), Pope Calixtus II issued a papal bull, around the year 1120, forbidding Christians ever to attack Jews again. The bull was titled Sicut Judæis (“And Thus to the Jews”). A successive declaration offered “the shield of [the Pope’s] protection,” adding that “no one ought disturb them in any way, with clubs or stones . . . no one ought to dare mutilate or diminish a Jewish cemetery.” Taken by many historians as a stout Catholic defense of Jews, Sicut Judæis was reissued again and again, by something like twenty Popes, across subsequent centuries. That apparently good record, though, points to an obvious corollary: the mandate had to be repeated year in and year out because ordinary Christians were not taking such instruction to heart. Again and again, Jews (and their cemeteries) were attacked. Why?
The answer may be that the same Church leaders who decried anti-Jewish violence consistently promulgated the anti-Jewish doctrines (Jews as the Deicide People) and traditions (Jews as usurers) that prompted the violence. They defended Jews while defaming them. There is a poignancy to Cardinal Hlond’s pastoral letter’s having been issued during Lent, since, across the centuries, the annual zenith of Christian assaults on Jews typically came on the Lenten climax of Good Friday, when fevers attached to the Christ-killer calumny always peaked. This was especially so during the Crusades, when the Latin Church embraced an unprecedented theology of the cross understood as redemptive violence that was itself willed by God. This new centrality of the crucifixion put the “crucifying Jews” at the center of a newly violent Christian imagination.
The prelates may not have understood this moral paradox, but its most grotesque consequence showed up quickly. History’s first-recorded instance of the so-called blood libel occurred in 1144, in England, during Holy Week. Jews were accused of reënacting the crucifixion of Jesus by murdering a Christian boy, William of Norwich, and of using his blood in perverse rituals that mocked the Eucharist. Down through the years, murders and massacres of Jews were carried out in William’s memory. He was revered as a Catholic saint, and the blood libel was repeated countless times: the Jewish Encyclopedia lists more than a hundred instances into the twentieth century.
In 1946, the charge that Jews kidnapped a Christian child to obtain his blood for ritual sacrifice was lodged again, this time in Kielce, Poland, leading a Catholic mob to slaughter forty-two Jews and two Catholic Poles who defended them. Cardinal Hlond attributed the violence to Jews “occupying leading positions” in the postwar Communist government. Rabbi Rosen, in his protest to the Vatican, observed 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.”
There is no reason to doubt Hlond’s sincerity in his condemnations of violence against Jews. His failure to see the connection between that violence and the Church’s anti-Judaism, not to mention his own contempt, does not make him a war criminal, but why would the Church elevate this man as a moral exemplar today? Roman Catholic canonization is always as much about the present as about the past. (Joan of Arc was canonized in 1920, in response to the First World War; Thomas More in 1935, to shore up resistance to tyrants; Queen Jadwiga of Poland in 1997, marking the end of Communism.) Hlond’s sainthood cause was initiated in 1992, during the Solidarity era, when his postwar opposition to the Soviets could be highlighted, and it was a failure of full moral responsibility even then. But today, with the reëmergence of anti-Semitism in Poland, paired with the Holocaust-distorting government’s populist xenophobia, this renewed Vatican impulse is vastly more troubling.