Pope Benedict XVI has temporarily blocked the beatification of a French priest and appointed a commission to investigate the priest's anti-Semitic writings, drawing praise from Jewish leaders who called it a sign of the new pope's sensitivity to other religions.
Last December, Pope John Paul II announced plans to beatify Leon Dehon on April 24. The ceremony would have been a major step toward sainthood for Dehon, who lived from 1843 to 1925 and founded the Priests of the Sacred Heart, a religious order that today has nearly 2,400 members around the world.
In February, however, a French historian drew attention to seven controversial texts by Dehon. According to extracts published in the French Catholic newspaper La Croix, Dehon wrote that Jews were "thirsty for Gold" and that "lust for money is a racial instinct in them"; he called the Talmud "a manual for the bandit, the corrupter, the social destroyer"; and he recommended several measures later adopted by the Nazis, including that Jews wear special markings, live in ghettos and be excluded from land ownership, judgeships and teaching positions.
It is not known if John Paul, who was gravely ill in the final weeks of his life, was reconsidering his decision. But after his death on April 2, the beatification ceremony was automatically postponed pending the election of a new pope.
Once Benedict was named on April 19, he faced the dilemma of whether to carry out his predecessor's decision or heed the growing protests. France's government warned that it would not send a representative to the beatification, and the French bishops' conference urged the Vatican to act with caution, according to French newspaper reports.
Benedict's decision to put off a beatification after it had been formally approved by the Vatican's Congregation for the Causes of Saints was "extremely unusual," said Kenneth L. Woodward, author of the book "Making Saints."
"I don't recall any last-minute hitch like this in modern times," he said. "Remember, to get this far, they have declared him heroically virtuous and they've had a miracle of intercession attributed to him, so all the necessary blocks are in place."
Catholic News Service, which first reported Benedict's decision this week, said the pope had asked for a thorough reexamination of Dehon's writings by four cardinals: Jose Saraiva Martins, head of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints; Georges Cottier, the papal theologian; Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture; and Roger Etchegaray, who is French. Their first meeting is scheduled for June 24.
Mary Gorski, spokeswoman for the U.S. province of the Priests of the Sacred Heart, headquartered in Hales Corners, Wis., said the religious order was "cooperating with the commission" and would have no comment on its founder's writings. The order's general superior, or head, the Rev. Jose Ornelas Carvalho, who is based in Rome and is now visiting the United States, declined an interview request. There was no immediate comment from the Vatican.
On June 9, Benedict held his first meeting with Jewish leaders since his election and assured them in a two-hour audience at the Vatican that he would fight anti-Semitism and continue John Paul's efforts to improve Catholic-Jewish relations. Two American participants said yesterday that the issue of Dehon's beatification did not come up at the meeting.
Rabbi Gary Bretton-Granatoor, director of interfaith affairs for the Anti-Defamation League, called the pope's decision "a wonderful piece of news" that was "highly consistent with the Cardinal Ratzinger we knew and the Pope Benedict we're getting to know." Joseph Ratzinger was Benedict's name until his election as pope.
Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, an association of Conservative rabbis, said it was "an early test of Benedict's sensitivity" to other faiths. "I want to give the Vatican credit for taking the time to look into something again," he said.
In recent years, Jewish groups have questioned the church's beatification of Pius XII, the pope during World War II, and Anne Catherine Emmerich, a nun whose mystical visions provided material for Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion of the Christ," and its canonization of the nun Edith Stein, a convert from Judaism.
The possibility of making Dehon a saint has been under consideration by the church for decades. The process began formally in 1939. The church declared his virtues in 1983, and John Paul gave him the title "venerable" in 1997 after the church ruled that an electrician in Brazil had been miraculously cured of an illness in 1954 after prayers were directed to him.
La Croix, the French newspaper, said Dehon's anti-Semitic writings had "slipped through the cracks" of the Vatican's previous investigation. Catholic News Service said supporters of his beatification argue that "anti-Semitism was widespread in Europe at the time of the writings in the late 19th century and maintain that the priest's comments were mild in comparison with many other Catholic leaders."
Special correspondent Sarah Delaney in Rome contributed to this report.