VATICAN CITY - In a highly unusual move, Pope Benedict XVI has suspended the planned beatification of a French priest while the Vatican investigates allegations of anti-Semitism in his writings.
The case of the Rev. Leon Dehon, who founded the priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus religious order in 1877, is even more remarkable because he likely would have been beatified had Pope John Paul II lived a few weeks longer.
The ceremony to beatify Dehon, the last step before possible sainthood, was scheduled for April 24. John Paul died on April 2 and Benedict was installed as pope April 24, forcing the beatification ceremony to be put off.
But rather than rescheduling the ceremony for Dehon, Benedict decided to form a commission to study his case, effectively putting it on hold, after French bishops complained about anti-Semitism in his writings, church officials said.
The decision is yet another indication that the German-born Benedict, who served in the Hitler Youth, is intent on not offending the Jews. In his two months in office, he has gone out of his way to reach out to Jews, personally inviting Rome's chief rabbi to his installation ceremony and scheduling a visit this August to the synagogue in Cologne, Germany.
The French Catholic newspaper La Croix reported that historian Jean-Dominique Durand had alerted French bishops in February to the fact that some of Dehon's writings were anti-Semitic.
In his 1898 "Social Catechism," for example, Dehon wrote that Jews "have maintained their hatred of Christ and as a result have been inclined to fight the actions of the church everywhere. They willingly favor all the enemies of the Church," he wrote, according to a copy of the text provided to The Associated Press by the French bishops' conference.
In a telephone interview in France on Friday, Durand said the case unraveled almost by chance, since he merely had mentioned to a bishop that the church may have "problems" with the planned beatification.
"Then the bishops reacted very quickly. They understood that it wasn't a good thing," said Durand, a professor of contemporary religious history at Lyon III University who served as a cultural adviser for the French Embassy to the Holy See from 1998-2002.
"When you beatify Mother Theresa, that means the Church wants to tell Christians, Mother Theresa is an example," he said. "The risk of beatifying Rev. Dehon is telling Catholics, anti-Semitism isn't serious."
He said the stopping of a beatification procedure was remarkable. "Once a beatification is decided upon, it goes through to the end," he said. "This is totally unusual."
La Croix newspaper said Dehon had written that the Talmud was the "manual of the bandit, corruptor, social destroyer." It quoted him as writing that anti-Semitism was a "sign of hope."
Dehon lived from 1843-1925 - a time when anti-Semitism was rampant in much of western Europe. According to his biography, which remains on the Vatican Web site, he was ordained a priest in 1868 and founded the priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in 1877 after visiting the Italian shrine of Loreto.
Monsignor Yves Gouyou, ecclesiastic counselor at the French Embassy to the Holy See, said the Vatican commission was formed to look into allegations of anti-Semitism in Dehon's writings, but also to consider them in the context of the time in which they were written.
"It must look with the distance of time," Gouyou said in a telephone interview.
Dehon's beatification cause began well before the 1963-65 Second Vatican Council, which revolutionized the Roman Catholic Church's relations with Jews. The council document "Nostra Aetate," or "In Our Time," rejected the notion that Jews were collectively responsible for the death of Christ and rejected anti-Semitism.
One of the key steps in Dehon's beatification cause came in 1960, before the church's repudiation of anti-Semitism. In that year, Vatican theologians issued a decree approving of Dehon's writings. A second decree approving of his writings was issued in 1971, after the council.
Tullia Zevi, a longtime Italian Jewish leader, praised the Vatican's decision to suspend Dehon's beatification process, saying it was a "sign of the attention the ecclesiastic hierarchy" gives to such delicate issues. She said Dehon's writings were "cliches, the milestones of the most classic anti-Semitism that is based on the demonization of the Jew."
The commission studying the cause is headed by four top cardinals: Cardinal Jose Saraiva Martins, prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints; French Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture; Swiss Cardinal Georges Cottier, the late pope's personal theologian; and French Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, Martins said.
They are to meet for the first time on June 24; the final decision on whether to proceed with the cause lies with Benedict.