Blind Spots

'Were the Popes Against the Jews?'

In his latest work, the scholar, translator, and editor Justus George Lawler poses the question in his title and answers it with a qualified yes, acknowledging that the popes were indeed against the Jews, specifically because of their alleged repudiation of Christ. “Their entire tradition,” writes Lawler, “was built on the belief that Judaism prepared the way for Jesus and his message, both of which the Jews had rejected.” This theological opposition, however, does not make the popes villains, Lawler insists, and does not justify the vilification heaped on them by authors who portray the Vatican as “disdainful, contemptuous, and vengeful toward Jews and their beliefs”—and who have been doing so ever since Rolf Hochhuth’s controversial 1963 drama Der Stellvertreter (The Deputy), which condemned Pius XII for a personal antipathy toward the Jews and apathy in the face of the Holocaust.

Refocusing the argument of his 2002 book Popes and Politics: Reform, Resentment, and the Holocaust, in which he defended the Vatican against such authors as James Carroll and John Cornwell, Lawler levels his attack this time against Brown University anthropologist David I. Kertzer and his bestselling 2001 book The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism. Lawler directs his fire against not only Kertzer, but also those scholars—such as Kevin Madigan of Harvard Divinity School and John Pawlikowski of Chicago Theological Union—who dared to review Kertzer positively. The result, sadly, is a tedious, polemical, and often angry work.

At the heart of Lawler’s disagreement with Kertzer is his rejection of the essential link between the theological anti-Semitism of Christian Scripture and tradition on the one hand and, on the other, modern racial anti-Semitism, which ultimately led to the Holocaust. Succinctly, Lawler sums up Kertzer’s argument by stating: “No papacy, no six million,” though he is careful to point out that Kertzer never actually spells out this equation so boldly. Lawler concurs instead with the official Vatican interpretation of the Shoah, restated most recently by Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, who asserted last fall, in an address to the Council of Centers on Jewish-Christian Relations, that “the Shoah cannot and should not however be attributed to Christianity as such: it was in fact led by a godless, anti-Christian, and neopagan ideology.”

Lawler concedes that it is wrong to imply that “this distinction is exculpatory, since it is undeniable that Christian ‘anti-Judaism,’ while not a cause of modern racist anti-Semitism as such, certainly prepared for and sustained the forces of hatred that the latter unleashed.” Yet the vehemence of Lawler’s arguments in these pages shows that he does in fact want to exculpate the Vatican. He stoutly rejects Kertzer’s portrait of a church busily perpetuating anti-Semitism over the past two centuries. He challenges Kertzer’s charge that the articles in La Civiltá Cattolica, an Italian Jesuit journal founded in 1850, directly represented the views of the papacy, particularly in several late nineteenth-century articles containing anti-Semitic statements. Lawler argues that even if officials of the Holy See did review the journal’s articles, such a job would have been relegated to lower-ranking subordinates. Kertzer disagrees with this interpretation—and is supported by none other than the late Pope John Paul II, who, in an April 22, 1999, address to the editorial staff of La Civiltà Cattolica, reviewed the history of the journal and its mission (quoting Pope Pius IX, who established it in 1866) “to defend ‘the Catholic religion, its doctrine, and its rights with every effort and unceasingly.’” Speaking to the staff, John Paul II said that “the work accomplished by the journal continued to be appreciated and acknowledged by the Roman Pontiffs” down the decades, and called it “an institution [that] has always been placed at the service of the pope and the Apostolic See.” Lawler might argue that the way the Vatican operates is a good deal more complicated than this papal boilerplate might suggest. Historically, however, La Civiltà Cattolica has been regarded as the pope’s pulpit, and responsibility for what appears in its pages ultimately rests with the man who sits in Peter’s chair.

Kertzer’s lengthy quotation of John Paul II would seem to belie Lawler’s complaint that Kertzer seldom quotes directly from statements of the papacy. Indeed, whenever Lawler attempts to take on the role of a historian, he fails miserably, committing outright misrepresentations of Kertzer’s research. Take, for instance, his attack on Kertzer’s treatment of the final European ritual murder trial, in Czarist Ukraine in 1913. Lawler accuses Kertzer of vilifying Merry del Val, the Holy See’s secretary of state, by blaming him for withholding essential evidence that might have exonerated Mendel Beilis, a thirty-nine-year-old Russian Jew, when—according to Lawler—it was actually a Russian official who effectively thwarted the introduction of new evidence. Yet a quick glance at The Popes Against the Jews reveals that Kertzer does not vilify del Val, but in fact gives him the benefit of the doubt, highlighting the problematic role of Russian officials in what was clearly a complex situation.

I lack space to delve into Lawler’s many other unconvincing critical readings of cases; the flaws in this work are too numerous to detail in one review. Lawler accuses Kertzer of over-relying on the scholarship of Giovanni Miccoli, a noted Italian church historian, claiming that Miccoli is “the source of almost every archival discovery or novel position in The Popes Against the Jews.” While it is true that Kertzer has cited Miccoli’s work, Lawler’s serious charge appears groundless when one reviews Kertzer’s citations.

Lawler ignores a lot. Throughout, his citations reflect a near-total unfamiliarity with current scholarly literature. He wastes a lot of time showing how Kertzer has influenced popular authors, such as Garry Wills, whose works hardly constitute serious scholarship in this field. He shows no evidence meanwhile of having read recent important works by Hubert Wolf (Pope and Devil: The Vatican’s Archives and the Third Reich) and Emma Fattorini (Hitler, Mussolini, and the Vatican: Pope Pius XI and the Speech That Was Never Made), both of which vindicate Kertzer’s interpretation many times over. Perhaps the saddest chapter is Lawler’s final one, in which he cites the research of William Doino, a popular Catholic journalist, concerning a German Jewish refugee, Heinz Wisla, who received assistance from and obtained an audience with Pius XII in 1941. While the story of the pope’s solicitousness toward Wisla is indeed moving, its significance pales in comparison to the history of modern Catholic anti-Semitism that Kertzer documents and the many broader opportunities for Jewish rescue passed up by the Vatican during the Holocaust.

In the end, the problems with Were the Popes Against the Jews? amount to more than just faulty scholarship. At stake is something larger and more serious. From the turn of the twentieth century through the 1950s it was common to find Catholic commentary, both written and spoken, permitting assaults on “Jewish secularism” in defense of faith and society, while frowning on and condemning attacks against Jewish citizens based on racial anti-Semitism. Such advice, however, was rarely sustained without some form of injury and violence against Jews. Yet Lawler appears to approve of such distinctions—as when he defends Pius XI’s anti-Jewish actions while serving first as apostolic visitor and then nuncio to Poland from 1918 to 1921.

Lawler’s work is the unfortunate product of an author who, determined to rebuff what he considers to be unfair and historically anachronistic attacks on the church, simply refuses to recognize the depth of complicity of the Catholic Church in the propagation of European anti-Semitism in all its malignant and annihilative forms. He is not alone; many in the ranks of those who write on this fraught topic share his refusal. Many, but by no means all. In 2010, David Kertzer brought an impressive array of scholars to Brown University to examine the legacy of the modern papacy in Europe. At this gathering, which I attended, it became clear that a new school of Vatican diplomatic history was surfacing, one guided by the resourceful and meticulous archival work of such younger scholars as Giuliana Chamedes of Columbia University, Charles Gallagher of Boston College, and Robert Ventresca of Canada’s University of Western Ontario. Perhaps Justus George Lawler should follow their lead and visit an archive or two before he ventures to write again about this subject.

Related: The Audience: What Was Pius XII's Opinion of the Jews? by Justus George Lawler

Published in the 2012-05-18 issue: 

Kevin P. Spicer, CSC, is the James J. Kenneally Professor of History at Stonehill College.

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