The Popes against the Jews

Two different though related books coexist uneasily within the covers of this volume by a Brown University historian, author of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (1997). The first is a compelling work of scholarship, based largely on David Kertzer’s extensive research in the Vatican’s own archives, documenting the church’s policy toward the Jews in the territories where it held temporal power, and especially in Rome, during the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century. In this treatment, the material is presented dispassionately, without editorial comment, allowed to speak for itself. The dismal picture that emerges is indeed depressing, and sometimes infuriating.

Kertzer maintains that with the restoration of the Papal States in 1814 following the defeat of Napoleon’s armies, there was an opportunity for a new policy in the exercise of papal power toward the Jews. But Pope Pius VII rejected the appeal of the Austrian government and the advice of his own secretary of state, following instead the conservative majority of the curia and reinstituting the worst aspects of the earlier status of Jews in the papal domain.

These included restoring the mandatory ghettos, particularly oppressive in Rome, where the overcrowded, squalid conditions seemed appalling even to a Vatican commission instructed to investigate. Also restored were the requirements of attendance at conversionary sermons and acts of ritual degradation associated with the Christian Carnival. No schools teaching nonreligious subjects were permitted in the ghetto, and Jewish children were forbidden to attend schools outside its walls, or to engage in professions or skilled occupations. Unlike their medieval predecessors, the nineteenth-century popes declined to issue public repudiations of charges of "ritual murder" by Jews, most notably in the notorious Damascus affair of 1840. The most influential pope of the century, Pius IX, alarmed by the revolutions of 1848, became an inveterate opponent of all modern movements and ideas and, in Kertzer’s words, "helped to give the charge of Jewish ritual murder new respectability" by affirming the status of the cult of a "martyred" child and endorsing a French book that defended the blood libel.

Especially oppressive was the Vatican’s policy regarding conversion. When it was reported that a Christian midwife secretly baptized a Jewish infant who died a few days later, the body was exhumed from the Jewish cemetery and buried beside the local church. If a Jew expressed a desire to convert, police were sent into the ghetto to bring the other members of his nuclear family to the House of Catechumens against their will, so that the man would not be deprived of his natural right to cohabit with his wife.

Kertzer’s claim here, which seems to me to be largely unassailable, is that with occasional minor variations, the Vatican opposed any tendency to ameliorate the legal and social status of the Jews living under its control. The idea that Jews should be entitled to equal rights alongside Christians remained anathema to the church’s leadership. In this respect, it was following the medieval tradition, when popes vigorously complained to political rulers who permitted Jews to flourish to the point where their status of subjugation was no longer obvious. But the medieval popes also spoke out forcefully against overt oppression and were viewed by many Jews as their protectors. This aspect of the traditional policy was largely abandoned in the period under review.

The second component of the book is quite different. Polemic in character (as can be seen in the title), it marshals evidence and arguments for the claim that the church played an integral role in the emergence and spread of modern anti-Semitism during the last decades of the nineteenth century. This polemic was occasioned by the 1998 Vatican statement, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," which distinguished between the old theological "anti-Judaism" and a new, nineteenth-century form of anti-Jewish animus, based on sociological and political rather than religious claims, and defining the Jew in racial terms, a view from which the statement dissociated the church. Kertzer sets out to dismantle, indeed to demolish, this dissociation.

His thesis is that the church perceived the Jews first as the great beneficiaries of the loss of temporal power in the papal states, and then as the agents responsible for this catastrophe. "No longer the frightened denizens of ghettos, Jews, in the eyes of leading churchmen, had now rapidly become insolent and evil masterminds plotting the destruction of the church and all that was holy." As Jewish emancipation produced reactionary movements of malcontents who blamed the Jews for the social and economic dislocations of change, the church found a natural ally in those who wanted to turn the clock back and restore a more traditional ordering of society.

To be sure, the Vatican regularly denied fomenting anti-Semitism, and took care to distance itself from its more vulgar and violent expressions. But it did this by consistently differentiating between "good" and "bad" anti-Semitism, insisting on the right of peoples to defend their national and religious traditions against the threat posed by increasingly dominant "outsiders" sucking the lifeblood of the Christian nations. In this way, "the Vatican began to use anti-Semitism to build mass political support for the church."

Is this case made successfully? Only in part. It is based primarily on material once widely disseminated in Catholic periodicals, especially the prestigious Jesuit biweekly Civiltà Cattolica and the Vatican’s official daily newspaper, l’Osservatore Romano. The material cited at length from these journals, from 1880 to the end of the 1920s, is indeed devastating. Many of these passages-about the perversely dangerous character of Jews and their Talmud-based religion-are indistinguishable from the rhetoric of the leaders of the new anti-Semitic movement. In addition, by reviewing local conditions in France, Austria, and Poland, Kertzer shows that churchmen at various levels were closely associated with local and national anti-Semitic movements. After this book it will be considerably more difficult to defend the sharp demarcation between the church and modern anti-Semitism that the "We Remember" statement maintains.

et Kertzer weakens his book by overstating his case. The thirty-six "fiercely anti-Semitic articles" published by Civiltà Cattolica between late 1880 and early 1884 did indeed coincide with the crystallization of an anti-Semitic movement in Europe. But the assertion that Civiltà Cattolica’s anti-Jewish campaign, coming when it did, "proved crucial to the rise of modern anti-Semitism" goes beyond what the evidence supports. Germany had a significant Catholic minority, yet German anti-Semitism was largely a Protestant phenomenon; there is no evidence that Catholics supported the new movement more than Protestants, despite the Jesuit journal’s campaign.

The short chapter titled "Race" is particularly problematic. Its polemical character is obvious from the first sentence: "Efforts to deny Catholic Church involvement in the rise of modern anti-Semitism have made much of the presumed lack of a racial element in whatever hostility the church had directed against the Jews in the past." Kertzer claims that the church was indeed involved in the development of racial thinking about the Jews, pointing to the "purity of blood" legislation, first promulgated in Spanish secular circles and opposed by the church, but eventually applied to positions in the Spanish church and in the Jesuit order.

But this was an anomaly with no discernible influence in the nineteenth century. Recent scholarship on modern racist thought shows how it developed from various sources totally independent of the Spanish legislation. Kertzer claims that the Spanish doctrine "helped prepare Catholics in the late nineteenth century...for further developments in racial thinking," and that the Jesuit rule against members of Jewish ancestry was "often cited by both the Nazis and the Italian Fascists" in justification of their own racial policies, but no evidence is provided for either assertion. Furthermore, Kertzer himself provides many examples of the church’s explicit repudiation of the racist element in modern anti-Semitism as a violation of its own teachings. The entire chapter reminds one of the note written by a preacher in the margin of his sermon typescript: "Weak argument, shout like hell!"

Not content to show the links between the church and modern anti-Semitism, Kertzer insists upon continuity with the Holocaust, a connection that both raises the stakes in the arena of public discourse and introduces major problems of historical argumentation. The claims of continuity are made without argumentation or evidence, in nebulous or metaphorical formulations that can neither be proved nor refuted. Thus, "the teachings and actions of the church, including those of the popes themselves, helped make it [the extermination of the Jews] possible." Or, "the physical elimination of the Jews of Europe came at the end of a long road...that the Catholic Church did a great deal to help build."

Missing is any indication of how Kertzer understands historical causality. Many things "helped make [the Holocaust] possible," including World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, a world-wide depression, the charismatic personality and rhetorical power of Hitler, the invention of the machine gun and the technology of gas chambers and crematoria, the steam engine for railroad transportation and IBM cards for keeping efficient records, American isolationism, sophisticated techniques of indoctrination and propaganda. How does one rank the importance of such factors, in comparison with the teachings of the church? Is Kertzer’s claim really that the Nazis would never have risen to power in Germany, and never been able to put their genocidal program into effect, without the material in his book-No Civiltà Cattolica, no Holocaust? Or just that it would have been more difficult? Without a clear test for the importance of the contribution claimed for the church and its leaders, these assertions become little more than innuendo.

The Holocaust frequently overshadows the material presented. Kertzer cites a statement about Jews published by l’Osservatore Romano in 1892: "The people’s ire [against the Jews’ "rapacious tyranny"], although at the moment somewhat dampened by sentiments of Christian charity and by the tender influence of the Catholic clergy, may at any moment erupt like a volcano and strike like a thunderbolt." This suggestion that lethal outbursts of anti-Jewish violence are caused by Jewish behavior is shocking enough in its own context. But Kertzer continues, "It was a warning that, read in the light of what would happen in Europe a half-century later, is chilling"-as if the death camps of 1942 were an eruption of "the people’s ire" rather than instruments of mass murder efficiently orchestrated by a modern bureaucratic state. The final section of the book is titled "On the Eve of the Holocaust," the last chapter, "Antechamber to the Holocaust." Such evaluation of events in light of what would happen in the future is a fallacy that most historians warn their undergraduate students against.

Were it not for the polemical undercurrent, the broad and unsubstantiated incendiary claims, the tendency to judge every statement by church officials in the worst possible light (including Pope Pius XI’s "We are all spiritually Semites" statement), and to present all Jewish teachings in an overly apologetic manner, this illumination of Vatican policy toward and discourse about the Jews in the nineteenth century might well have led to a conscientious rethinking of the church’s position on its relationship to modern anti-Semitism. The sensationalist elements will undoubtedly sell many more copies and gain extensive media coverage, but-if one might venture a guess about reader response-it will probably engender a defensive reaction that will divert attention from the book’s actual achievement.

If there is any basis for optimism in the heart-wrenching, mortifying material presented in this book-and this is nowhere even hinted at by the author-it is in dramatizing the enormous transformation in the church’s relationship with the Jewish people over the past two generations. Compared not just with the Middle Ages but with the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the documents produced by the contemporary church and the moving symbolic acts of reconciliation by the current pope provide encouraging evidence for the capacity of visionary human beings to transform even strongly conservative institutions. The historical record documented by Kertzer makes these recent developments seem even more extraordinary.

Published in the 2001-09-28 issue: 

Marc Saperstein is Charles E. Smith Professor of Jewish History and Director of the Program in Judaic Studies at The George Washington University.

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