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The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism
By David I. Kertzer
355 pages, $27.95


"The Popes Against the Jews," in its portrayal of the Catholic Church's treatment of the Jews from Napoleon to Hitler, is a far better book than John Cornwell's potboiler, "Hitler's Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII." Even if one disagrees with the conclusions of Brown University professor David I. Kertzer, he deserves credit for even-handedness of presentation to mark out his thesis that the Vatican, long before Pope Pius XII, contributed in a systematic way to the demonization of the Jews.

The Catholic Church, on the contrary, in its 1998 report, the Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, says the rise of anti-Judaism was "more sociological and political than religious," the result of a 19th century turbulence where "new intellectual and political currents with extreme nationalism emerged."

Kertzer disagrees. He joins the battle with his interpretation of that history. He understands and appreciates Pope John Paul II's call for forgiveness on the part of the church for past sins. But, Kertzer says, "It is not apologies that I seek, but a clearer understanding of the past. . . . The true tale needs to be told, not least because it is much more than a story about the Catholic Church and the Jews. . . . It is the age-old story of a powerful religion or powerful people that believes in its own divinely ordained position as sole possessor of the Truth and repository of all that is good, and, pitted against it, a despised minority, the Other, the agent of the devil. It should not have taken the Holocaust to teach us how dangerous such views of the world can be, but since the destruction of the Jewish millions, we owe it to the survivors and ourselves to learn the lesson."

The English philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, said the same thing in 1981, when he hurriedly scribbled some remarks to a friend who requested suggestions about how to deal with intolerance in a speech he was about to give. Berlin wrote: "Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth: especially about how to live, what to be and do -- and that those who differ from them are not merely mistaken, but wicked or mad and need restraining or suppressing. It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right. . . ."

The Catholic Church claims that it is able to present with confidence the essentials of its magisterium, the deposit of faith held in its possession. Today's church would reject the idea that those who are not true believers deserve "restraining or suppressing." But it remains for church authorities to mount a defense against Kertzer's and Berlin's, and other critics' similar views, that the Catholic Church has been complicit -- in the religious sense -- in reviling the Jews. The church has tried to counter these criticisms. But it appears not notably successful in refuting the claims of honest petitioners, let alone mountebanks.

What are Kertzer's charges against the popes and the Vatican?

The Vatican rejected the French Revolution's emphasis on equal rights. In 1814, with the defeat of Napoleon's armies and the re-establishment of the papal states, Kertzer claims that Pius VII shunned the principles behind the French Revolution, the recommendations of his own secretary of state, Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, as well as his predecessor, Clement XIV's example, and determined that Jews should be forced back into the ghettos whose gates had been torn down by the French. He was sustained by his successor, Gregory XVI. Papal authority further deteriorated between 1848 and 1870, with revolts against "theocracy." Leo XII "ordered the Jews back into the ghetto, to overcome the evil consequences of the freedom that
they] have enjoyed.'"

The Catholic press combated the "wicked forces of liberalism and secularism." In the late 19th century, the Catholic press, according to Kertzer, concentrated on what was "one of the most medieval forms of Jewish attack" called "'blood libel', . . . the claim that Judaism commanded its adherents to capture Christian children, mutilate and torture them . . . and then drain them of their blood. . . . The Jewish religion, according to the papers, required such blood for many ritual purposes, from the making of Passover matzah to marriage ceremonies."

The Russian Revolution in 1917, with some Jewish leaders, spread godless communism. Communism combined with the Jewish threat in the eyes of the popes. The church accepted an uneasy concord with fascism in Italy, Germany and Spain, as a way of dealing with communism, "the great socialist evil."

Here, Kertzer makes it clear that too much attention has been paid to what Pope Pius XII did, or did not do, during World War II. The author claims that "much more important is bringing to light the role his predecessors played in the previous decades in dehumanizing the Jews. . . ." As Italian scholar Giovanni Miccoli related, "The machinery of persecution and death followed a course that became increasingly hard to stop."

Kertzer is careful not to be too critical of the Catholic Church. He says, "If I argue in these pages that the Vatican's denial of church responsibility for anti-Semitism is belied by the facts, that the institutional church, from the popes on down, played an important role in the development of modern anti-Semitism, I do not mean to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is alone to blame for the Holocaust. Such a conclusion would be ludicrous. After all . . . Germany had more Protestants than Catholics, and we know that anti-Semitism was widespread among Protestants as well. . . . Martin Luther . . . viewed the Jews as 'poisonous, bitter, vengeful, deceitful snakes, assassins, and the devil's children . . . a plague of disgusting vermin.' . . . He urged that their books, synagogues, schools and houses be burned."

Even a co-founder of communism with Marx, Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, asserted that "The Jew is the enemy of mankind. That race must be sent back to Asia or exterminated." In short, for Kertzer, history holds a plenitude of raillery against the Jews.

Kertzer's goal, he says, is simple: It is to trace the thinking and actions of the popes since 1814. He concludes that the popes' activities, attributing persecution of the Jews to the uneducated and bigoted was, in fact, a history of what the church wished had happened, rather than what did.

The issue of what forces provoked modern anti-Semitism will not go away. Some conservative thinkers in Catholic circles see each book that comes out -- like Cornwell's and Garry Wills's broadside, "Papal Sin," and now Kertzer's "The Popes Against The Jews" -- as a piece in a plot against the Vatican and the popes. Others see the books, imperfect though they are, as necessary to help understand the complete history of the Catholic Church.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News Book Reviewer.