David I. Kertzer
Anyone who believes that George Washington never told a lie, that Betsy Ross stitched the first flag, or that the Liberty Bell cracked on July 4, 1776, needs not read this book. The Popes Against the Jews is not for the naïve, faint hearted, or for those whose religious zealotry prevents them from wanting to expand the boundaries of their knowledge.
Though hard to accept that Christianity and the Catholic Church, since their beginnings, would promote, encourage, and enforce anti-Semitism, the fact is that the self appointed “True Faith,” in its zeal to conquer the world, enrich itself, and control the masses, has done just that, and more. In the process, the Church became guilty of the very things it accused Jews: greed, hatred and having contempt for others. However, “The Popes Against the Jews” is not a tirade against Christianity or the Catholic Church, but a historical tracing of Church policies and practices, and how they led to anti-semitism. “The Popes Against the Jews” is an exposé which begs for clarification of what happened, and why.
“As late as the 1850s, the Pope was busy trying to evict Jews from most of the towns in the lands he controlled, and forcing them to live in the few cities that had ghettoes to close them in. Jews were barred from holding public office or teaching Christian children or even having friendly relations with Christians. Church ideology held that any contact with Jews was polluting to the larger society, that Jews were perpetual foreigners, a perennial threat to Christians (p. 9). [Jews in the Papal states were forced to wear a yellow badge, as] mandated by Church councils for over six hundred years…so all would know of their reviled status. [Those found without the] required yellow badge on their clothes [faced prosecution as late as the Nineteenth Century (pp. 10-11)]”
A modicum of objectivity would point out that the Nazi Nuremberg Laws from 1938, and legislation enacted by Italian Fascists, which were aimed at demoralizing Jews by stripping them of their citizenship and any rights associated with it, were modeled after those espoused and enforced by the Church for as long as it had the power to do so (p.9). In editorials, printed in the Vatican's official periodicals, Jews were portrayed as a foreign nation, and the sworn enemy of the well-being of all Christians. The solution to this situation was the immediate revocation of the Jews' civil equality, for they had no right to it. Thus Jews were to remain foreigners, the “Eternal Wandering Jew,” wherever they were allowed to live, and the enemy of any country where they settled (p.8).
Although the Vatican has gone out of its way to exonerate and absolve itself from any direct involvement, it has yet to recognize that its policies over the last two millennia paved the road for the Holocaust. To the Church, as indicated in “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah (the report of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews),” while terrible things had been done, these atrocities were not the result of a long standing policy or practice by the Church, but due to misinterpretation of Christian teachings which, occasionally, had fostered such behavior (p. 4). As difficult as it is to imagine, even in the acknowledgement of its failures, the Church would deny any involvement. The Vatican has also failed to fully explain why and how it turned a blind eye to Nazi atrocities, or its involvement in, and support of “Catholic Croatia,” during World War II which resulted in atrocities committed against all non-Catholics, but in particular to the Jews.
In a typical use of smoking mirrors, the Vatican's report differentiated between anti-Judaism (a religious, sociological and political discrimination based on centuries of mistrust and hostility), and anti-Semitism (theories contrary to the constant teachings of Christianity and of the Catholic Church)—while denying both of which have their basis on Church practices. Contrary to the overwhelming evidence, the Church opted to reject any direct association with either philosophy in spite of the many instances which lead to the Church's association with religious anti-Judaism. The issue had already been addressed in 1928 by Father Enrico Rosa in “The Jewish Danger and the 'Friends of Israel,'” an article published in Civiltá cattolica, in which the prelate calls for the rejection of unchristian anti-Semitism. However, Father Rosa opined that the Church must protect itself from those who sought to eradicate views long held by the Church (p.270). As long as any of the actions by the Church could be disguised as “Religious,” they could be minimized or, at the very least, shown to be the lesser of the two evils of anti-Jewish/anti-Semitism (p.8). This is further justified because of the perceived ceaseless war Jewish religion demanded from Jews to wage against Christianity. But, cursed by God, the Jews' continued degradation validated the prophesies in the New Testament (p. 144). The Church's anti-Judaism stance was further defined by Father Giuseppe De Rosa in the year 2000, for the 150th anniversary of Civiltá cattolica, a Vatican periodical. To Father De Rosa, it was necessary “to note that these [hostile articles] were not a matter of 'anti-Semitism,' the essential ingredient of which is hatred against the Jews because of their 'race,' but rather anti-Judaism, which opposes and combats the Jews for religious and social reasons (pp.7-8).” Of course, it would have been difficult for the Vatican to espouse anti-Semitism: If the crime of deicide passed to all subsequent generations of Jews, it would stand the test of logic that all Christians were also guilty, by virtue of their Jewish ancestry.
It wasn’t until the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s that, theoretically, the Church “renounced its view of the Jews as the perfidious people who had crucified Jesus. It removed negative references to the Jews from the liturgy, undertook a complete revision of what was taught about the Jews in Catholic schools and catechism, and…put an official end to the Catholic belief in Jewish ritual murder.” (p. 20) Even so, the sincerity of the Church remains in question by many.
The backbone of this book is in Roberto Farinacci’s speech, “The Church and the Jews,” given at Milan’s Institute of Fascist Culture in 1939, “We fascist Catholics …consider the Jewish problem from a strictly political point of view….But it comforts our souls to know that if, as Catholics, we became anti-Semites, we owe it to the teachings that the Church has promulgated over the past twenty centuries.” Until the end of the Eighteenth Century, Farinacci further states, that in all countries, “…their legislation inspired by that of the Church [excluded] Jews from public offices, from the schools, from university degrees, from exercising professional business positions. All this in harmony with the dispositions sanctioned by the Church through its councils and papal bulls.” Farinacci then asked whether the Church had altered its laws, its views, or decrees, once the Jews had been emancipated. “My question is ironic. The Church could not correct itself without dealing a death blow to the infallibility of its teaching; it could not, nor did it want to. On the contrary, it confirmed its anti-Jewish measures and principles.” (p.283)
The Holy Office for long had denied any such hatred towards Jews, insisting that Christians should instead pray for them, in spite of their rejection of Christianity. However, this Catholic charity should only go so far, and not blind people to the sad reality of the Jews (p.271).
Unfortunately, those who would most benefit from reading this book are the same who would most reject it, and be most offended by it: The faithful who believe the Pope to be infallible, and the clergy to be irreproachable. Far from it, as history has more than once shown, and the researched documents in this book support. These are men guilty of all the same faults as mere mortals are, and as such, they should be given the same scrutiny, probed under the same if not a stricter microscope, and be held as accountable for their crimes as common “sinners” are quickly dispatched to Hell for lesser offenses.
There are those who would be critical of Kertzer’s narrative, but readers should keep in mind that “The Popes against the Jews” is not fiction, and as an historian, the author is presenting the facts available to him from the Vatican archives, and other publications amply cited. Some may claim that those in the upper echelons of Church hierarchy did not know what others were doing, and therefore could not, or should not be held accountable. It would be naïve to think that, even if the Pope did not have first hand knowledge of all that was being printed in the Catholic periodicals, there was no one else in the Church hierarchy to have noticed it, and made no mention to the Pope, or to some other such person in a position of authority.
On the contrary; while one can assume the Popes did not read every word in the eventual 500 Catholic periodicals in Twentieth Century Italy (p. 13), Civiltá cattolica, founded in 1850 with the backing of Pius IX, became the unofficial voice of the Pope. Five days before the release of each issue, the journal's director was present at the Vatican, and reviewed the contents of the periodical for approval with the Secretary of State, and most often with the Pope. This practice of including the Pope in the approval process ended during the time of Pius XII, in the 1950s. The main purpose of Civiltá cattolica, from the point of view of the Popes and that of the journal, was to defend the actions and opinions of the Pope, and to spread them across its readership. This periodical, along with the Vatican’s daily paper, L’Osservatore romano (owned by the Holy See and founded in 1861), came to be regarded by the “network of Catholic newspapers throughout the world…as the most authoritative source for Vatican perspectives on current events, and quoted its articles constantly (p.135).” It is hard to argue against the Popes knowing of, and conscientiously giving their approval of the editorials.
The number of cases of Church-condoned violence and other atrocities against Jews is far too large to report in this venue; only in reading this book, can anyone fully understand the enormity of the abuse instituted, condoned, and enforced by the Church against the Jews.
As with most heads of state, the Popes controlled and still control, and hold the power and the responsibility. Not unusual then, for the Popes to create their own series of rules to benefit their ideology; not unusual, either, for the public at large to expect them to be held accountable. Just as history is a memory of the future, “the lessons that we draw from history are a poor guide for the future if they are based on a past that we wish had happened, rather than the past that truly did (p.19).”
A perfect companion to “Hitler's Pope (Viking, 1999),” by John Cornwell, and “Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, a History," by James Carroll (Mariner Books, 2001),” “The Popes Against the Jews” is just as relevant today, as it was when first published in 2001. All the more ironic in light of the recent rise of extreme ideology in parts of the world, which is thoroughly condemned by the very Christians who would condemn Kertzer's book.
Hardcover: 355 pages
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf 2001