h i s t o r y w i l l i am d o i n o j r
Pontiffs & Prejudice ere the Popes Against the Jews? Tracking the Myths, Confronting the Ideologues
By Justus George Lawler (Wm B Eerdmans 387pp £23.99)
In 1997 Pope John Paul II spoke to a Vatican symposium in Rome on the legacy of anti-Judaism in the Catholic Church. ‘In the Christian world,’ he said, ‘erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability have circulated for too long.’ Such prejudice deformed the souls of Christians and ‘contributed to the lulling of consciences, so that when the wave of persecutions swept across Europe … the spiritual resistance of many was not what humanity rightfully expected from the disciples of Christ.’
The following year, the pope issued the Vatican’s response to the Holocaust, We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah, in which he expressed the Church’s ‘deep sorrow for the failures of her sons and daughters in every age’, particularly during the Holocaust. Both the symposium and Shoah document were widely praised, and recognised as major steps forward in Catholic-Jewish relations. But not everyone was pleased.
Among the more vocal critics was David Kertzer, professor of social science at Brown University. In his 2001 book, The Popes Against the Jews, Kertzer assailed the Shoah document, claiming that it was nothing more than a self-serving effort by the Church to exonerate itself from the charge of having fostered modern antiSemitism (not just religious anti-Judaism).
It was an odd attack against John Paul II, since no one had done more to strengthen interfaith relations and acknowledge Catholic sins against Jews. Kertzer’s 355-page book was an unrelenting tract against the modern papacy, covering the period from the mid-nineteenth century to the Second World War. Among other charges, Kertzer contended that Pius IX (r 1846–78) had accused Jews of being ‘dogs’; that both he and his successor, Leo XIII (r 1878–1903), had spoken of the ‘synagogue of Satan’; that the Vatican of Pius X (r 1903–14) gave life to the noxious ‘ritual murder’ accusation against Jews; and that Pius XI (r 1922–39),
widely praised for his opposition to fascism and Nazism, was actually a collaborator and anti-Semite himself.
To add to his case, Kertzer cited numerous statements from Catholic authors and publications that offensively assailed Jews, and accused the Vatican of either sanctioning them, or not doing anything to rebut them. The cumulative effect of these actions, argued Kertzer, was to create an environment that made the Nazi
Pope Pius XII: controversial
Holocaust possible, and indeed the pope’s Rome ‘the antechamber to the Holocaust’.
Almost as soon as Kertzer’s book was published, it was hailed as an unparalleled work of scholarship which finally revealed the dark truth about the Church of Rome. Gradually, however, a number of better informed reviewers disputed Kertzer’s claims, pointing to his book’s biases, its simplistic thesis, and its many errors and omissions. The causes of the Holocaust, they pointed out, were far more complex than Kertzer allowed; more importantly, and notwithstanding sinful or apostate Christians, Nazism was a profoundly anti-Christian, not only anti-Semitic, movement. Their cautions went largely unheeded.
The uncritical reception of Kertzer’s book left some people wondering not whether the popes were against the Jews, but whether historians who lavished praise on it were against the popes. It is one thing for a group of academics to examine critically the modern papacy in light of modern anti-Semitism; quite another to accept credulously an anti-papal polemic depicting a flawed but humane group of prelates as virtually demonic, and as forerunners to the Third Reich. One was reminded of the unthinking cheers that went up after Rolf Hochhuth’s now discredited play The Deputy (caricaturing Pope Pius XII) appeared, or the early endorsements which greeted John Cornwell’s similarly inept Hitler’s Pope.
Unlike Cornwell’s book – which received sharp and effective criticism – Kertzer’s went largely unchallenged. Ten years later, it has finally received the scrutiny it deserves. In Were the Popes Against the Jews? Justus George Lawler, an American scholar, has written a powerful critique of Kertzer and other papal critics which will serve as a much-needed corrective to the historical profession, and anyone in search of the truth.
Lawler holds very progressive views, and has long fought prejudice of every kind, but has no time for self-described ‘liberals’ who, in the name of fighting oppression, allow their ideological convictions to override the facts. He is the author, editor and translator of scores of works, and his textual expertise shines in his latest volume. In a close examination of Kertzer’s work, Lawler proves that the most sensational claims made in The Popes Against the Jews are without merit. Pius IX’s use of the term ‘dogs’ was not an antiSemitic outburst, but a commentary on a passage in Matthew (15:21–28) where those once considered ‘dogs’ are actually welcomed into the kingdom of God. The papal statements about the ‘synagogue of Satan’ were criticisms of secular anti-Catholic sects, not attacks against Judaism as a religion and Jews as a people. And far from sanctioning hoary blood libel accusations against Jews, the papacy repeatedly condemned them. In one of his most revealing chapters, Lawler shows how the very evidence Kertzer cites to implicate Pius X in a notorious ritual murder trial in Russia actually exonerates the pope and his representatives, and proves how they tried to intervene for the innocent Jewish man. As for Pius XI, he was publicly honoured by Cecil Roth, the greatest Jewish a u g u s t 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 5