The Magazine

Popes and Jews

Truths and Falsehoods in the history of Catholic-Jewish relations.

Nov 5, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 08 • By DAVID G. DALIN
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The Popes Against the Jews
The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism
by David I. Kertzer
Knopf, 355 pp., $27.95

OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS, Catholic-Jewish relations and the role of the popes in European anti-Semitism have been the subject of what seems like innumerable books. Most of these anti-papal diatribes--by John Cornwall, Garry Wills, and others--have focused their attacks on the alleged silence during the Holocaust of Pius XII, who has been vilified as "Hitler's Pope." In "The Popes Against the Jews," however, the Brown University historian David Kertzer skips over Pius XII to attack the entire modern papacy from 1814 to 1939.

That some popes, both medieval and modern, were anti-Jewish is a matter of historical fact. The most notorious papal action in modern times was the 1858 kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, a six-year-old Jewish boy in the papal state of Bologna, about which Kertzer, a specialist in nineteenth-century Italian history, wrote a book in 1997. On the instructions of Pope Pius IX, Edgardo was forcibly removed from his parents' home after one of the Mortaras' Catholic servants told authorities about secretly baptizing the boy.

As it happens, no papal action in modern times precipitated as widespread and outraged a public reaction, even among Catholics, as did the Mortara kidnapping, a point which Kertzer himself documented in his earlier book. But what's more to the point--and contrary to the underlying thesis of Kertzer's new volume--Pius IX's action in the Mortara case was tragically unique, rather than historically representative of the papacy.

Beginning during the fourteenth century, a tradition of papal support for the Jews of Europe began to emerge. Kertzer and other recent papal critics have largely missed this "philo-Semitic" tradition. By portraying Catholic-Jewish relations as a history of the popes against the Jews, alleging that the papacy has played a disproportionate role in the rise of modern anti-Semitism, Kertzer ignores the fact that during periods of intensified anti-Semitic persecutions several popes served as protectors of Jewry--especially of the Jews of Rome--upholding the Jewish right to worship freely in their synagogues and publicly defending Jews against a host of anti-Semitic allegations.

THUS, FOR EXAMPLE, Kertzer devotes three chapters to the horrifying allegation that, during the Passover holiday, Jews engaged in the ritual murder of Christian children, to use their blood in the baking of the unleavened bread eaten at the Passover meal. Yet he makes little mention of the relevant fact that a succession of popes since the twelfth century (when the accusation of Jewish ritual murder was first made) were vocal in their condemnation of this libel. In 1247 Pope Innocent IV promulgated the first of several papal bulls devoted to refuting the ritual-murder libel.

Innocent's bull set an important precedent that subsequent popes would follow over the centuries. As the historian Marc Saperstein has pointed out, whenever "charges of ritual murder were brought to the attention of popes, they regularly condemned them as baseless and inconsistent with Jewish religious teaching." In 1758, in response to an appeal from the Jewish community of Poland, Pope Benedict XIV appointed Cardinal Lorenzo Ganganelli (who would later become Pope Clement XIV) to investigate the ritual-murder accusation. After investigating for more than a year, Cardinal Ganganelli produced a report that exonerated the Jews--a document Cecil Roth, a preeminent scholar of Italian Jewish history, has called "one of the most remarkable, broad-minded, and humane documents in the history of the Catholic Church."

This historic report was later cited by Pope Pius X, who repudiated the "infamous fanaticism" of the ritual-murder charge. Indeed, despite Kertzer's suggestions, the charge of ritual murder was not supported by Pope Pius X, who publicly denounced the accusation in the most famous ritual-murder case of modern times, the 1913 trial of the Russian Jew Mendel Beilis. While Kertzer is correct in arguing that some Catholic priests and newspapers lent their support to the libel, the papacy persistently opposed it.

IT'S THIS KIND OF SELECTIVE USE of evidence that is the most annoying feature of "The Popes Against the Jews." Time and time again, Kertzer fails to cite or discuss statements and actions that reveal a pope's public opposition to anti-Semitism or defense of the Jewish people. Thus, for example, he never mentions that Leo XIII spoke out in defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jewish officer accused of treason in 1894, and publicly condemned the anti-Semitic campaign against him--a fact noted by the British historian Owen Chadwick in his definitive "A History of the Popes, 1830-1914" (a volume never quoted by Kertzer). And while Kertzer does acknowledge that in 1892--two years before the Dreyfus Affair began--Leo XIII strongly defended Jews in a widely circulated newspaper interview, he buries it in a footnote and tries to minimize its significance.

Kertzer similarly indulges a one-sided and incomplete discussion of Benedict XV, who was more favorably disposed to the Jews than many of his nineteenth-century predecessors. Far from sanctioning anti-Semitism, Benedict XV powerfully condemned it in a 1916 statement issued in response to a petition from the American Jewish Committee that asked the pope to protest the persecution of Polish Jews during World War I.

Kertzer's indictment of Pius XI is equally compromised by his selective citations of the available evidence, as well as by serious errors of fact. Monsignor Achille Ratti, the future Pius XI, enjoyed warm relations with Italian Jewish leaders throughout the early years of his priesthood. And during his tenure as papal nuncio after World War I in Poland, amid Europe's largest Jewish population, he confronted for the first time the persecution experienced by Europe's Jews.

This firsthand encounter led the future pope--contrary to what Kertzer asserts--to denounce Polish anti-Semitism. Ratti's disgust with Polish anti-Semitism is amply documented in Sir William Clonmore's biography, "Pope Pius XI and World Peace" (yet another volume Kertzer never cites). "Ratti made it quite clear," notes Clonmore, "that any anti-Semitic outbursts would be severely condemned by the Holy See." Ratti helped the Jewish victims of Polish anti-Semitism in a more tangible way as well: Instructed by Pope Benedict to direct the distribution of Catholic relief in postwar Poland, he gave considerable funds not only to Catholics but also to impoverished Jews who had lost their homes and businesses in the pogroms.

From this bad beginning, Kertzer moves to a worse conclusion as he turns to Ratti's reign as Pius XI. Unmentioned is the fact that as early as November 1931, the chief rabbi of Milan, on a personal visit to the Vatican, thanked the pope for his appeals against anti-Semitism and his continuing support for Italy's Jews. "The Popes Against the Jews" devotes astonishingly little attention to Pius XI's famous anti-Nazi encyclical "Mit brennender Sorge" ("With Burning Anxiety"), issued in March 1937, which produced an angry response from the Nazi leaders in Berlin, who viewed it (correctly) as a pro-Jewish document.

Kertzer's nearly monomaniacal effort to turn everything against the popes will prove at last unbearable even for readers who have little sympathy for the Catholic Church. That there were anti-Semitic Catholics in Europe between 1814 to 1939, no one denies. That their anti-Semitism provided one of the channels through which the evil of the Nazis would find its way--this too is undeniable, a horrifying fact that the current pope, John Paul II, and the modern Catholic Church have begun at last to try to understand.

But what, exactly, is gained by Kertzer's attempts to twist history to his own absolute anti-papalism? What new understanding do we achieve by denouncing as anti-Semites some of the least anti-Semitic people of their time?

Benedict XV and Pius XI were known by their contemporaries as opponents of anti-Semitism and friends to the Jews. So, for instance, on September 6, 1938, Pius XI remarked to a group of Belgian pilgrims that anti-Semitism "is a hateful movement, a movement that we cannot, as Christians, take any part in." And, with tears in his eyes as he thought about the plight of the Jews, he famously concluded: "Anti-Semitism is inadmissible; spiritually, we are all Semites." This wasn't said in 1998, when it would be of little moment. It was said in 1938, when the most powerful nation in Europe had an officially anti-Semitic government and was poised only a few hundred miles to the north of Rome. Who could miss what this meant at the time?

Pius XI's contemporaries didn't miss it. After the publication of "Mit brennender Sorge" the Nazis launched a vitriolic counterattack on the "Jew-God and His deputy in Rome"--while the February 1939 issue of B'nai B'rith's National Jewish Monthly featured the pope on its cover. "Regardless of their personal religious beliefs," wrote the editors, "men and women everywhere who believe in democracy and the rights of man have hailed the firm and uncompromising stand of Pope Pius XI against Fascist brutality, paganism and racial theories. In his annual Christmas message to the College of Cardinals, the great Pontiff vigorously denounced Fascism of both the Italian and German varieties . . . and described the Nazi swastika as a 'cross hostile to the cross of Christ'. . . . The first international voice in the world to be raised in stern condemnation of the ghastly injustice perpetrated upon the Jewish people by brutal tyrannies was Pope Pius XI."

In his effort to vilify the modern papacy--and to hold each and every pontiff responsible for all anti-Semitism from Napoleon to Hitler--Kertzer must dismiss or ignore the many instances of papal support for the Jews and the legacies of those modern popes who were known for their decidedly philo-Semitic policies and pronouncements. Worse, he must dismiss or ignore the testimony of those who were actually there at the time. Kertzer's "The Popes Against the Jews" is both false and unpersuasive.

A rabbi and historian, David G. Dalin is the author of six books. His essay "Pius XII and the Jews" appeared in the February 26, 2001, issue of The Weekly Standard.

November 5, 2001 - Volume 7, Number 8