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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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?