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Book review 216: The Popes against the Jews

October 23, 2011 - Harry Eagar
THE POP[ES AGAINST THE JEWS: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-semitism, by David S. Kertzer. 355 pages. Knopf, $27.95

In 1998, the Catholic church attempted to absolve itself of guilt in the persecution and murder of Europe's Jews by publishing a defense based on documents from its archives. There was something odd about one of them.

It was a report on pogroms in Poland in the early '20s by an extraordinary Vatican investigator, Achille Ratti. While other documents were quoted in full, parts of Ratti's report was paraphrased. It appeared to be opposed to the pogroms, and this was important because Ratti soon become Pope Pius IX, whose term coincided with the emergence of Nazi anti-Jewish policies, and because Pius XI was presented as the pope who was sympathetic to the fate of the Jews and who had worked, though quietly, to protect them.

A few years later, when the archives were opened, the reason for the paraphrase was obvious: Ratti's opinions about Jews and what should be done about the “Jewish problem” were indistinguishable from those of any other vicious antisemite. And, particularly, as David Kertzer shows in “The Popes against the Jews,” from any other pope of the past two centuries.

The argument, still heard, is that the traditional, medieval Catholic antisemitism was different in kind from the modern, exterminationist antisemitism, supposedly a new thought derived from nationalism, skepticism, liberalism and science.

While it is true that, when push came to shove, the church said it opposed murder, Catholic antisemitism was eliminationist: the Vatican wanted to revoke the civil and economic rights of Jews and to make Catholic Europe judenrein: Hitler's stated policy, too, up till 1941.

The German Nuremburg decrees in 1935 and the Italian racial laws in 1938 were copies of the Jewish regulations imposed by the popes in the Papal States until the Liberals extinguished the church's civil power in 1870.

These regulations were policed with a savagery that even a Nazi would have admired. Any decent reader's heart will crack reading the horrible fate of little Lazzaro Anticoli.

Some of the chapter titles give the flavor of what the English historian A.J.P. Taylor called “the most obscurantist regime in Europe”: “Forced Baptism”; “Ritual Murder Makes a Comeback”; “Jewish Vampires”; “Ritual Murder and the Popes in the Twentieth-century.”

While Kertzer believes that a big part of the motive for the sustained campaign of lies and vilification of the Jews by the Vatican was a practical political strategy – as the franchise was extended in more and more countries, embracing antisemitism was a proven vote-getter – it is also the case that every pope, and virtually every bishop and priest was completely convinced that matzoh had to contain the blood of an innocent Christian child.

Actions speak louder than words. Because Catholic doctrine is that anyone, even a pagan, can perform a valid and effective baptism by following the correct form of words and water, a strange story came out of Egypt.

Catholic papers reported that Jews there had been unable to kidnap a Christian, so in desperation they got a Muslim boy, baptized him and murdered him.

High-ranking commentators, with direct ties to the pope, opined that while reprehensible, this event did have its positive aspect: At least the Muslim boy died Catholic and was saved from damnation.

That this crazy tale was expected to be taken seriously is proof enough of Kertzer's theme.

Defenders of the church invariably point out the the Vatican had disputes with the Nazis.

In itself, this proves nothing. A church that would arrogate to itself all civil power will have disputes with any government. The Catholic church was more comfortable with fascists than any other regimes. It was implacable in its refusal to deal with either liberal or socialist governments. But when fascists began to control states, the Vatican rushed to regularize relations with them.

Kertzer, however, has an even more subtle explanation, worth quoting in full:

“The Austrian bishop's statement was, in many ways,characteristic of the Roman Catholic Church's approach to the rise of fascism in Germany and Austria. Hitler and his minions represented a threat to the church, for they sought to replace popular loyalty to a Catholic worldview and Catholic liturgy with worship of the state, the party and the regime. But the antisemitism of the Nazis was a problem for the church in the 1930s not because of its negative portrayal of the Jews, much of which was shared by the church itself; the problem stemmed on the contrary, from the danger that the Nazis would exploit an appeal that had previously been identified with the church to attract Catholics to a non-Christian cause. In denouncing Nazism, church leaders were eager to show people that they did not have to join the Nazis to be against the Jews. The old church distinction between the good, Catholic antisemitism and the bad pagan antisemitism was once more trotted out.”

Or, as a leading Catholic polemicist wrote, Catholics should not “oppress the Jews unjustly.”

Just and Catholic oppression was admirable.

It should be noted also that not only is Kertzer's scholarship and use of recently opened archives outstanding, but his writing is, for an American historian, unusually graceful and clear.


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