The Vatican and the Jews: History gets even uglier


From the Inquisition to the Reformation to the battle over the Papal States to the war against modernism to today's stand against secular humanism, the Roman Catholic Church has seen itself as an institution that must remain ever vigilant against attack.

And not without reason. There is a well-documented history of anti-Catholic bigotry that in the United States was a common experience as recently as a generation ago. One of the reasons the Catholic school system was developed was to avoid Protestant proselytism that often occurred in public schools.

Some Catholics would argue that bias against their church is still a reality.

But along with that vigilance comes a defensiveness against anything that could be construed as criticizing the church. Critique the church from without and you're a bigot; critique it from within and you're an apostate.

Two books are about to be published that are already arousing the ire of the church. The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, by Brown University historian David I. Kertzer, has already drawn salvos. The other is Breaking Faith: The Pope, the People, and the Fate of Catholicism, by John Cornwell, the author of 1999's Hitler's Pope, a searing account of Pius XII's alleged anti-Semitism.

These are hard works for a Catholic to read. Kertzer's well-documented book is particularly disturbing. But instead of defensively lashing out, the institutional church and individual Catholics should welcome such pointed critiques. Consider them aids to an extended examination of conscience.

Kertzer is familiar to those who follow the history of Catholic-Jewish relations as the author of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, his account of how officials from the Catholic Inquisition removed a 6-year-old Jewish boy who had been secretly baptized by a Catholic maid from his home in Bologna, Italy. He was adopted by Pope Pius IX and raised in the Vatican, never to return to his family, and eventually was ordained a priest. What is particularly disturbing is this happened in 1858, less than 150 years ago.

Kertzer was motivated to write his latest work after reading the 1998 Vatican document, "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," which was intended as an accounting to determine what responsibility, if any, the Catholic Church held for the Holocaust.

The document made a key distinction between the anti-Semitism embraced by the Nazis, which was a political and social bigotry mixed with racial ideas that were contrary to church doctrine, and anti-Judaism, an attitude of mistrust and hostility of which the Vatican admitted "Christians have also been guilty."

The notion that the church only fostered religious stereotypes of Jews and had nothing to do with the social, political, economic and cultural negative images of Judaism that characterize modern anti-Semitism "is clearly belied by the historical record," Kertzer writes.

Recent works on the Vatican and the Holocaust, including Cornwell's, focus on what the Vatican knew about the genocide and what it did to oppose it and shelter Jews. Kertzer believes the more important question is what the Vatican did in the generations leading up to the Holocaust that might have fostered attitudes that made it possible.

In his quest, Kertzer had a key source not available to previous historians: the archives of the Holy Office of the Inquisition, opened to scholars only in 1998, and he relies heavily on them.

Kertzer's research shows that as the anti-Semitic movements were forming at the end of the 19th century, the church was a major participant. It warned constantly of the "Jewish peril" in Catholic newspapers like L'Osservatore Romano, the Vatican-published daily, and Civilta Cattolica, the Jesuit journal that was considered a mouthpiece for the pope.

Civilta Cattolica launched an anti-Jewish campaign in December 1840, a crucial period in the rise of anti-Semitism, with 36 articles written over 40 months. A sample: "The Jews -- eternal insolent children, obstinate, dirty, thieves, liars, ignoramuses, pests and the scourge of those near and far. ... immediately abused [their newfound freedom] to interfere with that of others. They managed to lay their hands on ... all public wealth ... and virtually alone they took control not only of all the money ... but of the law itself in those countries where they have been allowed to hold public offices."

Kertzer also documents that high church officials, including popes, played an important role in promulgating several ideas central to anti-Semitism, including: that there is a secret Jewish conspiracy, and that Jews are out to rule the world; Jews control the press; Jews control the banks and have contributed to the ruination of untold Christians; Jews murder Christian children and drink their blood; Jews owe allegiance only to their own people and are therefore unpatriotic; and Jews must be segregated and their rights limited.

Like The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, what is particularly disturbing about all this is how recently this happened in church history. As late as the 1850s, the pope was still trying to confine Jews who lived in the Papal States to enclosed ghettos. In 1914, Civilita Cattolica published an account of a trial in Kiev in which a Jew stood accused of ritual murder, the age-old "blood libel" that held Jews murdered Christian children, torturing them to make death as painful as possible, and drained their blood for a variety of ritual uses, such as marriage ceremonies and the making of Passover matzo. According to the article, "the murder was committed by people who wanted to extract the blood. Now of such people one race alone is known."

Kertzer also documents ways in which the Vatican fostered anti-Semitic political movements. The archives revealed documentation of how Pope Leo XIII and his secretary of state not only played an active role in nurturing the anti-Semitic campaign of Austria's Christian Social party in the late 19th century, but also undermined attempts by the Austrian bishops to distance the church from the movement.

Kertzer makes a convincing case that "if the Vatican never approved the extermination of the Jews -- indeed, the Vatican opposed it (albeit quietly) -- the teachings and actions of the Church, including those of the popes themselves, helped make it possible."

Yet Kertzer insists his purpose is not to demonize the church. He notes that his father, a rabbi who served as director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee, was deeply committed to building a closer relationship between Catholics and Jews. He sees his work as a continuation of his father's, through trying to shed new light on the history between Catholics and Jews because "the true tale needs to be told."

In Cornwell's latest book, he acts as a critic from within the church. He answers critics of Hitler's Pope, who called him a self-proclaimed agnostic who lied when he said he was a practicing Catholic, recounting his seven years in a seminary only to leave an agnostic and re-embrace the church of his youth 13 years ago.

But to Cornwell's eyes, the church he has come back to is in serious trouble. Under Pope John Paul II, the church is increasingly controlled by a centralized bureaucracy centered in Rome that is excessively authoritarian, unyielding on doctrinal issues such as birth control, brooking no dissent from church theologians.

Cornwell's description of a church in crisis, perhaps on the verge of schism, might sound hysterical to many Catholics in the pews, whose parish life is much more sedate and who would probably agree with the pope on many of the issues Cornwell tackles, like the ordination of women, or church teaching on homosexuality or abortion.

But there are questions he raises worth pondering. One is the dichotomy between the church's complete and unyielding ban on artificial contraception and the overwhelming majority of Catholics who, according to surveys, ignore that teaching. Doesn't such an overwhelming and persistent disavowal of a key Catholic doctrine, the flouting of which places one in a state of mortal sin, undermine the notion of authority?

A good question, for those who will listen.

John Rivera has been the religion reporter for The Sun since April 1997. He covered Pope John Paul II during his visit to Baltimore in 1995 and on his trip to Cuba. He earned a master's degree in theology at Washington Theological Union.

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