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The Popes Against the Jews
The Popes Against the Jews


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The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara
The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara


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Edward Cardinal Cassidy, Australian head of the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, called in reporters to announce the long-awaited results of his investigation. It was March 16, 1998--eleven years after Pope John Paul II had asked the Commission to determine what responsibility, if any, the Church bore for the slaughter of millions of European Jews during World War II. For the Church, a more explosive subject could hardly be imagined. It had been thirty-five years since Rolf Hochhuth's play The Deputy had first raised the charge of papal complicity in the Holocaust, triggering Catholic outrage worldwide. Yet the suggestion that the Vatican bore any responsibility for what had happened to the Jews continued to grate on Catholic sensibilities. And so nervousness mixed with curiosity as the report was finally released to a public sharply divided between those worried that it might criticize the Church, and those who feared it would not.

Heightening the drama and underlining the significance of the event, the Pope himself wrote an introduction to the report. John Paul II hailed the Commission document--"We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah"--as an important part of Church preparations for the upcoming millennial celebrations. To properly observe the jubilee, the Pope wrote, the Church's sons and daughters must purify their hearts by examining the responsibility they bore for sins committed in the past. He voiced the hope that by providing an accurate account of past evils, the Commission report would help ensure that such horrors as the Holocaust would never be repeated. The report's preamble echoed this theme, not only stressing the Pope's commitment to repentance for past sins, but also linking the proper understanding of the past to the building of a brighter future.

At the heart of the problem, as the Vatican commissioners recognized, was the fact that the Holocaust had taken place "in countries of long-standing Christian civilization." Might there be some link, they asked, between the destruction of Europe's Jews and "the attitudes down the centuries of Christians toward the Jews"?

Those who feared that the report might criticize past popes or past Church actions were soon relieved to learn that the Commission's answer to this question was a resounding "no." True, the report admitted, Jews had for centuries been discriminated against and used as scapegoats, and, regrettably, certain misguided interpretations of Christian teachings had on occasion nurtured such behavior. But all this regarded an older history, one largely overcome by the beginning of the 1800s.

In the Commission's view, the nineteenth century was the key period for understanding the roots of the Holocaust and, in particular, the reasons why the Church bore no responsibility for it. It was in that turbulent century that new intellectual and political currents associated with extreme nationalism emerged. Amid the economic and social upheavals of the time, people started to accuse Jews of exercising a disproportionate influence. "There thus began to spread," the Commission members argued, "an anti-Judaism that was essentially more sociological and political than religious." This new form of antagonism to the Jews was further shaped by racial theories that first appeared in the latter part of the nineteenth century and reached their terrible apotheosis in the Nazis' glorification of a superior Aryan race. Far from supporting these racist ideologies, the Vatican commissioners asserted, the Church had always condemned them.

And so, according to the report, a crucial distinction must be made. What arose in the late nineteenth century, and sprouted like a poisonous weed in the twentieth, was "anti-Semitism, based on theories contrary to the constant teaching of the Church." This they contrasted with "anti-Judaism," long-standing attitudes of mistrust and hostility of which "Christians also have been guilty," but which, in the Vatican report, had nothing to do with the hatred of the Jews that led to the Holocaust.

When I read the news story of the Vatican press conference, and later read the text of the Commission report, I knew that there was something terribly wrong with the history that the Vatican was recounting. It is a history that many wished had happened, but it is not what actually happened. It is the latter story, sometimes dramatic, sometimes hard to believe, often sad, that I try to tell in the pages that follow.

Just how little this history is known was driven home to me by reader reactions to my recent book The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. The book tells of a six-year-old Jewish boy in Bologna, Italy, who, in 1858, was taken from his family on orders of the local inquisitor. Having been secretly baptized by a servant--or so it was claimed--the boy, the inquisitor argued, was now Catholic and could not remain in a Jewish household.

"You mean there was still an Inquisition in 1858?" readers asked. "I thought the Inquisition was back in the 1500s or 1600s." I also kept hearing--especially from non-Jewish readers--how amazing it was for them to learn that forcing Jews to wear yellow badges and keeping them locked in ghettoes were not inventions of the Nazis in the twentieth century, but a policy that the popes had championed for hundreds of years.

Although various histories of the fraught relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jews have been published, most focus on a more remote past. Others examine Church doctrine, engage in biblical exegesis, or analyze various other texts, and so do not capture the actual struggle between the Church and the Jews. Someone, I thought, needed to write a book about the Church and the Jews in modern times, one that would use original archival documents--many never before examined--to tell a story that has remained in important ways unknown.

This last point is worth emphasizing, because while recent scholar- ship--especially in Italy--has brought to light important new information about the Vatican and the Jews, much has remained buried in the archives. In this light, Cardinal Ratzinger's announcement in 1998 that, for the first time, the archives of the Holy Office of the Inquisition were being opened to scholars, offered a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Sources never before seen by scholars were now available, offering the tantalizing prospect of new insights into Church history. This book rests heavily on these newly available documents from the Inquisition archives, as well as from other Vatican archives that have become open to researchers in recent years. Together with evidence that has been reported in the specialized scholarly literature--mainly in Italy and France--over the past few years these new sources shed light on a history that until now has remained hidden.

Back in early 1998, news of the impending release of the Vatican report on the Holocaust had brought hope that the Church itself might help rectify the ignorance that surrounded the history of the Church's dealing with the Jews. Pope John Paul II had done much to foster an ecumenical spirit and warmer relations between the Catholic Church and the Jews, and he had called on the Commission to be fearless in confronting the truths of the past. The Commission did not take its task lightly, studying the question for over a decade before formulating its conclusions. Surely, thirty-six years after the Second Vatican Council opened, the time had come for the Church to face up to its own uncomfortable past.

The report's key passage on the rise of modern anti-Semitism explains:

By the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century, Jews generally had achieved an equal standing with other citizens in most states and a certain number of them held influential positions in society. But in that same historical context, notably in the nineteenth century, a false and exacerbated nationalism took hold. In a climate of eventful social change, Jews were often accused of exercising an influence disproportionate to their numbers. Thus there began to spread in varying degrees throughout most of Europe an anti-Judaism that was essentially more sociological and political than religious.

The anti-Semitism embraced by the Nazi regime, the report goes on to say, was the product of this new social and political form of anti-Judaism, which was foreign to the Church, and which mixed in new racial ideas that were similarly at odds with Church doctrine.

This argument, sadly, is not the product of a Church that wants to confront its history. If Jews acquired equal rights in Europe in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was only over the angry, loud, and indeed indignant protests of the Vatican and the Church. And if Jews in the nineteenth century began to be accused of exerting a disproportionate and dangerous influence, and if a form of anti-Judaism "that was essentially more sociological and political than religious" was taking shape, this was in no small part due to the efforts of the Roman Catholic Church itself.

As this book will show, the distinction made in the report between "anti-Judaism"--of which some unnamed and misinformed Christians were unfortunately guilty in the past--and "anti-Semitism," which led to the horrors of the Holocaust, will simply not survive historical scrutiny.

The notion that the Church fostered only negative "religious" views of the Jews, and not negative images of their harmful social, economic, cultural, and political effects--the latter identified with modern anti-Semitism--is clearly belied by the historical record. As modern anti-Semitic movements took shape at the end of the nineteenth century, the Church was a major player in them, constantly warning people of the rising "Jewish peril." What, after all, were the major tenets of this modern anti-Semitic movement if not such warnings as these: Jews are trying to take over the world; Jews have already spread their voracious tentacles around the nerve centers of Austria, Germany, France, Hungary, Poland, and Italy; Jews are rapacious and merciless, seeking at all costs to get their hands on all the world's gold, having no concern for the number of Christians they ruin in the process; Jews are unpatriotic, a foreign body ever threatening the well-being of the people among whom they live; special laws are needed to protect society, restricting the Jews rights and isolating them. Every single one of these elements of modern anti-Semitism was not only embraced by the Church but actively promulgated by official and unofficial Church organs.

The Commission's neat distinction between anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism was not new to the 1998 document. In the wake of the Second World War, scholars and theologians close to the Church began to look for a way to defend the Church from the charge of having helped lay the groundwork for the Holocaust. The anti-Semitism/anti-Judaism distinction soon became an article of faith that relieved the Church of any responsibility for what happened. Before long, millions of people came to assume its historical reality.

Given the important role played, as we shall see, by the Jesuit journal Civilta  cattolica in this history, I was especially struck by the use of this distinction in a recent history of the journal. Written by the well-respected Church historian and Jesuit priest Giuseppe De Rosa, the book was published on the occasion of the journal's 150th anniversary in 2000.

Father De Rosa notes with regret Civilta cattolica's century-long campaign against the Jews, observing that the journal only changed course in 1965, in the wake of the Second Vatican Council. "It is necessary, however," he adds, "to note that these [hostile articles] were not a matter of 'anti-Semitism,' the essential ingredient of which is hatred against the Jews because of their 'race,' but rather anti-Judaism, which opposes and combats the Jews for religious and social reasons." He then lists some of the charges that were regularly made in the journal's pages: "that the Jews battled the Church, that they practiced the ritual murder of Christian children, that they had enormous political power in their hands to the point of controlling governments and, above all, that they possessed great wealth, earned by usury, and thus had incredibly strong economic influence, which they used to the detriment of Christianity and Christian peoples." Father De Rosa adds, quite correctly, that the Jesuit journal was not alone in making such accusations, for they filled the pages of many mainstream Catholic publications.

By way of illustration of Civilta cattolica's anti-Judaism (as opposed to anti-Semitism), he offers some passages from articles in the journal authored by Fathers Rondina and Ballerini in the 1890s. These tell of Jews' thirst for world domination, their hunger for gold, and their belief that Christians are no better than animals. Wherever the Jews live, in the words of these authors, they "form a foreign nation, and sworn enemy of [the people's] well-being." What should good Catholics do about this terrible threat to their livelihoods and happiness? The answer offered in the pages of Civilta cattolica was clear: The Jews' "civil equality" must be immediately revoked, for "they have no right to it," remaining forever "foreigners in every country, enemies of the people of every country that puts up with them."

There is an unsettling logic behind both Father De Rosa's use of the anti-Judaism/anti-Semitism distinction, and that of the Vatican Commission itself, for they share a disturbing subtext. They suggest that if the attitudes and actions promulgated by the Church can be labeled "religious," they can be minimized and, in any case, shown to be of a very different kind than the truly dangerous forms of anti-Semitism. Such a distinction also permits the Roman Catholic Church to argue that it played no role in spreading the hatred of the Jews in Europe that helped make the Holocaust possible.

Excerpted from The Popes Against the Jews by David I. Kertzer Copyright 2001 by David I. Kertzer. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.