David Kertzer, author of the acclaimed study of the kidnapping of the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara by Pope Pius IX, here expands his purview to take in the anti-Semitic behavior of all the popes from the restoration of the Papal States in 1814 to the accession of Pius XII in 1939. His study, he says, was partly motivated by recent Vatican statements that drew a distinction between anti-Judaism, which the Vatican admitted the church had fostered, and anti-Semitism, which it claimed it had not and which had led to the Holocaust. This claim, Kertzer says, is entirely false, as is 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. He bases his argument upon wide reading in the Vatican archives and in the major Vatican publications.
Kertzer’s major thesis is this: If the Vatican never approved of the extermination of the Jews [by the Nazis]...the teachings and actions of the Church, including those of the popes themselves, helped make it possible. Thus, on the controversy over Pius XII and the Holocaust, the die was already cast by the time Nazi eliminationism began, by a pervasive culture of Vatican anti-Semitism.
His proof is that the popes, as monarchs of Rome and the Papal States, imposed onerous restrictions upon the Jews in their domain, and then, after the loss of their temporal sphere, encouraged the growth of modern anti-Semitism by their own statements, their support of anti-Semitic political parties in the Catholic states and by their implicit approval of anti-Semitic articles in the Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, and the Vatican Jesuit semi-monthly La Civiltà Cattolica.
It is a bleak picture he paints. After Napoleon had emancipated the Jews in the Papal States, Pius VII reimposed restrictions when he was restored to power in 1814. He and successive popes, as rulers of the Papal States, restricted Jews to the ghettoes, issued decrees forcing them to listen to periodic sermons, used vile epithets to describe them, accepted the belief that they practiced ritual murder (killing Christian children for their blood) and, worse, took Jewish children who had been surreptitiously baptized (as in the case of young Mortara) away from their parents and raised them in Catholic institutions, in addition to forcing Jewish men who asked for conversion to bring their wives and children for conversion as well.
There is little that can be said to defend the popes in these actions. Kertzer puts the worse slant on all this; but of course, there can be no good slant. It was dreadful behavior on the part of the popes.
The second part of the book covers the period from the loss of the Papal States in 1870 to the beginning of World War II in 1939. With the Jews emancipated in the new Italian state, the Catholic press became the chief instrument of Vatican anti-Semitism, opposed to the Jews as purveyors of a cultural modernism at odds with traditional Catholicism. La Civiltà Cattolica took the lead, continuing the myth of Jewish ritual murder and, by the beginning of the 20th century, claiming that the Jews were harbingers of bolshevism. Moreover, the Catholic press in Austria and France followed suit. While none of this information is new, it is again dreadful and indefensible behavior.
What is new is Kertzer’s attack upon Pius XI (1922-39). While most critics of Pius XII (1939-58) blame him for his alleged silence on the Holocaust, those same critics contrast him with his predecessor, arguing that Pius XI would not have been silent. They cite his encyclical against Nazism, Mit Brennender Sorge, and his opposition to both Hitler and Mussolini.
Kertzer will have none of this. He finds Pius XI as anti-Semitic as his predecessors, because his volleys against Nazism did not mention the Jews, because La Civiltà Cattolica continued its anti-Semitic articles during his pontificate and because he favored anti-Semitic authors with praise for their books. The reason for this, Kertzer contends, is that Pius XI had been nuncio to Warsaw before his election to the papacy, and his contacts there with the Polish clergy led him to become anti-Semitic and to adopt their attitudes toward the Jews.
And yet, despite all of these findings and claims and impressive research, The Popes Against the Jews does not convince. That the 19th-century popes were anti-Semitic, yes; that the popes after the loss of the Papal States were, to the degree that Kertzer portrays, no.
This is a polemical work. The narrative and analysis are driven by the mission, and in the process history is not served. Despite the 19th-century papal restrictions, it is questionable how rigorously they were enforced. Kertzer tells us that some bishops in the Papal States appealed to the popes, claiming that the Jews were not obeying papal orders and were getting away with it. It appears, then, that while the popes made laws, neither the Jews nor the common folk paid much attention to them. And, throughout it all, popular opinion appears to have been against the persecution of the Jews. Papal pro forma acceptance of anti-Semitic authors’ books is made to appear as if the popes actually read the books and approved of everything said in them.
Above all, the author greatly overrates the power of the popes and the Vatican. About Pius XI, Kertzer says, had he not been nuncio to Poland, the whole twentieth century history of the Church might have been different. Maybe so, but Kertzer does not tell us how. The implication is that Pius would have been able to put an end to Catholic anti-Semitism everywhere. This presumes more power and influence for the pope than he actually had. And Kertzer’s main argument about the Vatican’s responsibility for the Holocaust is simply not proved. It is a huge leap from Rome to Auschwitz, especially if the Germans are left out.
The most convincing argument against Kertzer’s thesis is the behavior of the Italian people and clergy, who, we must presume, were those Europeans most likely to have read L’Osservatore Romano and La Civiltà Cattolicaand of whom Kertzer says the Vatican had more direct influence over popular attitudes in Italy than elsewhere. Apparently, the Italians did not pay much attention to the Vatican pronouncements, for when the Germans brought the Holocaust to Italy, the Italians were the most caring for the Jews, hiding and helping them to escape the German terrorin many cases under the leadership of the Italian clergy to this humane end.