The Vatican and the Jews: History gets even uglier

The Argument

As more suppressed documents emerge, there is increasing necessity for a sweeping examination of conscience.


September 30, 2001|By John Rivera | John Rivera,Sun Staff

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.

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