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The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism

The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism

4.2 5
by David I. Kertzer

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In this meticulously researched, unflinching, and reasoned study, National Book Award finalist David I. Kertzer presents shocking revelations about the role played by the Vatican in the development of modern anti-Semitism. Working in long-sealed Vatican archives, Kertzer unearths startling evidence to undermine the Church’s argument that it played no direct


In this meticulously researched, unflinching, and reasoned study, National Book Award finalist David I. Kertzer presents shocking revelations about the role played by the Vatican in the development of modern anti-Semitism. Working in long-sealed Vatican archives, Kertzer unearths startling evidence to undermine the Church’s argument that it played no direct role in the spread of modern anti-Semitism. In doing so, he challenges the Vatican’s recent official statement on the subject, We Remember. Kertzer tells an unsettling story that has stirred up controversy around the world and sheds a much-needed light on the past.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Important. . . . Fascinating. . . . [A] riveting piece of historical detective work.” —The New York Times

“Scrupulous....Significant and compelling.” —The Washington Post

“The material is dynamite.” —The Times (London)

Popes Against the Jews . . . demolishes the findings of We Remember.” —The Boston Globe

“This reviewer is grateful to Kertzer for having written such a compelling narrative. His thesis is shocking and disturbing. . . . An important book.” —The Irish Times

“Riveting.” — Globe & Mail (Toronto)

“Kertzer [has the] extraordinary ability to present the most painful, religiously radioactive material with a coolness that makes his findings . . . devastating. . . . Its superb, meticulous scholarship is a benchmark by which other books on the subject must now be judged.” The Forward

“A profoundly well-documented book. . . . It is a work of brilliant narrative quality, an oppressive, unremitting and enraging report on what may be the most lethal period of official and quasi-official Catholic anti-Semitism.” —Providence Journal

Delving deeply into the Vatican's secret archives, David I. Kertzer shows how anti-Semitism at the highest levels of the Catholic Church ultimately helped pave the way for the horrors of the Holocaust. Kertzer was encouraged to engage in this important research by Pope John Paul II himself, who has shown an interest in discovering whether there was indeed a connection between long-established Church doctrines that dehumanized the Jews and the eventual "Final Solution" implemented by the Nazis. Why would the Church, teaching the word of Jesus, help lay the groundwork for one of the most despicable examples of cruelty known to history? Kertzer gets to the heart of the matter.
John Cornwell
Once again Kertzer has produced impressive evidence of the part played by the papacy in the growth of anti-Semitism in the twentieth century. Painful as his historical narrative may be for Catholics, it is a necessary prelude to a true reconciliation between the Catholic Church and Judaism.
Jack Miles
Without sanctimony or melodrama but with meticulous documentation, David I. Kertzer tells a sickening story. The Popes Against The Jews is at once the calm, patient lesson of a born history teacher and an iron to burn scars in the mind.
Robert S. Wistrich
This is a powerful and incisive analysis of the ways in which the Vatican and the Catholic Church helped to nurture and shape the emergence of modern anti-Semitic movements that made the Holocaust possible. With the help of solid documentation and clear exposition, Kertzer sweeps away the apologetic myths that have sought to disculpate the church from direct complicity in the tragic fate of European Jewry.
Denis Mack Smith
This is a fascinating study of an important and controversial subject. As well as being both polemical and highly readable it is scholarly and contains a great deal of unfamiliar information from the recently opened Vatican archives.
Publishers Weekly
A number of excellent studies have recently addressed the political and social role of the Catholic Church in Europe during the Holocaust. Along comes a book that explores the church's role in setting the stage for that Holocaust. If the title of The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism isn't enough of a hint, David Kertzer spells out his thesis in the introduction: Although "the Vatican never approved the extermination of the Jews... the teachings and actions of the Church, including those of the popes themselves, helped make it possible." Kertzer argues that centuries of the church's demonization of the Jews paved the way for genocide. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Kertzer (history, Brown Univ.) expands on a theme he first developed in The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (LJ 5/1/97). In his latest book, he exposes a trail of anti-Semitic papal policies and practices that stretched from the French Revolution to the era of the Final Solution. Kertzer argues that the modern popes and their minions helped create and perpetuate an anti-Semitic Catholic culture that facilitated the eventual extermination of six million European Jews. He asserts that despite occasional denunciations of the persecution of the Jews, the Roman Curia for political and theological reasons persistently demonized the European Jews by accusing them of such heinous crimes as the ritualistic murder of Christian children. His thesis is grounded on a thorough examination of recently released Vatican archival material and a penetrating analysis of Catholic journals and newspapers. Kertzer reveals a far more systemic pattern of papal anti-Semitism than even John Cornwell confronts in Hitler's Pope (LJ 5/15/99). His book promises to stir up considerable controversy and belongs on the shelves of both public and academic libraries. Jim Doyle, Sara Hightower Regional Lib., Rome, GA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A careful examination of the role of the Catholic Church in persecution, pogroms, and, eventually, the Holocaust. In 1987, Pope John Paul II ordered the Vatican's Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews to investigate whether the church was in any way accountable for the slaughter of millions of Jews earlier in the century. The commission returned, 11 years later, with a carefully worded report admitting that the church had been guilty of "anti-Judaism," that is, opposition to the Jewish religion, but not of anti-Semitism, opposition to the Jewish people. Comforting though it may have been to worried clerics, the commission's finding was an evasion of historical reality, argues Kertzer (History/Brown Univ.; The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 1997). He charges that the Vatican's leaders instead engaged in a conscious campaign to denounce Jews "not only as enemies of the Church but as enemies of the nation, not only as threats to the Christian religion but to Christian people." As late as the mid-19th century, he writes, the church demanded that Jews within Italy be confined to ghettos and limited to selling used goods for a living; when a Tuscan duke considered allowing the Napoleonic emancipation of the Jews to stand, Pius X angrily reminded him that "the spirit of the Church . . . has always been to keep Catholics as much as possible from having any contact with the infidels." That spirit drove generations of hate-mongers, as Kertzer shows, and with only rare exceptions, such as the comparatively liberal Benedict XV, the popes of the 19th and 20th centuries actively gave ideological and material aid and comfort to the persecutors of Europe's Jews. Their acts of complicityculminated in mass murder-an outcome, Kertzer suggests, that was all but inevitable. On firmer ground than John Cornwell's error-plagued Hitler's Pope, and far better written, Kertzer's study is nonetheless likely to be challenged.

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Read an Excerpt


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.

Meet the Author

David I. Kertzer was born in 1948 in New York City. He is Paul Dupee, Jr. University Professor of Social Science and a professor of anthropology and Italian studies at Brown University. He is the author of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. The Popes Against the Jews was a finalist for the Mark Lynton History Prize and he has twice been awarded, in 1985 and 1990, the Marraro Prize from the Society for Italian Historical Studies for the best wrok on Italian history. He and his wife, Susan, live in Providence.

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The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
How long is this kind of anti-Catholic paranoia going to be tolerated? As Arthur Schlesinger said,'Anti-Catholicism is the anti-Semitism of the intellectuals.' At a time when the two faiths should be united against militant,fanatical Islam, we find this hate-filled tome rehashing the same, tired accusations against the Roman Catholic Church. It is as if the author were going out of his way to offend Catholics. Well, he offended me. Such hate-filled half-truths shouldn't see the light of day. If his goal were to create more enmity between the faiths at a crucial time, he succeeded. How about a look toward reconciliation, rather than stirring up old, outdated animosities?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book continues the long tradition of relentless anti-Catholic prejudice by both Protestants and many Jews. It carefully gathers data that only supports the author's thesis and ignores the vast amount of information gathered by Catholics and Jews that show the Church's efforts to help Jews. At the time of this posting there was an incident in Israel where a monastery had "Jesus is a monkey" in Hebrew on one of the walls. Where is the outrage? The reality is that it is OK to condemn and insult the Catholic Church. This book is without worth and certainly devoid of any honest conclusions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You are of your father the Devil, and his works you seek to do. He is a liar and murderer from the beginning. When he lies he speaks his native language, for he is a liar and the father of lies. Since long before Christ's reforms, Judaism has been a force for evil in opposition to all humanity. Most modern Jews are ashkenazim, they have no claim to Abraham as their father, they are not Semitic (like Arabs and Sephardi Jews who have lived in peace together in Palestine for centuries). They are, simply put, the Synagogue of Satan. Truth is hard to take for those who live to deceive.
Guest More than 1 year ago
In "The Popes Against The Jews", Kertzer meticulously documents how the Vatican and the European Catholic Church created a fertile ground for the genocidal policies of Nazi Germany. In precise and penetrating studies of recently revealed, previously sealed, archives of the Catholic Church, Kertzer shows that the innate vilification, condemnation and de-humanisation of the Jews by the Catholic Church did nothing but endorse the racial anti-Semitism of the Nazi regime and that it is ludicrous to suggest that such a policy could have had any other consequence than to assist in the extermination of the Jewish people. These anti-Jewish sentiments are shown to have existed at the highest levels within the Catholic Church. Kertzer also reveals how the ancient `Blood Libel', the evil, abhorrent, ancient myth of Jews using the blood of Christian children to make Matzos at Passover, was widespread within the Vatican. (A myth still propagated in areas of the Mid-East to this day.) This study shows how the Vatican's recent official statement absolving itself of any involvement is preposterous in face of the vast amount of evidence available. Evidence that the Vatican, in sitting in judgement upon itself, chose to overlook. What is especially disturbing is that the book describes a human institution consisting of Popes, Cardinals, Bishops, Inquisitors, Monks and Parish Priests, that in following the aforementioned principles actually believed & were convinced that they were doing God's work. Commendably, Kertzer also mentions the many figures who struggled in vain to change the Vatican's policy against the Jews. The author shows that even if, as the Vatican claims, they never approved the extermination of the Jews or indeed opposed it, their teachings and actions helped make it possible. This book needs to be read by Christian and Jew alike and faces issues that must be addressed head-on by the Vatican and the Christian Church as a whole if Catholic-Jewish relations are ever to be fully normalized. Well written & highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If the evidence in this book were not presented in such an authoritative and factual manner, the accusations concerning the role of the Catholic Church in promoting anti-semitism over the centuries would be unbelievable. In any case, the church needs to explain, refute, justify or possibly admit to this travesty and indicate responsibility or its efforts to correct this injustice.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is a superb book. Sometimes truth is hard to take; I think this book will raise awareness for a better future.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have been an advocate for the Catholic church for years, but after reading and researching the claims in this book, I have changed my mind. Next to the bible, this book is one of the truest ever written!