e-mail us

Spring Books

Book takes on papal anti-Semitism


By David I. Kertzer
Alfred A. Knopf, 345 pages, $27.95


David Kertzer adds yet another selection to what is becoming a virtual book of the month club on institutional Catholicism, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. A professor at Brown University and author of the much-discussed The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, the account of a baptized Jewish boy forcibly taken from his parents by church officials, Kertzer presents a detailed account of the significant role of the popes and other senior church leaders in fomenting societal anti-Semitism in the two centuries preceding the Second Vatican Council and its historic “Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.”

Some of the information in the volume has been exposed by other authors such as Ronald Modras. But Kertzer has probed newly available archival material from Vatican sources more thoroughly than any previous author on the subject. He does himself a disservice in this regard by having his volume associated with John Cornwell’s Hitler’s Pope through an endorsement by Cornwell on the book’s dust cover.

Unlike Cornwell’s superficial volume whose notoriety has been based largely on misleading publisher’s hype, Kertzer has presented us with a substantive volume generally based on sound scholarship even if one takes issue with some of his arguments, especially toward the end of the book. This is a serious work that deserves significant attention by Catholics as part of the honest self-assessment of the church that Pope John Paul II made a core component of the recent Jubilee celebration.

Kertzer begins his narrative with a discussion of the 1998 Vatican document on the Holocaust, “We Remember.” This document, while well intentioned, illustrates the problem with the way Catholic leaders have traditionally handled the issue of Catholic anti-Semitism. While “We Remember” does acknowledge, according to Kertzer, some personal complicity in the spread of anti-Semitism by members of the Catholic church, it argues that the anti-Semitism of the 19th and 20th centuries was essentially a secular (even anti-Catholic) phenomenon and implies that the church in fact opposed such anti-Semitism.

I share some of Kertzer’s criticism of “We Remember” on this score. It did fail to highlight that popular preaching, catechesis as well as church art had a decisive hand in aiding the growth of modern anti-Semitism, which “We Remember” is correct in attributing primarily to non-religious factors such as the new genetics and its biological racism. But Kertzer has failed to note the expanded interpretation of “We Remember” offered by Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the document’s principal author. Nor does he fully understand the theology of the church that is present within the document. While Cassidy’s interpretation of “We Remember” does not fully answer Kertzer’s or my criticisms, it certainly does move us in the direction of a closer connection between traditional Catholic and modern forms of anti-Semitism. Kertzer is either unaware of Cassidy’s writings as well as other commentaries on “We Remember” or simply chooses to ignore them. Neither represents sound scholarship on his part.

The main thrust of The Popes Against the Jews is the argument that the profound inability of the popes and other Vatican leaders to deal with the challenge of political and cultural modernity in Europe led to an active campaign, often employing classic Christian anti-Semitic themes and activities, against the Jews who were seen as significant proponents of modernism and liberalism, often referred to as Freemasonry. Here Kertzer is on solid ground in my judgment, even if one might disagree with this or that particular point. I have argued this thesis in some of my own writings. But Kertzer’s work on the newly available Vatican archival documents solidifies this contention beyond question.

Catholicism’s 100 years war with modernity, led by the popes whose administrations Kertzer examines in this volume, came to an end only at the Second Vatican Council. In light of the papal activities cited by Kertzer such as a resurgence of the ritual murder charge, of the dogged anti-Judaism campaign by the semi-official Vatican newspaper Civilta Cattolica and of the active encouragement of anti-Semitic political parties in Austria in particular, the approval of Nostra Aetate at Vatican II appears as even a greater about-face than we previously imagined.

The late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called for total honesty in dealing with church history in such matters. Kertzer’s volume should help the church confront its shadow side more profoundly than it has. Only in this way can it retain moral integrity today.

While I believe the central thesis advanced in The Popes Against the Jews is on target, the latter part of the book has definite flaws. I found the chapter on “race” overly simplistic as Kertzer strains to make a direct connection between Catholic anti-Semitism and biological racism. Kertzer is generally to be critiqued for failing to address the continuity-discontinuity issue in terms of Christian anti-Semitism and racial anti-Semitism far more thoroughly. He gives some indication throughout the book that he does not see a simple straight line connecting the two. But the question needs a far more direct airing than he provides.

Part Three with its chapters on “A Future Pope in Poland” and “Antechamber to the Holocaust” is poorly done. He skims through the papacy of Pius XII in a few pages while offering a clear indictment. Either he should have stopped his narrative with the papacy of Pius XI or done a far more extensive analysis of Pius XII. Obviously he did not have the kind of archival material available to him for this period that he did for the earlier papacies. This part of the book does not reflect sound scholarship.

In sum, this book is a challenging volume. While significantly flawed at the end, it presents us with a basically accurate picture of direct, active involvement of the papacy in the spread of anti-Semitism in the modern world. It is a history that Catholics today need to integrate into their faith perspective rather than bury in a cave.

Servite Fr. John T. Pawlikowski is professor of social ethics and director of Catholic-Jewish Studies at Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. He is also a member of the Bishops’ Advisory Committee on Catholic-Jewish Relations and since 1980 a member by presidential appointment of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

National Catholic Reporter, February 1, 2002