The Popes Against the Jews:

The Vatican’s Role in the Rise

For the first time, every aspect of Jewish life in a European city was regulated and segregated. Jews had to live inside a walled enclave, could not own property, could not employ Christian servants, could support themselves only by trading in used goods, and were required at all times to wear yellow badges identifying them as Jews. Warsaw in 1939? No, Rome in 1555.

Although it’s associated with Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe and the American inner city, “ghetto” is an Italian word. The rulers of 16th-century Rome didn’t invent anti-Semitism, but they did codify it in a form that lasted nearly 400 years. One central point of David I. Kertzer’s The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism is that the Roman Catholic Church essentially wrote the anti-Jewish rules that Hitler and Mussolini imposed in the 1930s. In fact, even after Mussolini was deposed, in 1943, the church proposed eliminating only one of the Italian fascists’ “racial” laws: the ban on marriage between Catholics and Jewish converts to Catholicism, which Pope Pius XI had maintained intruded on the church’s right to oversee matrimony.

Pius XI, who died in 1939, was the immediate predecessor of Pius XII, labeled “Hitler’s pope” by British journalist John Cornwell’s 1999 book of that title. Kertzer, a Brown University professor, barely mentions Pius XII, who’s a controversial candidate for sainthood. In a sense, the book is all about him; it’s a history of the Vatican anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust, which Pius XII did little to prevent. But to Kertzer, the man who was pope during World War II is less important than the forerunners who had approved and even furthered outrageous propaganda against Jews for centuries.

The Popes Against the Jews occasionally reaches back to the medieval period to discuss the origins of certain strains of Vatican anti-Semitism, but mostly it recounts how medieval the church remained in the 19th and 20th centuries. The Catholic hierarchy and its allies propagated anti-Semitic lies well into the 1930s, when their refrain was joined by the Nazis. In a 1914 discussion of a “ritual murder” case in Kiev, one church newspaper still insisted that Jews drank the blood of Christian children. When Jewish groups in Britain, Germany, and the United States asked the Vatican to intervene in the case, it declined, refusing to “take initiative of addressing any communication” to the judge; in fact, the church’s response came from a cardinal who was especially interested in the “Jewish question” because he was related to a 13th-century Spanish boy venerated because he supposedly had been ritually murdered by Jews for his blood. (Ironically, it is not Jews but Catholics who claim that they—via transubstantiation—drink blood in their ceremonies.)

Kertzer’s account effectively begins in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, which brought French troops and the ideas of the French Revolution to Rome. Twice in a decade, the invaders opened the doors of the city’s Jewish ghetto and declared all men equal under law. After Pope Pius VII was restored to the throne, in 1814, however, he tried to turn back the clock, restoring the restrictions on Jews who lived in the Papal States. Most of his successors continued the battle against liberalism, democracy, and secularism, as well as such new threats as Masonry, socialism, and international capitalism—all of which the popes blamed on Jews.

Italy was not yet a unified country, and in 1861, when it finally became one—save for Rome, which was still ruled by the pope—the Vatican began more than a half-century of ideological resistance. As his secular power waned, Pope Pius IX restored the Inquisition and pressured the duchy of Tuscany to rescind freedoms its Jewish residents had won in the 1848 revolution; in 1870, the year that Italian forces finally conquered Rome, the First Vatican Council officially declared the doctrine of papal infallibility.

That dogma has become problematic, because several “infallible” popes have preached anti-Semitic vilification of the sort that’s no longer generally accepted in the Christian world. In 1998, a church report tried to explain that the popes once taught “anti-Judaism,” which exposed theological errors, but not “anti-Semitism,” which was “more sociological and political than religious.” Kertzer rejects this distinction, although he acknowledges that it’s one the church hierarchy has long attempted to make.

The Vatican often encouraged commentators who asserted that Jews were racially inferior, morally subhuman, or innately depraved, yet such claims were a potential inconvenience to church doctrine. After all, Jesus, his disciples, and his venerated mom were all Jews, and the Torah is part of the Christian Bible. In addition, many church leaders believed that Jews could (and should) be converted. Thus Catholics could believe that Jews inherently smelled bad, as long as they accepted that a Jew’s stink would disappear when he was baptized.

The Catholic explanation for Jewish wickedness was that it stemmed from a document that had nothing to do with the Catholic Bible: the Talmud, the famously difficult miscellany of Jewish law, commentary, and more. Supposedly, the Talmud ordered Jews to hate, exploit, and even murder Christians, and to use their blood for religious rites. Periodically, Catholic authorities would organize mass burnings of copies of the evil book.

While officially teaching otherwise, however, the church got pretty chummy with those who did believe that the Jews were a race apart, inhuman and irredeemable. Such Catholic newspapers as Civiltà cattolita and La Croix—which billed itself as “the most anti-Jewish newspaper in France”—offered scathing attacks on Jews, even threatening physical violence. This contradicted Catholic teachings, yet these publications were generally encouraged by the Vatican. The popes did not protest when a Polish priest in 1923 called for exterminating Jews, “down to the last one,” or when a prominent member of the Catholic-backed Austrian political party joked that during baptism Jewish converts should be immersed “for the duration of five minutes,” or when leading French anti-Semite Edouard Drumont claimed that not even baptism could banish a Jew’s innate stench. Indeed, despite the church doctrine that Jews could be saved by baptism, the Jesuits’ 16th-century ban on accepting members of Jewish descent was not lifted until 1946.

The Popes Against the Jews is based primarily on documents from the Inquisition archives, which the Vatican opened to scholars in 1998. Because it draws so heavily on official pronouncements, the book is sometimes dry, although it’s enlivened by astonishing tales of Jews accused of ritual murder and of Jewish children abducted from their families because someone claimed the kids had been baptized and thus could not remain with their unsanctified parents. (One such incident is the subject of Kertzer’s previous book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.) The author’s own prose, although lucid and admirably unmannered, can also be a little stodgy. Explaining the appeal of the Masons, he writes that “people wanted to join mainly as a way of making social contacts, meeting intellectual needs, and providing satisfying social interaction.” Sounds like fun!

The book will probably prove too specific for most readers, and by design, it’s a bit repetitive: After demonstrating that the church abetted anti-Semitism in Italy, Kertzer then makes roughly the same argument about France, Austria, and Poland. His focus on Catholicism also leads him to barely consider some crucial factors in European anti-Semitism. Although he notes that Hitler spent his youth in strongly Catholic—and thus anti-Semitic—Austria, Kertzer is obliged to almost ignore Germany, which was predominantly Protestant. When he discovers “Germany’s emerging anti-Semitic movement” in 1892, he’s at least a few decades (and possibly a few centuries) behind the curve.

Still, Kertzer has achieved his aim, demolishing the Vatican’s distinction between the bad “anti-Semitism” of the secular world and its own, not-so-bad “anti-Judaism.” Cornwell ends his book by concluding that Pius XII was “not a saintly exemplar.” Kertzer can now add: Neither were his 19th- and 20th-century predecessors. CP