Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Review of "The Popes against the Jews" by David Kertzer

(Also published under the title Unholy War in the UK)

This is a book by the distinguished Jewish American scholar David Kertzer exploring the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jewish people during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Kertzer was inspired to write this book by the publication in 1998 of a Vatican report entitled We Remember.  This was a reflection on the Holocaust and Catholics' responsibilities in relation to it.  It was cautiously welcomed by Jewish groups at the time, but, like any internal report, it pulled its punches when it came to attributing blame to the institution that had commissioned it.  While it acknowledged the existence of historical anti-Jewish prejudice among Christians, it argued that the modern antisemitism that led to the Holocaust was a distinct, secular phenomenon, "essentially more sociological and political than religious".  It made a point of recalling that Pope Pius XI and the German bishops had denounced Nazi racism, and that the Nazis had persecuted Catholics too.

Kertzer felt, not without reason, that this was something of a whitewash.  We Remember is best seen as a case for the defence, and Kertzer has effectively sought in this book to put forward the case for the prosecution.  In this endeavour, he does a solid and scholarly job.

The story begins in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars.  As the waters finally began to recede from the revolutionary deluge of 1789, Pope Pius VII was faced with a choice.  Should he follow the advice of Cardinal Consalvi, his Secretary of State and one of the great churchmen of the age, and adjust his policies to the modern world - or should he, as the hardliners around him counselled, try to turn the clock back to the old days?  He decided to turn the clock back.  Consalvi was outnumbered in the College of Cardinals, and a few years later he found himself out of a job when the hardliner Annibale Della Genga was elected to the papacy as Pope Leo XII.  This was the start of a line of reactionary conservative popes that lasted until (depending on who you listen to) the accession of Leo XIII in 1878, Benedict XV in 1914 or John XXIII in 1958.

It is safe to say that the 19th century was not the Catholic Church's finest hour.  The strategic choice made by the popes of the era to resist the advance of modernity led to the Church adopting a dark and rigid Counter-Enlightenment worldview, as I have described elsewhere.  Not many Catholics today, even conservative ones, would defend the positions that the Church adopted in this period (though there a small number who would).  There is nothing more dangerous than a wounded animal, and the embattled and beleagured condition of 19th century Catholicism lent an added venom, and a dose of bigotry, to the anathemas that it flung at various ideas that it felt threatened by and people that it deemed to be its enemies.

As Kertzer notes, this failure of the Church to come to terms with the modern world meant decades of reactionary measures directed against the Jews.  The Jews of the Papal States were excluded from citizenship, locked in ghettoes, placed under legal restrictions, deprived of their children if the latter chanced to be baptised, and required periodically to listen to sermons aimed at converting them.  Most ominously of all, the years after 1840 saw an unexpected revival in Catholic circles of the most repellent antisemitic lie of all, the 'blood libel' - the mediaeval allegation that Jews killed Christians, and Christian children in particular, in order to procure blood to consume in their religious rites.

The blood libel makes no sense at all from a Jewish perspective.  The kosher laws strictly forbid consuming blood of any sort, quite apart from the small matter of YHWH's commandment against murdering people.  The origins of the blood libel, like those of the 'satanic ritual abuse' scare in the 1990s, appear to lie in the intersection of religious and cultural ignorance with moral panic masquerading as concern for the welfare of children.  There can be no serious doubt that it is a complete fabrication, as had been acknowledged by several popes earlier in history (Innocent IV, Gregory X and Clement XIV).  The 19th century, however, saw a hardening of attitudes.  The episode that gave new life to the old myth was the murder of a Franciscan priest caled Fr Tommaso in the Ottoman city of Damascus.  In February 1840, Fr Tommaso was mysteriously killed shortly after a heated altercation with a local Muslim muleteer.  The local Jews were blamed for his death, and the affair became an international cause célèbre.  Vatican hierarchs played a role in discreetly feeding the anti-Jewish version of events to the press.

The accession of Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) led initially to some modest improvements in the condition of the Jews of the Papal States.  The ghetto laws were slightly relaxed, and some of the more degrading customs were abolished.  But the wild hopes of change that accompanied these modest reforms were soon to be dashed.  Pius IX was a little less hardline that his predecessors, but he was never a liberal, and in the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions (which forced him to flee from Rome in disguise) he was in no mood to grant any more concessions to modernity.  He even reneged on what seems to have been a tacit deal with the Rothschild banking family that he would abolish the ghetto in return for badly needed financial assistance.

All in all, history will not remember Pius XI as a friend of the Jewish people.  It was he who was responsible for the famous Mortara affair.  He helped along the cult of one of the alleged Italian child victims of Jewish ritual murder, and he honoured Henri Gougenot des Mousseaux, a French antisemite whose 1869 book The Jew was one of the first works to combine the old blood libel with the modern myth of a Jewish conspiracy aiming at world domination.  To borrow the distinction made in We Remember, it was roughly at this point that the transition can be seen from old-style Christian religious antisemitism to the modern "sociological and political" variety.  The old view of the world in which Jews were contemptible Christ-killers who should be made to live in ghettoes until they converted to the true faith was giving way to a new worldview in which Jews were millionaire bankers and publishers who owed allegiance to no-one but themselves and were plotting to take over the remaining bits of the world that they didn't own already.

It would be a mistake to imagine that the latter variety of antisemitism was something altogether separate from old-style religious anti-Judaism, and to this extent Kertzer is right.  Catholic writers and journalists were quite happy to buy into both sets of libels.  All the same, the distinction made by We Remember is not without foundation.  The myth of the Jewish world-conspiracy was something new, and it had supporters on the radical left as well as the Christian right.  It was a mutation of the fairly recent conspiracy theory that blamed the French Revolution on a conspiracy of Freemasons, and its secular and political aspects make it difficult to see it as distinctively Catholic.

Pius IX was succeeded in 1878 by Leo XIII, who was (as I have noted elsewhere) quite a different sort of pope.  Though he was by no means a liberal, his attitudes towards the modern world were considerably more moderate and pragmatic than those of his predecessor.  Kertzer asserts that he was just as reactionary as Pius and that he was simply better at public relations, but this is one of Kertzer's more tendentious claims.  Of all the 19th century popes, Leo is the most difficult to portray as a benighted antisemite.  Kertzer himself concedes that he rarely spoke about the Jews and that he used temperate language when he did so.

All the same, Leo's record on antisemitism was, sad to say, not unblemished.  From December 1880, the highly influential Jesuit journal La Civiltà Cattolica waged a virtiolic antisemitic campaign which lasted for over three years and was resumed in the 1890s.  The Jews, readers learned, were the enemies of decent Christian society.  They killed Christian children and consumed their blood.  In more recent times, once they had been released from the ghetto, they had become dangerously rich and powerful.  They and their Masonic allies were everywhere.  There were also to be seen some traces of the notion that Jews are inherently pernicious as a race.

There is no suggestion that Leo himself was behind any of this.  The leading role was apparently played by a certain Fr Oreglia, who seems to have had something of an obsession about Jews.  Nonetheless, La Civiltà Cattolica was closely linked with the Vatican, and its contents were routinely reviewed before publication by the Secretary of State or even by the Pope himself.  The conclusion cannot be avoided that the stomach-turningly bilious articles were published with Leo's acquiescence, if nothing more.  Other antisemitic articles appeared in the semi-official Vatican daily L'Osservatore Romano, as well as in Catholic newspapers in Italy and France.  Again, there is no reason to believe that Leo himself instigated any of this, and he did try to put a lid on some of it in the 1890s when the anti-Dreyfus coverage was getting out of hand.  All the same, he did largely allow defamatory antisemitic dross to be churned out under his nose.

The low-point of Leo's pontificate as far as antisemitism is concerned came in 1900.  Cardinal Vaughan of Westminster, the Duke of Norfolk and Lord Russell of Killowen, the Lord Chief Justice of England, petitioned the Holy See for a condemnation of the charge of ritual murder, and the matter was referred to the Inquisition.  It is clear from the archives that the inquisitors were convinced that the blood libel was true.  Their decision was issued on 31 July: the Holy See could not make the declaration of the Jews' innocence that the English Catholic pezzonovanti had requested.  This decision was endorsed by the 90-year-old pope, who (like all pontiffs) was the titular head of the Congregation of the Inquisition.  It was a sad and shabby end to a mostly distinguished pontificate.

Outside Rome and Italy, France was the major centre of antisemitic propaganda at this time.  The French bishops and the papal nuncio were rather lukewarm towards the cause, with the result that they were accused by the leading antisemite Édouard Drumont of being in the pay of the Jews.  However, there were plenty of Catholics lower down the food chain for whom antisemitism was an appealing cause.  Another centre of contemporary antisemitism was Catholic Austria.  Here, Leo effectively broke from his usual policy of keeping his distance from antisemitic political movements by endorsing Karl Lueger's Christian Social Party, a populist right-wing outfit with a pronounced streak of antisemitism.  One episode from Austria is quite revealing of contemporary attitudes in the Church.  The papal nuncio in Vienna publicly praised a local Jewish philanthropist.  Three Austrian bishops complained to the Vatican, and Leo asked the nuncio to explain himself.  He defended himself by emphasising his anti-Jewish credentials, but the Secretary of State nonetheless felt it necessary to warn him to avoid complimenting Jews in the future: it would only lead to people getting the wrong impression.

Pope St Pius X (1903-1914) was different from his predecessors, and presented a particularly sharp contrast with the aristocratic intellectual Leo XIII.  He came from peasant stock, and he had actually known and befriended Jews in the course of his priestly career.  He continued to maintain a friendship with one of them during his time as pontiff, and he granted a polite audience to Theodor Herzl, though he turned down his request for help in creating a Jewish state in Palestine.  He appears to have been disturbed by contemporary pogroms in eastern Europe, and he seems to have made some effort to stop them.

All the same, his doctrinal view of the Jews was still essentially the same as he had learned as a little boy in his catechism classes in Treviso: one had to behave decently towards Jews as individuals, but they were no longer the chosen people.  They needed to accept Christ and to receive Catholic baptism in order to be saved.  He bestowed honours and promotions on priests whose views were markedly antisemitic, and his administration continued to allow the Catholic press to turn out antisemitic propaganda.  Unbelievably, La Civiltà Cattolica was still publishing articles defending the blood libel as late as 1914.  (A small number of ultra-conservative Catholics continue to peddle the charge to this day.)

By this time, however, Catholic antisemitism had jumped the shark.  A modest thaw set in under Benedict XV (1914-1922) and his successor Pius XI (1922-1939).  Pius was the pope who issued the great anti-Nazi encyclical Mit brennender Sorge, who famously declared that "spiritually, we are all Semites", and who snubbed Hitler when the latter visited Rome.  Kertzer, however, argues that there was more to him than this.  He quotes from documents going back to Pius' time as Vatican representative in Poland at the end of World War I to show that the future pontiff was not free from vulgar prejudices about the Jews.  (Other historians have portrayed Pius' relations with the Jews during his time in Poland in a more favourable light.)  A few years later, when Mussolini was enacting his anti-Jewish laws in Italy, the only clause to which Pius objected (albeit vigorously) was that which forbade marriages between Catholics and Jews who had converted to Catholicism.

It may also be said that, beneath papal level, a significant number of rank-and-file priests kept up the fight against the Jews, notably the professional conspiracy theorist Mgr Ernest Jouin in France (who was honoured by both Benedict and Pius) and our old friend Fr Denis Fahey in Ireland.  Other clerics tried to turn the antisemitic tide by promoting a philosemitic organisation called Amici Israel.  This fell foul of the conservative forces in the Inquisition (by now renamed the Holy Office), and in 1928 a decree was issued dissolving it.  The decree contained a caveat condemning antisemitism, but luckily La Civiltà Cattolica was on hand to explain that this only applied to the wrong kind of antisemitism, a distinction often made in Catholic writings.

The weakest chapter of the book is the one that looks at antisemitism as racism.  Kertzer notes that there was a history of Catholics looking upon the Jews as a separate, tainted race.  But the pseudoscientific racism that led most directly to the Holocaust was rooted not in Catholic doctrine but in the theories of secular writers such as Georges Vacher de Lapouge and Houston Stewart Chamberlain, combined with a dose of political nationalism.  Such ideas were too difficult to reconcile with Christian anthropology and the Jewishness of Jesus, Mary and the apostles to develop a serious foothold in Catholic thought.  We Remember puts forward this argument, and Kertzer has the honesty to concede that there is "an element of truth" in it.  It is no accident that the chapter on race is the shortest and thinnest in the book.

Nonetheless, most of Kertzer's charges are essentially on target, and the Catholic Church cannot avoid confronting the more murky aspects of its past that he has unearthed.  This is an absorbing book - it is written in a spirit of candour and manifests a genuine desire to make known the truth.  It is not neutral in its perspective, but then this is not a subject that lends itself to neutrality.  It deserves to be read by anyone who is interested in the history of the period or in interreligious dialogue.