Getting Jews and the Vatican Wrong

The arrest of Mendel Beilis (center), a Ukrainian Jew who was accused of the ritual murder of a thirteen-year-old boy, tried, and acquitted in Kiev in 1913. Pope Pius X said of Beilis, ‘I hope that the trial will end without harm to the poor Jews.’


In responding to questions about its part in the tragedy that befell Europe’s Jews in the twentieth century, the Vatican—most importantly in its 1998 “reflection on the Shoah,” entitled “We Remember”—makes a crucial distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism. In “We Remember” the Vatican describes anti-Judaism as discrimination rooted in religious differences:

Erroneous and unjust interpretations of the New Testament regarding the Jewish people and their alleged culpability [for the death of Jesus Christ] have circulated for too long, engendering feelings of hostility towards this people.

It describes anti-Semitism not as religious in nature, but rather as

sociological and political…based on theories contrary to the constant teaching of the Church on the unity of the human race and on the equal dignity of all races and peoples.

The Vatican’s statement points particularly to the rise of National Socialism as being instrumental to the development of anti-Semitism. In this account, it was anti-Semitism rather than anti-Judaism that made the Holocaust possible.

In his widely praised book The Popes Against the Jews (2001), David Kertzer, the Paul Dupee Jr. University Professor of Social Science at Brown University, argued convincingly that the Vatican’s account of the development of anti-Semitism “is a history that many wish had happened, but it is not what actually happened.” The distinction made by ecclesiastical writers in the late twentieth century was, rather, “an article of faith,” Kertzer contended, “that relieved the Church of any responsibility for what happened” during the Holocaust. In fact, he found that almost all of the elements of modern anti-Semitism—including allegations of racial difference—were “not only embraced by the Church but actively promulgated by official and unofficial Church organs.”

The Popes Against the Jews begins with a sobering account of the treatment of the Jews in domains under papal power beginning in the nineteenth century when, despite appeals from his own secretary of state and the government of Austria following Napoleon’s fall, Pius VII (1800–1823) reestablished some of the more odious conditions for Jews in the Papal States, including ghettos. Kertzer goes on to argue forcefully that far from resisting the rise of modern anti-Semitic ideas, some Catholics (including diplomats, priests, journalists, and writers) helped promulgate many anti-Semitic slurs and libels about Jews and their “Talmud-based religion”; and popes lent them the sacred imprimatur of the Vatican.

Grounded in extensive archival work, Kertzer’s book was also based on published materials. He found evidence from Vatican-linked periodicals to suggest that the Church’s writers had described Jews in racial terms. For example, in 1898, L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican’s daily newspaper (founded in 1861), complained, in a generic reference, about the Jew, who had abandoned “himself recklessly and heedlessly to that innate passion of his race, which is essentially usurious and pushy” (emphasis added). Kertzer cited thirty-six articles from La Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuits’ biweekly (founded in 1850), that, he argued emphatically, were part of an anti-Jewish campaign and “crucial to the rise of modern anti-Semitism.”

One of the characteristics of this form of anti-Semitism is the idea that Jews are not just religiously and culturally different but racially alien. To Kertzer, it was the papacy—along with many of its foes—that helped to monstrously dehumanize the Jews, that imagined them as a separate people and race, not just practitioners of a different religion, and that stimulated followers to view them as different, treacherous, and iniquitous.


When Kertzer’s book was published, it received overwhelmingly positive reviews, but a few serious scholars raised objections to the latter part of the book.1 Some took issue with his argument that the Holocaust could in part be traced directly to the Vatican’s often reprehensible behavior toward Jews in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the most challenging review to appear was by the distinguished historian Owen Chadwick, who argued in these pages:

Kertzer is particularly successful in showing that the Vatican used bad judgment in picking minor officials. The worst case is that of the priest Ernest Jouin, a leader of French anti-Semitism….
What Kertzer does not prove is the connection between his evidence about the Vatican and the Holocaust. Reinhard Heydrich, the principal designer of the strategy of extermination, had no interest in race theory; his only concern was power…. Alfred Rosenberg, another Nazi promoter of anti-Semitism, from time to time picked up anti-Semitic material from Catholic fanatics….
The Holocaust was born in Germany, with roots in the German nineteenth century. It was not born in the last years of dilapidated papal Rome. Nor was it born in the anti-Semitism of some members of the clergy.2

But Chadwick’s critique is unconvincing. First, Jouin was not central to Kertzer’s case. Second, Chadwick’s focus on Heydrich and Rosenberg reverts to a now discredited form of exculpatory history: the Shoah was exclusively the fault of Hitler and of a small gang of henchmen surrounding him. Whether Heydrich really was “the principal designer of the strategy of extermination” is debatable. Richard Breitman, the biographer of Heinrich Himmler, for one, concludes that Himmler, Heydrich’s superior, was “the architect of genocide,” and many agree.3

Kertzer never suggested that the Vatican directly motivated Hitler, much less Rosenberg. His main point was that such Nazi racists would never have had any chance of success unless millions of people were conditioned to view the Jews as they did: as a foreign body not loyal to their country, responsible for communism and the “plutocracy,” and masters of an evil conspiracy against good Christian society. This is precisely the kind of thinking to which the Vatican and the Church made major contributions.

Among the many to praise The Popes Against the Jews was Justus George Lawler. Lawler, formerly a professor of English literature at St. Xavier College in Chicago, has achieved considerable and well-deserved distinction as a man of letters. His work as an editor has brought to publication many fine and influential books, often with Continuum, an independent publishing house with which his name will be long and honorably linked. Lawler is also founder and editor of a journal with the same name. A literary critic by training, Lawler’s readings of English poetry are demanding, even abstruse, and often perceptive.

Unfortunately, in his 2004 book Popes and Politics Lawler bent the application of his New Critical, “close-reading” method to the study not of popes but of historians of popes. While not uncritical of apologists for twentieth-century popes, Lawler directed most of his attention to critics of several of them. He charged these critics with “verbal legerdemain,” “doctored texts,” “bogus scholarship,” “manipulation of data,” and above all “fabrication.” The same critical tone, charges of fabrication, and lack of familiarity with the recent scholarship can now be found in his latest book, Were the Popes Against the Jews?4

As Lawler himself concedes, he had “mentioned [Kertzer’s The Popes Against the Jews] favorably in Popes and Politics.” But now he has not only comprehensively changed his view. He has composed a book nearly four hundred pages in length devoted largely to withdrawing that praise and dispensing criticisms of the book he once lauded. Lawler’s attempt to account for his volte-face in the opening chapter is long (something like nine thousand words) and opaque; and it is difficult to find in it a clear argument. It seems that Lawler, on second reading, suddenly and unexpectedly discovered that Kertzer’s book deserved not a brief statement of admiration but a lengthy condemnation and refutation. After scrutinizing the beginning of the book, Lawler purports to have discovered, for the first time, suspicious errors in spelling and punctuation as well as other “hints” of what he takes to be prejudice on Kertzer’s part. He then gives a most peculiar explanation of how he interprets “hints”:

These hints often take the form of errors in spelling and punctuation, or of less blatant mistakes having to do with grammar, logic, and chronology. In themselves these may be insignificant and readily corrected, but they are often a clue to something beneath the surface of the author’s presentation that demands greater attention.

Then the explanation turns somewhat more bizarre:

The basic assumption behind this entire process is that any such minor disruptive element in the text of an experienced writer—and here I return to David I. Kertzer—is a kind of “tic” that betrays preoccupation with some rhetorical or logical stratagem that may reveal more about the author than his explicit statements [emphasis added].

For Lawler, such minor and inevitable errors in orthography or punctuation are evidence of nothing less than Kertzer’s anti-papal ideological agenda. “It was around this point in the process of evaluating the book that I decided to write a critique.” In fact, readers will discover that Lawler delivers not a critique, but an unfair attack.


First, Lawler does not give a fair account of Kertzer’s use of sources. He writes that the “publicized raison d’être” of Kertzer’s book was the cache of new revelations uncovered by his research in the Vatican archives. Nonetheless, Lawler later repeats, “almost all of Kertzer’s archival material is second-hand” and “in the most accessible area of [the public] domain, newspapers and magazines.” As he read further into the book, Lawler realized that Kertzer “seemed almost entirely dependent on the scholarship of Giovanni Miccoli.” Born in 1933, Miccoli has become the doyen of scholars of popes and anti-Semitism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a fact that Kertzer does nothing to deny and that he actually emphasizes. But for Lawler, it “gradually became more and more difficult to avoid the impression” that Miccoli had been “the source of almost every archival discovery or novel position and perspective in The Popes Against the Jews.

This is not a trivial charge. In effect, Lawler is accusing Kertzer at best of recycled work, at worst of plagiarism. His arguments, however, are not persuasive. If one examines Kertzer’s bibliography, it is clear that he occasionally searched out and read archival documents cited in Miccoli’s work, as any responsible historian of this period would. That said, Miccoli never published anything about, or even studied, much of the history Kertzer covers. Kertzer examines ecclesiastical policy toward Jews in territories in which the Vatican preserved temporal power, above all in the Papal States and nineteenth-century Rome. On the very first page of Kertzer’s notes is a “Guide to Citation of Archival Sources,” the first of which is explicitly identified as “the newly opened archive of the Inquisition at the Vatican.” Kertzer’s notes contain many references to sources from the archive that were not available to Miccoli. One wonders how Lawler missed this.

Even more serious than the charge of overreliance on another scholar is the allegation that Kertzer has “doctored” or “fabricated” texts, a charge Lawler repeats without adducing a single credible case. His first charge in this connection is that Kertzer misrepresented texts because he was not fully competent in Italian. Later he refers to Kertzer’s “alleged command” of Italian. These are dangerous claims, as one’s own Italian has to be good enough to detect errors in the translations of the author under review. In addition, Lawler is charging Kertzer with falsifying or inventing Italian texts based on Kertzer’s allegedly inadequate knowledge of Italian. Unfortunately for Lawler, not only is Kertzer’s Italian fluent and accurate; but Lawler’s own command of Italian is shown to be limited. Kertzer quotes Achille Ratti—the future Pius XI, from 1922 to 1939—expressing his fears for the Polish people, potential victims, in his mind, of ritual murder:

Pope Pius XI with his entourage at the Vatican, 1922
The more I have come to admire the goodness and faith of their people…the more I fear that they may fall into the clutches of the evil influences (cattive influenze) that are laying a trap for them and threatening them.

Kertzer translates cattive influenze accurately, as “evil influences.” Lawler retaliates that this translation is wrong because one would never translate cattivo tempo as “evil weather.” This is nonsense. Giuseppe Zanichelli’s authoritative dictionary translates cattivo as “evil,” “bad,” “mean,” or “nasty,” among other definitions. Kertzer has chosen the correct adjective. On one page, Lawler makes three Italian errors of his own: he has Revista for Rivista; dei modernista rather than dei modernisti; and Bonaiutti for Bonaiuti. A little learning, as all readers of Alexander Pope should know, is a dangerous thing.

As for Lawler’s charges of “doctoring,” “fabricating,” or “rigging” of arguments and texts, I will cite here only the two cases he takes to be Kertzer’s most serious misrepresentations.

Lawler writes at length about the so-called Beilis case. In 1913 Mendel Beilis (1874–1934), a Ukrainian Jew, was accused of ritual murder and put on trial in Kiev. Of Kertzer’s treatment of this case, Lawler concludes severely but, again, falsely: “This treatment entails Kertzer’s most clearly demonstrable rigging of arguments and doctoring of texts—at least up to that point in his book.” Later he adds, “As we will also see,…Kertzer is not above drastically mistranslating or doctoring crucial texts.” Lawler speaks of Kertzer’s “effort to convict a pope and his secretary of state of having refused to save the life of an innocent Jew at the ritual murder trial in Kiev.”

In Lawler’s telling, Kertzer “pre-designated” the villain of this narrative: it was Rafael Merry del Val, the cardinal secretary of state (1865–1930). It was he, in Lawler’s presentation of Kertzer’s account, who wished to see Beilis convicted of the ritual murder charge. It is true that Kertzer’s reading of the Inquisition’s archives leaves little doubt that del Val, a notorious anti-Semite, was not happy to see Jews acquitted of charges of ritual murder. Indeed, a letter he wrote suggests that he did nothing to stop certain French zealots from using the Beilis trial to “renew the ritual murder campaign against the Jews.” Other archival documents deriving from the philo-Semitic Catholic sodality Friends of Israel supply abundant evidence of del Val’s aversion to Jews.5

Here, however, Kertzer argues that it was likely that a letter from del Val, which may have been read by the tsar, was instrumental in exonerating Beilis. Far, then, from arguing that anyone at the Vatican attempted to have him convicted, Kertzer actually contends that Cardinal del Val and Pope Pius X attempted to defend him. He concludes, “After decades of papally approved campaigns smearing the Jews with the brush of ritual murder, a pope had stood up and defended them”; and he quotes the Pope as saying: “I pray that the trial will end without harm to the poor Jews.” Lawler responds to this by claiming that Kertzer has attempted “to debunk” the pope’s expression of concern for the Jews. As proof, he cites, somewhat puzzlingly, a section of Kertzer’s book “immediately following the quotation about ‘the poor Jews,’” in which Kertzer asks, “But if we take a step back, what exactly does the Beilis case show?”

Finally, there is Lawler’s argument regarding what he solemnly condemns as “the most blatant distortion of the pope’s words in the entire book.”6 Lawler charges Kertzer with “concoction,” “slander,” and all manner of scholarly dereliction. The question at stake is whether, and how, Achille Ratti’s experience as nuncio in Poland early in the twentieth century shaped the views of European Jews he would later hold as pope. Lawler charges that it was really Kertzer, utilizing his “ventriloquial virtuosity,” not the pope, who had emphasized the distinction between Italy’s Jews and the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe. In order to prove this, Lawler contends, “words are simply invented by the author [i.e., Kertzer] to be put in this pope’s mouth.” He is particularly upset with Kertzer’s conclusion:

The Pope [Ratti as Pius XI] thought that the Jews in Italy—a few of whom he had met—were basically good. But the mass of the Continent’s Jews, the hordes of Jews who lived in central and eastern Europe, were something quite different, a threat to healthy Christian society, a lesson he learned in Poland.

Again, it is hard to know what Lawler means by “blatant distortion.” The problem with Lawler’s argument is that Kertzer’s twelfth chapter is filled with distinctions made by Ratti, and by those writing in his name, between Eastern and Western Jews. Ratti complains that there is a disproportionate number of Jews in Poland. Contemplating the enemies of the church there, Ratti fears (in his own words, not Kertzer’s) that they may fall “into the clutches of the evil influences” that he has now seen “close up” in Poland, of which “perhaps the strongest and most evil, is that of the Jews.” Jews in the East were subject to pogroms because of their “link to the Bolsheviks”—a view that became central to anti-Semitic rhetoric. The Jews in Warsaw are “incredibly numerous”; it is on the basis of many such statements that Kertzer can refer to papal fear of “hordes.”

How could Lawler imagine that Kertzer has simply concocted such views? In fact, the final report of the Ratti Mission in Poland, a report largely based on letters Ratti had written to the cardinal secretary of state, asserts that “Poland is the most Judaized country in the world.” Jews, it says, form “the principal force” of Bolshevism in Poland. The Ratti report, Kertzer argued, “painted a picture of the Jews as an insidious foreign force eating away at the Polish nation.” In short, the reports on the Polish Jews Ratti himself wrote, along with the final report on his mission based on those reports, “allow us,” according to Kertzer, to comprehend “the attitudes that Pius XI brought with him when he became pontiff.”

As it happens, we have a particularly telling piece of evidence regarding Ratti’s distinction between Eastern and Western European Jews. The source is a letter Mussolini wrote summarizing the only meeting he ever had with the pope, on February 11, 1932. After complaining about the Protestants as propagandists, proselytizers, and foreigners in Italy, the pope, according to Mussolini, turned his attention to Russia and the East: “When I was in Warsaw,” the pope said, “I saw that the Bolshevik Commissioners…were all Jews.” He hastened to add that the Italian Jews represented an exception (In Italia, tuttavia, gli ebrei fanno eccezione).7 The pope here seems to be drawing a clear distinction between what he believed to be two different kinds of Jews: first, the Bolshevik Jews he saw in Poland, who seemed to be afflicted with what he called “Judaism’s anti-Christian antipathy”; and second the Italian Jews, who, he suggests, do not share this antipathy, and who thus pose no threat to Christian society.8


In a recent blog post on the attacks on Kertzer and this reviewer made not only by Lawler but also Ronald Rychlak (professor of gaming law at the University of Mississippi) and William Doino (a journalist for Inside the Vatican), Paul O’Shea discusses the larger issue of so-called “papal apologists,” those

who have for some time now enjoyed engaging in a largely unchallenged polemic against historians who do as their craft demands, namely seek the truth. For several years now apologists, that is, a group of neo-conservative writers and journalists, some with academic qualification, many with none, have taken it upon themselves to “set the record straight” on Pius XII, the Catholic Church and everything related to it.9

It seems likely that many of the apologists are using the popes as proxies in a larger cultural war. Some may be Catholic restorationists longing for simpler days when the human failings of those who occupy the See of Peter were not publicly recognized, and the vast majority of Catholics obeyed papal teachings unquestioningly. But mostly, the apologists for certain nineteenth- and twentieth-century popes strike me simply as people who find the truth too painful to confront. Rather than admit the failings of these popes, they prefer to attack the bearers of the bad news, often viciously. But fortunately, in many quarters of the Roman Catholic Church (including, very recently, Vatican City), a reassessment of the traditional “teaching of contempt” has proceeded nonetheless, with results that should be applauded.

For many papal apologists, critical examination of the papacy is tantamount to an attack on the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church. And let us give them their due: all persons of good faith should readily acknowledge that some writers on the left use the history of Catholic anti-Semitism to score unfair points against today’s Catholic Church. However, for professional historians, it is history, not ecclesiology, that is at stake in their research; this crucial point, to the dismay of professional historians, has yet to be grasped by papal apologists.10


Were The Popes Against The Jews?’ February 6, 2014

  1. 1

    See, e.g., Marc Saperstein, “An Indictment: Half Right,” Commonweal, Vol. 128, No. 16 (September 28, 2001). Kertzer responds convincingly in a letter to Commonweal, Vol. 121, No. 20 (November 23, 2001). Much less persuasive is, e.g., Ronald Rychlak’s “Spins of Omission: A Review of the Popes against the Jews,” Crisis Magazine (March/April 2002), written with wanton personal spite. Rychlak’s Hitler, the War, and the Pope, the vade mecum of papal apologists, was brought out in 2000 by Our Sunday Visitor, a Catholic weekly with a book publishing arm. While praised by fellow apologists for his trial-lawyer approach, Rychlak’s forensic dichotomies and false alternatives of good and evil (“Pius XII: Hitler’s Pope or Righteous Saint?”) cannot illuminate the complexities of lived history, which must almost always be painted in shades of gray. 

  2. 2

    Owen Chadwick, “ Bad for the Jews,” The New York Review, March 28, 2002. 

  3. 3

    See Richard Breitman, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (Hanover and London: Brandeis, 1991). 

  4. 4

    In the interest of full disclosure I should make it clear that on pages 186–192, 202, and 230 of Were the Popes Against the Jews? Lawler criticizes several articles I wrote on the history of the papacy during the Nazi era, disapproving of my comments on Kertzer and several other writers as well. I invite readers to compare this review to Lawler’s comments on those pages. 

  5. 5

    On del Val, see Hubert Wolf, Pope and Devil: The Vatican’s Archives and the Third Reich, translated by Kenneth Kronenberg (Harvard University Press, 2010), especially Chapter 2. On the basis of thousands of units of archival research, Wolf speaks convincingly, if chillingly of “echoes of völkisch interpretations” in de Val’s thought. 

  6. 6

    Earlier Lawler had referred to “the most blatant distortion of Ratti’s ipsissima verba [“very words” or “own words”] in the entire book.” 

  7. 7

    Here are the Pope’s exact words: “Ho ricevuto, proprio in questi giorni, il 36° volume, della biblioteca anti-religiosa russa. Sotto c’è anche l’avversione anti-cristiana del giudaismo. Quando io ero a Varsavia, vidi che in tutti i reggimenti bolscevichi, il commissario civile o la commissaria erano ebrei. In Italia, tuttavia, gli ebrei fanno eccezione. Ho avuto—un tempo—dimestichezza col vecchio Massarani, che era il padrone di Balsamo Monzese, e che dotò la chiesa del paese di una Via Crucis; con Elia Lattes e sono stato anche scolaro del rabbino di Milano, da Fano, Quando volli penetrare certe ‘nuances’ della lingua ebraica.” See Documenti Diplomatici Italiani, Series 7, Vol. 11, No. 205 (Rome: Libreria dello Stato, 1952–2007). 

  8. 8

    Lawler also denies that anti-Semitic articles were published in Civiltà Cattolica with papal approval—and this despite recent archival discoveries indicating requests from the pope, as well as the secretary of state, for such articles. Lawler also argues, preposterously, that Civiltà Cattolica was simply repeating what its writers heard in the ambient culture. Even if true, how would that excuse Jesuit writers and editors and Vatican officials from the charge of anti-Semitism? Equally ludicrous—risible, actually—is Lawler’s suggestion that a multi-decade campaign of dozens of anti-Semitic articles were issues about which the popes were not happy but which they were powerless to stop. 

  9. 9

    Paul O’Shea, “First Madigan, Now Kertzer: Open Season on Historians,” , April 27, 2012. 

  10. 10

    Finally, I must respond briefly to Lawler’s observation that I both praise Kertzer’s work and am “enthusiastic over the pope whom Kertzer exposed as being at heart another anti-Semite” (“Two Popes, One Holocaust” Commentary 130/5 [December 2010]: 27-32; see Were the Popes against the Jews? p. 188). That is so grossly uninflected a caricature of what I wrote, it would take pages justly to rectify. Most importantly is Lawler’s willingness to overlook the distinction I make as early as the first page of my article between Ratti’s early career and his last year as pope. “In terms of his attitudes to Jews and Judaism, Pius was, at the start of his service to the Vatican, no saint” (28). I dwell on his Pius’ XI’s “moral evolution,” his acceptance of “deplorable and dangerous anti-Semitic stereotypes” (28), his unwillingness to condemn violence against Polish Jews by Catholics, his clinging to anti-Semitic biases, like “Judaeo-Bolshevism” even as pope, a slowness in responding to the lethal consequences of Nazi antisemitism (29) and so on. I only observe that in his last year of his life did he begin to feel that Nazism was an anti-Catholic heresy and that he planned a speech against it, which he could not deliver before he died. With these distinctions in place, one can, contrary to Lawler, “have it both ways.” I stand by my enthusiasm for Kertzer and for Pius’s late but morally clear revulsion of Nazism. Lawler correctly observes that I misdated by three months Pius’ famous remark affirming that, spiritually, Christians were semites; I regret the error. Lawler’s remark on p. 187 that it was “quite clear [for Madigan] that Pacelli was indeed Hitler’s pope is such a shining example of Lawler’s bad faith, it hardly deserves a response. Readers interested in my actual views may access my review of Cornwell, Hitler’s Pope at