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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:

  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. 

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