“The Jews—eternal insolent children, obstinate, dirty, thieves, liars, ignoramuses, pests and the scourge of those near and far….They managed to lay their hands on ….all public wealth….and virtually alone they took control not only of all the money….but of the law itself in those countries where they have been allowed to hold public offices.”
“The whole sinew of modern Judaism—that is of the antisocial, antihumanitarian, and above all anti-Christian law that the Jews now observe believing that they are obeying mosaic law—consists essentially in that fundamental dogma according to which the Jew cannot and should not ever recognize as his fellow human being anyone other than a Jew. All others, whether Christian or non-Christian, must be considered, by every good Jew observing his law,….as hateful enemies, to be persecuted and, if possible, exterminated….from the face of the earth.”
“….brotherhood and peace were and are merely pretexts to enable them to prepare—with the destruction of Christianity, if possible, and with the undermining of the Christian nations—the messianic reign that they believe the Talmud promises them.”
“….if this foreign Jewish race is left too free, it immediately becomes the persecutor, oppressor, tyrant, thief, and devastator of the countries where it lives.”
“The whole Jewish race….is conspiring to achieve this reign over all the world’s peoples.”
“….the Jews truly do murder Christians to use their blood in their detestable Talmudic and rabbinical rites….”
“Content yourselves….with the Christians’ money, but stop shedding and sucking their blood.”
One might suspect that these are rants issued by Hitler or one of his Nazi henchmen. However, that would be very wrong. David I.Kertzer provides these quotes in his book The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism. They were taken from articles written for Civiltà cattolica, the unofficial medium by which the Vatican disseminated its views, and for L’Osservatore romano, the Vatican’s own publication.
“Five days before each issue [Civiltà cattolica] came out, the journal director went out to the Vatican and, up until Pius XII, in the mid-twentieth century, was often received by the Pope himself, who—along with the secretary of state—reviewed and approved the contents of the upcoming issue.”
What are included above are relatively mild examples of anti-Jewish statements that were published. These were written towards the end of the nineteenth century. They represent views the Popes were propagating then as they aligned themselves philosophically with a host of anti-Semitic movements that were springing up across Europe.
The persecution of the Jews by the Catholic Church is not well-understood by modern Christians. The truth would seem incredible given modern sensibilities. Kertzer must describe that truth in order to progress to his ultimate goal: the assessment of degree to which the Catholic Popes contributed to the environment which made possible the holocaust.
Kertzer is careful to disassociate the actions of the Popes as individuals from the actions of the Catholic Church as a whole. While the official policy could be defined in the Vatican, it could not constrain the sentiments and emotions of the many ecclesiastics working in the field.
Kertzer was assisted in his research by the decision of the Vatican to open many of its files to outside researchers. He acknowledged the generosity of this move given the fact that his work was aimed at a critical assessment of the Vatican’s actions.
The historical relationship between Christians and Jews is complex and long. In simple form, the nascent Christian Church found it could not survive as a creation of Jews because the majority of Jews denied its validity. To avoid the embarrassment of being shunned by its natural constituency, the Christians had to separate themselves from the Jews and become a religion that would appeal to gentiles. As in any such divorce, the argument over right and wrong became one of good versus evil. To the Christians, the Jews went from misguided brethren to tools of Satan. While always trying to convert the Jews to Christianity, by torture if necessary, the Jews who failed to convert were considered a danger to Christianity that must be controlled and isolated.
Kertzer focuses on the events of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Over much of that period the Popes were not only spiritual leaders but heads of government in the regions consisting of the Papal States. The actions taken as heads of state are clear indicators of goals and intentions.
As the nineteenth century approached, laws regarding the treatment of Jews were defined by several Papal pronouncements. The first was issued by Pope Paul IV who came to power in 1555.
“One of his first acts as pope was to issue a bull that rescinded all of the Jews’ previous privileges, forbade them from engaging in any occupation other than selling rags, or from owning any land or houses, and ordered that they be confined in a ghetto….surrounded by walls that closed them off from the Christian population, with gates that locked them in at night.”
Such provisions were alternately relaxed and strengthened by succeeding Popes. Kertzer’s story begins with the reign of Pius VI who came to power in 1775 and who would live long enough to be buffeted by the events set in motion by the French Revolution. Pius VI would insist that the restrictions on Jews be administered and strengthened and issued a pronouncement on the subject in 1775.
“Everyone was able to tell who was a Jew, because, in another sixteenth-century papal provision reiterated in the 1775 edict, Jews were required to wear a special badge on their clothes. ‘Jews of both sexes must wear a yellow-colored sign, by which they are distinguished from others, and they must always wear it at all times and places, both in the ghettoes and when they are outside them.’ The men were to wear the yellow sign on their hat, and women on their uncovered hair. To prevent the Jews from giving themselves airs, they were forbidden from riding in carriages or buggies.”
“Jews were not allowed to keep shops or warehouses outside the ghetto and their social isolation was to be strictly enforced. ‘The Jews may not play, nor eat, nor drink, nor have any other familiarity or conversation with Christians, nor Christians with Jews, whether in buildings, houses, or vineyards, nor on the street, or in inns, taverns, stores or elsewhere’.”
The French Revolution unleashed pent-up desires for increased personal freedom and the Jews gradually gained more opportunity to participate in society throughout Europe. It also unleashed the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon twice invaded and took control of the Papal States and sent the Pope fleeing. He also opened the ghetto gates and set the Jews free. When he was finally defeated and the Pope regained control of the lands he ruled, he had a choice to make. He could accept the inevitable and relax the constraints imposed on the Jews, as had happened in other countries, or he could reestablish the old rules and attempt to continue as before. Many in the Church argued for the former path; the majority of the Church leadership argued for the latter. Ultimately, Pius VII concluded that though society might change, God-given religious directives could not. The original restrictions were reinstated.
“….his own view of the pope’s duty to treat the Jews as forever degraded, perpetually condemned for the killing of Christ, combined with the near-universal urgings of the cardinals around him, made him unwilling to take that fateful step. Had he acted differently….the entire history of the Church’s relations with the Jews over the next century and a half might have followed a different course.”
The “old” restrictions could be traced back to religious origins. As the nineteenth century played out and ran into the twentieth, the Jews would be subject to what Kertzer refers to as “modern” anti-Semitism. As a clearly identifiable minority with a “history” of evil deeds—conveniently provided by Christian clergy—it was but a small reach to attribute other societal ills to the Jews as the tumult of modernization proceeded. The Vatican’s campaign against modernity was particularly focused on the evils of socialistic, and eventually, communistic, philosophies which they viewed as “Godless” threats to religion. They associated the Jews with these and other efforts they found inimical.
The quotes listed at the beginning target Jews as a social problem rather than as merely a religious problem. They are cast as unpatriotic citizens who are part of an international conspiracy to first control individual countries and then the world. Along the way they were to become wealthy at the expense of the non-Jews and destroy the Christian faith.
These descriptions of the Jews were becoming part of radical political movements in European countries. The Vatican’s publications provided valuable support for those political activities. When these political parties came to power in Germany and Italy they could limit controversy by modeling their racial policies on those of the Catholic Church.
“….they could only exploit the Church in this fashion because the Church had indeed helped lay the groundwork for the Fascist racial laws. Decade after decade, forces close to the Vatican had denounced the Jews as evil conspirators against the public good. Decade after decade saw the Vatican-linked press lament the baleful effects of the emancipation of the Jews. For decades, Church authorities had warned of the harm done by giving the Jews equal rights. For decades, the Italian Catholic press had denounced the Jews’ disproportionate influence in Italy. After all this, it should hardly be surprising that Mussolini’s anti-Jewish campaign met with little resistance from Italian Catholics.”
Even more ominously, the Vatican made it clear to civil governments that they had the right to address the problem of Jews in any way they saw fit. Kertzer provides an apt quote from a sermon given by the Bishop of Cremona in 1939 as Mussolini was implementing his racial laws against the Jews.
“Only a few weeks after the second wave of Italian racial laws was announced, the bishop told his congregation: ‘The Church has never denied the state’s right to limit or to impede the economic, social, and moral influence of the Jews, when this has been harmful to the nation’s tranquility and welfare. The Church has never said or done anything to defend the Jews, the Judaics, or Judaism.’ The sermon received broad attention, and was quoted in the Vatican’s own Osservatore romano.”
Even as the Jews of Rome were being rounded up for transport to the extermination camps by the Germans, Pius XII chose to not make an expression of displeasure. Kertzer had access to the notes made by Cardinal Maglione, the Vatican’s secretary of state, on a meeting with the German ambassador Enst von Weizsäcker. The Cardinal asked for leniency for the Jews and said the Pope was distressed by these activities. Weizsäcker asked what might happen if the actions against the Jews continued. Maglione replied:
“The Holy See would not like to be constrained to have to pronounce its words of disapproval.”
Weizsäcker told Maglione that his orders came from Hitler himself, perhaps suggesting that someone of equal stature, such as the Pope himself, should protest. The Cardinal did not rise to that bait and instead reminded the ambassador that his plea was based on the ambassador’s “human sentiments,” and described his follow-up comments as follows:
“I wanted to remind him that the Holy See was, as he had himself noted, most prudent in not giving the German people the impression of having done or wanting to do the least thing against Germany during a terrible war.”
The transport of Jews continued and so did the silence of the Vatican.
After the war the role of the Vatican came under criticism. John Paul II was moved to appoint a commission to “determine what responsibility, if any, the Church bore for the slaughter of millions of European Jews during World War II.” After eleven years of deliberation, the commission reported in 1998 that the Church bore no responsibility.
“Efforts to deny Catholic Church involvement in the rise of modern anti-Semitism have made much of the presumed lack of a racial element in whatever hostility the church had directed against the Jews in the past. As embraced in the 1998 Vatican Commission report on the Shoah, this argument consists of three parts: (1) One of the defining features of modern anti-Semitism is the view that the Jews constitute a separate, and inferior, race; (2) the Church has always condemned racial thinking, for it goes against the Church’s universal mission; and so (3) the Church could not have been involved in the development of modern ant-Semitism.”
Destroying that feeble defense was Kertzer’s goal, and he does a masterful job in attaining it. The few quotes presented at the beginning of this piece clearly indicate the Church was singling out Jews as a separate race with extremely undesirable characteristics.
The Vatican would not accept responsibility for the Holocaust, but it would eventually apologize for the harm it had done the Jews.
The subject of the book was the activities of the Catholic Church and it leaders, but it should not be assumed that their actions and sentiments were unique. Kertzer reminds us of a quote from Martin Luther.
“In his 1543 essay On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther branded the Jews a ‘plague of disgusting vermin’ who sought world domination. He urged that their books, synagogues, schools, and houses be burned.”
And we should also note that the Jews themselves are capable of becoming as nasty as anyone else when they are in the majority and hold power.
Kertzer’s intent was to reveal the truth of what had occurred because there is a lesson to be learned. He summarizes:
“It is an age-old story of a powerful religion or a powerful people that believes in its own divinely ordained position as sole possessor of the Truth and repository of all that is good, and pitted against it, a despised minority, the Other, the agent of the devil. It should not have taken the Holocaust to teach us how dangerous such views of the world can be, but, since the destruction of the Jewish millions, we owe it to the survivors and ourselves to learn its lesson.”