David Kertzer’s 2001 book, The Popes Against the Jews is well-researched and readable. It’s not for the faint-hearted; it reminds me of Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 blockbuster, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, which I was never able to finish. Kertzer, the author of The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, took advantage of the access he was granted to the Vatican’s secret archives in 1999. The Pope had just finished an internal investigation of the Vatican’s role in the Holocaust, and--- surprise, surprise--- concluded the Catholic church had no guilt or complicity in the slaughter of the Jews. The Vatican insisted its objections to Judaism were based on religious principle, and not on racial anti-Semitism. As Kertzer points out, this is a distinction that is hard to sustain. It’s the “hate the sin, love the sinner argument” that always rings hollow. Yes, the Vatican concluded, it approved and promoted articles in Catholic newspapers opposing the Jewish religion, but they never incited violence. When a thousand years of insisting that Jews remain locked in the ghetto, and that Jews regularly murder Christian children at Passover, a climate of genocide is created.
The Pope, historically, was a political as well as a religious ruler. By the mid-19th century, the land the Pope ruled was greatly diminished, consisting chiefly of Rome and central Italy. The Vatican opposed Italian unification because it had to cede political authority. Italian unification was complete by the end of the 1860’s, but the Pope refused to recognize the fact until 60 years later. The Vatican had its own police force, spies, and soldiers. The Pope controlled the Jewish community with an iron fist. Jews were forced to wear special clothing, including a gold star. They were locked into the ghetto, or Jewish quarter, at night. The Roman ghetto was small and impoverished. Jews were forbidden from employing Christians, and the Vatican discouraged Christians from any contact with Jews. Jewish children who were secretly baptized without their parents’ knowledge were forcibly removed from their Jewish parents, and raised by priests. Kertzer’s previous book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara details just such a case.
Like all superannuated entities, the Vatican resented its loss of power. It found a convenient scapegoat for its ire, the Jews. The Popes, by and large, were incensed by the liberation of the Jews that occurred when Italy was unified. Through its network of newspapers and periodicals, the Vatican waged war on the Jews. Apparently most priests and Popes actually believed the Talmud commanded Jews to murder Christians. Papal-approved newspapers regularly printed incendiary articles accusing the liberated Jews of murdering Christian children at Passover. In fact, the eastern European folktale of the vampire was blended with a heavy dose of anti-Semitism, since it was believed Jews drained the blood of Christians to put in matzo.
The history of European Jews doesn’t have a happy ending. The two Popes who reigned during the fascist regimes of Hitler and Mussolini, Pius XI and Pius XII, had no objection to the harsh anti-Jewish laws imposed by the new political order. Few are aware that Italy enacted the same racial purity laws as Germany; Italian Jews weren’t deported for execution, though, until Mussolini died and Hitler took over northern Italy. The only real complaint the Vatican had with fascism was that new political bodies had co-opted its pet project of anti-Semitism.
There were, of course, Catholics of good will who opposed the Vatican’s relentless persecution of Jews. Archbishops in England and America refused to print some of the Vatican’s most scurrilous anti-Jewish polemics, and urged the Popes to moderate their anti-Jewish attitude.
In California, the Catholic church has recently joined forces with the Mormon church to fight the political liberation of gays. The language used by the church is exactly the same as its anti-Semitic rhetoric. The church hates the sin of homosexuality, but doesn’t condone violence against the gay community. Of course, when there is anti-gay violence, the church resorts to the same old “blame the victim” meme. When pogroms occurred in eastern Europe, the Vatican refused to condemn them, insisting that Jews shouldn’t be surprised when their behavior resulted in murder. Gays shouldn’t be surprised at anti-gay violence, they provoke it by being so open.
As America, and the world, enters a period of what may be prolonged economic hardship, xenophobia and racism have again surfaced. Gays, who have some political liberation, could easily be the next target. Currently it’s Latinos and Muslims who are the victimized; there’s no reason to believe that gays and even Jews could be next. Kertzer’s work is invaluable, reminding us of the human tendency to scapegoat the minorities. The old line of “hate the sin but love the sinner” never ends well.