David L. Kertzer’s explosive new book “The Popes Against The Jews” already has tongues wagging among interfaith experts, and it hasn’t even officially come out yet.
They say the disturbing revelations and conclusions by the respected Brown University historian is sure to cause further tension in an already stressful relationship between the Vatican and Jewish leaders.
Using never-before-seen documents from the Vatican’s secret archives, Kertzer contends that despite Vatican denials, it was generations of official Vatican anti-Jewish virulent rhetoric and policies, approved by the popes, that set the stage and fanned the flames for the Holocaust carried out by the Nazis.
He cites evidence that pre-World War II Pope Pius XI, popularly thought to be a “friend” to Jews, actually harbored the same anti-Semitic sentiments as his predecessors.
Kertzer also proves for the first time that the Vatican supported accusing Jews of ritual murder of Christian youth into the 20th century.
Indeed the book, which is due in bookstores this week, comes as Vatican-Jewish relations have been steadily deteriorating in recent months. Just last week, three Jewish scholars wrote an angry letter to the head of the Vatican’s Jewish relations commission in what has been a series of back and forth name-calling over who is to blame for the sudden demise of a joint Catholic-Jewish historical project to study the role of World War II-era Pope Pius XII and the Vatican during the Holocaust.
The scholars halted their work, blaming the Vatican’s failure to make its secret Holocaust-era available to them.
The scholars letter follows angry charges by a top Vatican historian, who, with the apparent backing of top Church leaders, accused Jewish historians of betraying the Vatican’s trust and launching a slanderous campaign against the Vatican.
And several weeks before that, Jewish leaders expressed public anguish over Pope John Paul II’s silence during and after the Syrian president publicly denigrated Jews employing the hateful deicide charges.
There have been other recent books attacking the Catholic Church and Pope Pius XII for its policies against Jews, including last year’s “Constantine’s Sword” by James Carroll and “Hitler’ Pope” by John Cornwell.
But they did not have access to recently opened Vatican secret archives. Kertzer did, and he uses those documents as strong evidence in his main thesis: that the Vatican was very much involved in the development of modern anti-Semitism and shares responsibility for making the Holocaust possible.
He thus adamantly refutes the contention by a 1998 Vatican report known as “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah” that the Catholic Church bore no responsibility for Nazi-induced Holocaust.
“The Vatican Commission, which came out with a report after 11 years, totally misrepresented what that history was,” Kertzer said during a telephone interview last week.
“Unfortunately the official Church is unwilling and unable to come to terms with its own history.”
“If it’s a credible book, and I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be, it’s going to make things much more difficult” between the Vatican and Jews, warns Father John Pawlikowski, director of Jewish-Christian Studies at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.
Kertzer himself acknowledges that these are bleak times for Vatican-Jewish relations. But he believes his book — filled with new revelations about Vatican sponsored incitement against Jews — can ultimately lead to a frank new discussion between the two faiths, which can ultimately help with a deeper reconciliation.
“I would say that this is potentially a crucial time in the history of Vatican-Jewish relations. Following a time when it seemed that a new level of mutual respect and understanding was about to be reached, we now face the risk of a new period of mutual mistrust and recrimination. I see my book as offering the basis for a frank discussion with the Church about that history, a discussion that I think is absolutely necessary to avoid a setback to Catholic-Jewish relations.”
Kertzer’s book, subtitled “The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism,” rejects the Vatican’s current contention that there is a major distinction between the Catholic Church’s own history of “anti-Judaism,” which the Vatican claims was merely a religious policy, and modern “anti-Semitism,” which the Vatican says is a racial, socioeconomic movement, and that the Church did not engage in because it is against Church doctrine.
As evidence, Kertzer presents pages and pages of memos, confidential letters, and other archival documents to show a continuous line of anti-Jewish policies from popes beginning in the 19th century, even as Jews were winning some civil rights in the rest of Europe.
The popes forced the Jews in the Papal States to live in cramped ghettos with no hospitals and forbidden to practice most occupations. The Vatican steadfastly held to these policies into the 20th century, despite pleas from Jews and some Church leaders, including some high-level cardinals.
Then, Kertzer shows, the Vatican continued fomenting anti-Jewish rhetoric into the 1930s, accusing Jews of a conspiracy to control the world.
When Mussolini approved racial laws against Jews in fascist Italy in 1938, where Jewish teachers and school children were barred from public schools and Jewish adults fired from their civil service jobs, the pope was silent.
Kertzer also shows that the Vatican has censored anti-Semitic comments of Pope Pius XI from the official public record of his letters, which raises questions about other Vatican archival material released by the Holy See.
“They censored out some of his worst anti-Semitic passages and that’s a bit chilling,” said Kertzer, who is the son of the late Rabbi Morris Kertzer, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee in the 1950s.
Kertzer says the book should re conceptualize the current debate over the proposed beatification of Pius XII. He says the question should not just focus on what Pius XII failed to do to help Jews, but more importantly “the important role the Church played in conditioning the European people in demonizing Jews for decades.”
Kertzer became involved in the issue of Vatican Jewish relations when he began research on his previous book, 1997’s “The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, the story of a 6-year-old Jewish boy who in 1858 was kidnapped by the Church, sanctioned by Pius IX, who last year was made into a saint.
The story fascinated Kertzer and when the Vatican opened up its 500-year-old Inquisition Archives for the first time in 1998, he was granted access.
The Vatican has yet to comment on the book. An American Catholic spokesman Eugene Fisher could not be reached for comment.
Sister Mary Boys, a Catholic expert on Jewish-Christian relations at Manhattan’s Union Theological Seminary, said she expected the Vatican to react defensively to Kertzer’s findings.
“I think there’s going a lot of circling of the wagons in the Vatican,” she said.