One sometimes sees the claim that the Church “didn’t really” burn any heretics/witches/sodomites, as these were handed over to the civil powers to be executed. There are three things wrong with such apologetics. First, such actions were clearly motivated by Church doctrine. Second, the victims were caught, tried, sentenced and handed over in full knowledge of what would happen. Third, in many areas of medieval Europe—Rome, those parts of the Papal States it was able to assert civl rule over, German Prince-Bishoprics, Palatine-Bishoprics (such as Durham)—the Church was the civil authority.
In the case of the Papal States, the Church remained the civil authority through much of the C19th. So Kertzer starts his history (Part One Keeping Jews in Their Place) looking at the Church’s treatment of the Jews in the Papal States: particularly after the restoration of Papal rule in 1814.
Napoleonic rule, in line with French Enlightenment principles, had freed the Jews from all inequalities in civil law. As soon as Papal rule was re-established, these were re-imposed. Pope after Pope laboured to ensure the Jews were put back in their ghettoes. Forced baptisms of Jewish children continued to be an issue.
Indeed, the Papacy was so reactionary, that Metternich comes across as a liberal, urging reform. The Habsburg monarchy was a private and public supporter of better treatment of Jews, particularly due to the Rothschild influence on Metternich.
The disappearance of a Catholic priest in Damascus in 1840 was blamed on Jews, the Ottoman authorities managing to extract—via torture—the requisite confessions which led to Catholic trumpeting of ritual murder charges. The Austrian authorities acted with rather more humanity.
Papal government was not popular in the Papal states and was only able to maintain itself via foreign (French and Austrian) troops. The unification of Italy restricted Papal rule to Rome and, after French troops withdrew in 1870, to the Vatican palace. The Italian state—unified against the efforts of the Papacy—was happy to grant Jews civil equality. The Jews were out of their ghettoes, the Pope was captive in his (p.130).
Part Two, The Church and the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, looks at the various ways Popes and senior Catholic hierarchs fanned anti-Jewish feeling: through the burgeoning Catholic Press (Kertzer concentrates particularly on the journals and newspapers which operated with prior Vatican vetting), through dissemination of the blood libel, through support for anti-Jewish political activism in France and Austria. (In both countries anti-Semitism developed a stronger popular base than in majority-Protestant Germany.) So the conference of the Christian Democrat movement in France in 1896 had four parts—one on anti-Semitism, one on the struggle against Freemasonry, one on building a social Catholic movement and one on Catholicism and republicanism (pp 180-1). Kertzer successfully demolishes attempts to dissociate the Church from various anti-Semitic activists, showing that it was not their anti-Semitism that was problematic for the Church.
The central claim of Catholic apologetics is that the Catholic Church has never endorsed race thinking. That is, it was anti-Judaic rather than anti-Semitic in any racial sense.
Kertzer points out that the Church could not endorse full biological anti-Semitism, as Jesus and all the Apostles were Jews (p.205). He then lists a dozen key themes of anti-Semitism and proceeds to show that every one was endorsed and promulgated by the Catholic Church, including various Popes.
Which leaves the thirteenth, the claim that Jews were biological inferiors. Which, as he is easily able to show, also had a long history in the Church. In the late C15th, Catholic Castile-Aragon, along with expulsions and forced baptisms, promulgated the estatuos de limpieza de sangre, statutes of blood purity. Which came to be applied to offices within the Church. In 1547, the archbishop of Toledo banned those of Jewish blood from receiving Church assistance. Various monastic and religious orders excluded from membership people of Jewish blood. The Jesuits banned people of Jewish blood back for five generations from being members from 1592, a rule which applied until 1946 (p.207). It was removed in 1946 because, post-Holocaust, the embarrassment of the Nazis and the later Fascists using the example of the Jesuits to justify their own exclusions was just too great.
Perhaps the height of Catholic hypocrisy on the issue was when an Czech archbishop who was born Jewish was asked to resign in 1892 since his Jewish name was causing too much public antipathy (p.208). The call in a Vatican newspaper in 1898 for a healthy anti-Semitism that is non-violent (p.212) sums up the Church’s position.
There were some awkwardnesses. English Catholics, aware of what being a religious minority was like and having good relations with English Jews, made—from the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminister, Lord Russell (the Catholic Chief Justice) and the Duke of Norfolk (the most senior Catholic peer) on down—something of pests of themselves over some of the more outrageous cases. Kertzer’s cites some fairly damming internal Vatican documents to show how much the Vatican was irritated by this English concern and how it read them in standard anti-Semitic terms as showing the nefarious influence and power of the Jews.
While Pope Pius X did issue a statement noting previous Papal statements not supporting claims of ritual murder, the 1911-1913 Ukrainian blood libel case was trumpeted by Catholic organs as proof of ritual murder.
Kertzer concludes in Part Three (On the Eve of the Holocaust) by first looking at the role of the future Pope Pius XI in Poland after WWI. His reports back to the Vatican included statements such as
one of the most evil and strongest influences that is felt here, perhaps the strongest and most evil, is that of the Jews (p.251).After he became Pope, he told Mussolini that, while most Italian Jews were basically good, the hordes of Jews who livd in Central and Eastern Europe were a threat to healthy Christian society, a lesson he had learned in Poland (p.263).
The final chapter, Antechamber to the Holocaust, examines revealing facts in the Church’s role in the lead up to the Holocaust. Kertzer notes that Pius XI’s response to the anti-Jewish racial laws promulgated by Fascist Italy in 1938 was limited to strong and persistent protests over treating Jews who had converted and married Catholics as Jews. The rest of the anti-Jewish provisions were passed over in silence (p.287): a classic example of the Church’s commitment to freedom being limited to the freedom to be Catholic.
When Mussolini fell, the Vatican applied to new Italian Government to have those provisions abolished. The Vatican rejected pleas to support full civil equality for Jews (p.289). This was 1943.
The Germans marched in and took over Northern Italy. About a thousand Jews from the old Roman ghetto were rounded up. The Vatican Secretary of State made remonstrations to the German Ambassador to have them spared. The German Ambassador made it clear that Hitler supported the seizures. The Vatican Secretary of State made it clear that no public protest from the Vatican would occur. In Kertzer’s words, which end his book.
Two days later, over a thousand of the Jews rounded up in Rome by the Germans were placed on a train bound for Auschwitz. Only a handful would leave there alive (p.291).Kertzer’s book establishes that no institution was more responsible for the development of modern anti-Semitism in Western and Central Europe than the Catholic Church. Yes, the Tsarist regime and the Orthodox Church were enthusiastically anti-Semitic. Yes, the Lutheran Church—particularly in Germany—had it own shameful record, flowing directly from Luther’s Jew-hatred.
But no other institution matched the Catholic Church for organisational reach, for persistence and for pervasive support, from Popes on down: every single key theme of anti-Semitism—included notions of tainted blood—were actively supported by the Church. It is hard to claim that it was some weird accident that the Nazi Party was led by an Austrian Catholic, that all the major organisers (Himmler, Eichman, Heydrich) were born and raised Catholic (embarrassingly, none were ever excommunicated), that the Nazi Party had its original stronghold in Catholic Bavaria, toned down its anti-Semitism to broaden its appeal to (particularly Protestant) voters and that Catholic Austrians were disproportionately organisers and implementers of the Final Solution.
And the notion that the world is purified by the extermination of the evil and tainted? That is an impeccably Catholic idea too.
Kertzer's book makes it clear that the Catholic Church has much to answer for over its avid promotion of degradation of Jews.