* Lew’s review of David Kertzer’s “The Popes Against the Jews”

Posted by Lew Weinstein on May 7, 2014


Kertzer presents a comprehensive, methodical, unemotional, fact-based examination that utterly destroys the assertions of the Catholic Church during and after the Nazi years regarding the links between the antisemitism of the Catholic Church and the indifference of many Germans and others to the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust.

NOTE:  Kertzer does not set out to prove that had the Church done differently, Hitler would not have murdered the Jews. It might have been more difficult. It might have been less complete. It might not have happened at all. But that is all speculation. Proving any of that, or even asserting it, is not part of Kertzer’s thesis.

Kertzer begins his case with the 1998 report of a Vatican Commission titled “We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah.” Pope John Paul II had asked the Commission to determine what responsibility – if any – the Church bore for the Holocaust. The Vatican report predictably denied any link between the attitudes of Christians toward the Jews promulgated through many centuries and the subsequent destruction of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis.

Kertzer says NOT SO. 

He asserts that the Church’s version is what many in the Church may have wished had happened, but it is not what actually did happen. Then he proves his damning assertion with the record of the Church’s own statements, in Papal and other high-level communications and in the Catholic press. He cites repeated Catholic denunciation of the the Jews as evil conspirators against the public good, Catholic lamentation of the baleful effects of the emancipation of the Jews, and Catholic warnings of the harm done by giving the Jews equal rights.

*** in 1880 Civilta cattolica published a series of 36 fiercely antisemitic articles … over 40 months … claimed that Jews were obligated to hate all non-Jews … that Christian societies had to protect themselves from the Jews … we told you to keep Jews in their ghettoes … you ignored our warnings and look what has happened! … Christian religion is everywhere threatened by the Jews and social disorder spreads … if the Jewish race is left free, it becomes the persecutor, oppressor, tyrant, thief and devastator of the countries in which it lives.

*** more from Civilta cattolica in the 1890s … the Jews thirst for world domination … Jews are always a foreign nation, a sworn enemy of their hosts’ well-being … Jewish civil equality (the emancipation of the 19th c) must be immediately revoked 

*** countering the Church’s assertion that it put forward a religious antisemitism that was not the same as the racial antisemitism preached by Hitler, Kertzer again cites from Civilta cattolica … the notion that Jews belonged to a separate race was introduced in the first article (of the 1880 series) … it is a grave error to believe that Jews are just a religion … they are Jews especially because of their race … because they are born Jews, they must remain Jews.

Civilta cattolica

All of these Catholic denunciations of the Jews were printed in a Jesuit biweekly called Civilta cattolica, founded at the request of Pius IX and supervised by a series of Popes and their Secretaries of State. According to Kertzer, it was, during the relevant years, the most influential Catholic periodical in the world, widely regarded as the unofficial voice of the Pope himself. Before publication of the cited articles, proofs were sent to the pope and his secretary of state for approval.

Friends of Israel (1926-28)

Kertzer’s history of the short-lived Catholic association called Friends of Israel is particularly illustrative. [NOTE by “Israel” is meant the people of Israel, the Jews, not the State of Israel which did not yet exist.]

*** Founded in Rome in 1926, its aim was the conversion of Jews. But Friends of Israel believed that – before conversion – changes had to be made in how the Church treated the Jews. They summarized their views in a booklet titled Pax super Israel (Peace Upon Israel), stating …

  • Jews should no longer be stigmatized as the “deicide people,” with all Jews for all time held guilty of the murder of Christ

  • stories of Jewish ritual murder should be dismissed as old wives’ tales

  • the Church should not support antisemitic movements (ie, Hitler’s Nazi movement)

  • the words “perfidious Jews” should be removed from the Easter liturgy

It is more than interesting that all of these Friends of Israel suggestions were later adopted by Vatican Council II in 1965 and are now consistent with Catholic doctrine.

How different might things have been if this tolerant view of Jews had been allowed to stand in 1928 and thus inform subsequent Vatican actions vis-a-vis Hitler?

But that was not to be.

*** The Holy Office of Inquisition (of which Archbishop Pacelli, later Pius XII, was a member) had apoplexy at the Friends of Israel’s suggestions, dissolved the group in 1928 after just two years of existence, and specifically forbade any further writing on the subject.

Kertzer has none of the bombast of Goldhagen’s A Moral Reckoning, but he makes many of the same points by carefully documenting the record of Catholic antisemitism and showing how this provided the foundation for actions later taken by the Nazis. It is very hard to deny your own words, endlessly repeated.

*** Kertzer shows how the Nazi’s 1935 Nuremberg Laws restricting Jewish behavior were modeled on measures the Church itself had enforced when it was in a position to do so

The Church claims of lack of responsibility for the antisemitism that made the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust possible by claiming that the Church never called for, or sanctioned, the mass murder of Jews

*** Kertzer grants that this assertion is true (if you ignore the Spanish Inquisition and the events leading up to it) but shows conclusively (to me at least) how the teachings of the Church, specifically including those of the Popes themselves, helped make the Holocaust possible. He calls this a sad truth the Vatican Commission fails to admit. 

*** Kertzer asserts, based on the more than ample evidence he has assembled, that “the transition from medieval antisemitism to the modern racial antisemitism of Hitler found in the Church one of its important architects.”


Untitled Novel - cover



One of the important themes of my novel is to show how the Church’s policies, positions and actions, well documented by Kertzer and others, influence my novel’s characters into first supporting or at least accepting Hitler’s rise to power and allowing his program of persecution of the Jews to go forward. Of course the Catholic Church was surely not alone in this. The Protestant churches, the French, British and US governments, the German political parties, and even US Jewish organizations can all stand in line to take their share of responsibility.

All of those who might have opposed Hitler more effectively were facing a foe whose capacity for evil was beyond their imagination. Even when he said what he was going to do, in those instances when he did not lie, it did not seem believable.

… and all of us, myself included, need to try to imagine what we would have done were we in the shoes of those who had to decide what risks to take and what consequences to be willing to accept for themselves and others they cared about.

It is my goal to put my readers in those shoes.



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