Monday, January 31, 2011

“The Popes Against the Jews,” Part 1

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth. He wrote a review of the work, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican’s Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, by David L. Kertzer, a professor at Brown University, which appeared in the journal First Things. I will rely on Rubinstein to set out the scope of what I hope to write about in the coming week or so:
there has until now been no general history of Catholic hostility to the Jews in modern times which argues for the importance of the Catholic Church, especially the Vatican, in engendering modern forms of anti-Semitism.

This gap is not coincidental. Modern “racial” anti-Semitism, emphasizing the ethnic separateness and evil of Jews in European societies, has always been distinguished from premodern forms of anti-Semitism, which were religious in nature, founded in the rejection by Jews of the divinity of Jesus. Although there is widely admitted to be some overlap between the two, post-1870 racialist anti-Semitism, culminating in the Nazi Holocaust, is also almost always seen as categorically different from previous varieties of anti-Semitism, often anti-Christian and “pagan,” and founded in social Darwinist pseudo-science and national xenophobia.

It is the argument of David Kertzer’s The Popes Against the Jews that there was less difference between the two forms than has previously been understood. The author argues for a consistent pattern of Catholic, indeed direct Vatican, involvement in engendering modern forms of anti-Semitism. Professor Kertzer focuses on events that are well-known, such as the Mortara case and the Dreyfus Affair, and on aspects of this question that are less well-known, such as the Church’s response to “ritual murder” charges (the absurd claim, first advanced in the Middle Ages, that Jews murder Christian children at Passover in order to use their blood to bake matzoh) and the thoroughgoing anti-Semitism of much of the Catholic press. Prof. Kertzer skillfully and not unsubtly traces the differences in attitude towards the Jews among the Popes between about 1740 and 1940.
First of all, note what Rubinstein is saying here. Even though it is not subtle, Kertzer’s account is a skillful one. His work is historically accurate, (though note the title of the piece, suggesting that Kertzer’s account is merely one side, the “prosecuting” side.) What follows is a true story, and the events, as they are reported, are not in question, even from First Things, which, in its defense of Roman Catholicism in this regard, has been highly vocal.

History, to my knowledge, seeks to uncover the facts and tell the story of what happened. Even if Kertzer does only tell “the prosecuting” side, Rome has had ample time and space to “tell its side of the story.”

So Rubinstein’s piece here seeks to provide “the other side of the story,” the “defense” of Roman Catholic treatment of the Jews during this time. It seems as if the heart of Rubinstein’s complaint about the work is that Kertzer wasn’t nice to the Roman Catholic Church. He continues:
Although an excellent and well-written piece of historical research, [emphasis added] The Popes Against the Jews goes out of its way to magnify the role of anti-Semitism within the Catholic Church. Indeed, it greatly magnifies the importance of the Jews for the Church, and compounds this by viewing every aspect of the Church's attitude towards the Jews with post-Holocaust eyes.
So, the Jews weren’t high on the radar screen of the official Church. They weren’t a danger to the Church, and so, the Church (meaning the hierarchy) wasn’t paying very much attention to them. And yet, as Kertzer notes, some popes focused keen attention on their posture toward the Jews.

* * *

Norman Davies, in his “Europe, A History” (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1996) writes about the history of the treatment of the Jews by the Roman Catholic Church, and treatment of the Jews throughout Catholic Europe:
In many Italian cities, walled and gated quarters reserved for Jews had existed at least since the eleventh century. They resulted from the concordance of view between the municipal magistrates, who demanded segregation, and the Jews’ own religious laws, which forbade residence among Gentiles. In Venice, the Jewish quarter was called Il Ghetto, either from a contraction of borghetto or ‘little town’ or from a deformation of the gietto or ‘foundry’ which had once existed there. The name [“Ghetto”] came to be used across Europe. Major ghettos were created in Prague, Frankfurt, Trieste, and in Rome, where the ghetto was maintained from 1536 to 1870….

To escape from the ghetto was no simple matter. Would-be escapees had to defy the laws and customs both of the Gentile and of the Jewish communities, and to risk dire penalties. Until modern times, formal conversion was often the only practical way out (pg 338).
In his First Things piece, Rubinstein defends Roman Catholicism this way:
The Popes Against the Jews ends pointedly with the roundup of over a thousand Roman Jews by the Nazis for Auschwitz. Yet Kertzer never clarifies the connection between the Church’s view of the Jews and the Holocaust. Prof. Kertzer understands perfectly well that the resemblances between the attitudes of the Church towards the Jews and Nazi anti-Semitism are extremely minimal, and, indeed, quite rightly takes pains to point out that “the Nazi goal of a racially purified society . . . is clearly contrary to Catholic theology.” He also, to his credit, warns us “to be careful not to view history backwards.” Most pointedly, he tells us that he does not “mean to suggest that the Roman Catholic Church is alone to blame for the Holocaust. Such a conclusion would be ludicrous.” Nevertheless, the author never actually discusses what Nazism owed to the Catholic Church and its teachings, [emphasis added] which is, of course, precisely nothing.
What is he saying here? It sounds like this: “Even though the Catholic Church had for centuries rounded up the Jews, forced them to live in ghettos and to identify themselves by wearing yellow badges on their clothing, and even though this activity conditioned 20th century Europeans not to be alarmed when Jews did get rounded up and herded off in this way, at least we never tried to kill them. At least Roman Catholic teaching never specifically identified ‘a final solution’.”

In truth, centuries of Roman (and papal) treatment of the Jews provided the deadness of conscience to the spectacle of Jews wearing yellow badges and being rounded up and herded off to the ghettos. If not for centuries of precisely this kind of treatment, the Nazis would not have gotten nearly so far as they did.

Rubinstein seems to want to make that distinction between official Roman Catholic teaching and everything else the official Roman Catholic Church did. It’s the Alias Smith and Jones defense. For all the trains and the banks they robbed, they never taught anyone. Or in this case, For all the mistreatment of the Jews, they never articulated “a final solution” in official Roman Catholic teaching. “No, the Nazis were never taught by way of official Roman Catholic doctrine that it’s ok to kill the Jews. Therefore the Roman Catholic Church is not culpable in any way.”

This is precisely the nature of the Roman Catholic defense of itself.

For those who are interested in looking ahead, James Swan has referred me to his article Luther and the Jews, which looks specifically at some of Luther's writings on the topic of the Jews, and puts them into context.

6 comments:

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"In truth, centuries of Roman (and papal) treatment of the Jews provided the deadness of conscience to the spectacle of Jews wearing yellow badges and being rounded up and herded off to the ghettos. If not for centuries of precisely this kind of treatment, the Nazis would not have gotten nearly so far as they did.

Rubinstein seems to want to make that distinction between official Roman Catholic teaching and everything else the official Roman Catholic Church did. It’s the Alias Smith and Jones defense. For all the trains and the banks they robbed, they never taught anyone. Or in this case, For all the mistreatment of the Jews, they never articulated “a final solution” in official Roman Catholic teaching. “No, the Nazis were never taught by way of official Roman Catholic doctrine that it’s ok to kill the Jews. Therefore the Roman Catholic Church is not culpable in any way.”

This is precisely the nature of the Roman Catholic defense of itself."


This is actually not a strawman. I have seen this polemical defense before by Catholics.

Kim said...

"In truth, centuries of Roman (and papal) treatment of the Jews provided the deadness of conscience to the spectacle of Jews wearing yellow badges and being rounded up and herded off to the ghettos".

What a fallacial argument of guilt by association.

Let's try this one:

"In truth, centuries of protestant Germany's funding armies, provided the deadness of conscience to the spectacle of armies marching into Poland".

or how about:

"In truth, centuries of protestant Germany's ignoring the authority of the Pope provided the deadness of conscience to the spectacle of treating Jews contrary to Catholic teaching."

Constantine said...

There is no "guilt by association" here because the Vatican was not "associated" with anti-Semitism - it was the perpetrator. And lest anybody trot out the old "yes, there were bad men who were popes but the papacy is pristine" nonsense, this went on for centuries. By my count, at least 24 consecutive popes beginning with Paul IV. This was clearly an institutional - as opposed to a personal - problem.

And I love the fact that you brought Poland up, Kim! Perhaps you can explain why all of the Nazi death camps were in Poland - the only European country NOT touched by the Reformation. Or why Catholic Austria accounted for such a disproportionately large number of crimes against the Jews.

To the Vatican's credit, it seems that they have begun to allow access to their archives on this matter. It's not a pretty story. But smearing others is merely a deflection.

John Bugay said...

There is no "guilt by association" here because the Vatican was not "associated" with anti-Semitism - it was the perpetrator. And lest anybody trot out the old "yes, there were bad men who were popes but the papacy is pristine" nonsense, this went on for centuries. By my count, at least 24 consecutive popes beginning with Paul IV. This was clearly an institutional - as opposed to a personal - problem.

One of the things I like about Kertzer's work is that he cites papal documents. A lot of them are in Latin or Italian, and I can't read them. But everything he is saying is verifiable.

And of course, I'm going to be citing several articles by Heiko Oberman, who wrote extensively about this same issue, Jews in the ghettos, at the time of the Reformation.

It was a long-standing problem. People who want to chastise Protestants because Luther wrote against the Jews don't seem to understand that Luther's writing on that topic, as harsh as it may seem to modern ears, was really on the restrained side, compared with some of the other things that were being promulgated by the official [Roman Catholic] church at the time.

So yes, let's return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, and see what was going on that shaped OUR world in so many ways.

steelikat said...

Part of what Rubinstine seems to be saying here (though not very clearly, at least not in the quotes here given us) is that Roman Catholicism before the 20th century as well as the pre-reformation western Church was not so much anti-semitic (in a racial sense) as it was anti-jewish (in a religious sense).

Probably true as far as it goes, but German and Austrian Roman Catholics (and Lutherans) were plenty anti-semitic in the racial sense at the time of Hitler's rise, I think. And, what difference does it make politically and practically speaking what the reasons for the persecution were?

John Bugay said...

Steelikat, it's going to take some time to get through all of this. Essentially, Rome deflects responsibility from itself with the distinction between "religious anti-Judaism" and "racial anti-Semitism". But Kertzer makes the point, over and over again, that this is no real distinction at all -- and I'd say you can't separate these two things at all -- they are made of the same thing. They feed from the same stream, and that stream is medieval Roman Catholicism.