Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Popes Against the Jews, Part 4: Church Councils Against the Jews

Keep in mind that the Roman Catholic defense of itself in this matter relies on its own definitions and a distinction between them. As Kertzer notes:

* * *

And so, according to the report, a crucial distinction must be made. What arose in the late nineteenth century, and sprouted like a poisonous weed in the twentieth, was “anti-Semitism, based on theories contrary to the constant teaching of the Church” This they contrasted with “anti-Judaism,” long-standing attitudes of mistrust and hostility of which “Christians also have been guilty,” but which, in the Vatican report, had nothing to do with the hatred of the Jews that led to the Holocaust. (Kertzer, 4)

This, again, is how the Vatican report put it: Thus we cannot ignore the difference which exists between anti-Semitism, based on theories contrary to the constant teaching of the Church on the unity of the human race and on the equal dignity of all races and peoples, and the long-standing sentiments of mistrust and hostility that we call anti-Judaism, of which, unfortunately, Christians also have been guilty.

How realistic is this distinction? For the official, institutional Roman Church, it is enough to wash its own hands from any culpability. For a trained historian like Kertzer, it’s enough to make him drop his cookies.
When I read the news story of the Vatican press conference, and later read the text of the Commission report, I knew that there was something terribly wrong with the history that the Vatican was recounting. It is a history that many wish had happened, but it is not what actually happened. It is the latter story [what actually happened], sometimes hard to believe, often sad, that I try to tell in the pages that follow. (Kertzer, 4)
Some time ago Steve Hays touched briefly on this topic. In one posting, he reprinted verbatim the Canons of the 4th Lateran Council. (And note that other councils have ruled on treatment of the Jews as well):

Summary. Jews should be compelled to make satisfaction for the tithes and offerings [to the] churches, which the Christians supplied before their properties fell into of the Jews.

Text. The more the Christians are restrained from the practice of usury, the more are they oppressed in this matter by the treachery of the Jews, so that in a short time they exhaust the resources of the Christians. Wishing, therefore, in this matter to protect the Christians against cruel oppression by the Jews, we ordain in this decree that if in the future under any pretext Jews extort from Christians oppressive and immoderate interest, the partnership of the Christians shall be denied them till they have made suitable satisfaction for their excesses. The Christians also, every appeal being set aside, shall, if necessary, be compelled by ecclesiastical censure to abstain from all commercial intercourse with them. We command the princes not to be hostile to the Christians on this account, but rather to strive to hinder the Jews from practicing such excesses. Lastly, we decree that the Jews be compelled by the same punishment (avoidance of commercial intercourse) to make satisfaction for the tithes and offerings due to the churches, which the Christians were accustomed to supply from their houses and other possessions before these properties, under whatever title, fell into the hands of the Jews, that thus the churches may be safeguarded against loss.


Summary. Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province must be distinguished from the Christian by a difference of dress. On Passion Sunday and the last three days of Holy Week they may not appear in public.

Text: In some provinces a difference in dress distinguishes the Jews or Saracens from the Christians, but in certain others such a confusion has grown up that they cannot be distinguished by any difference. Thus it happens at times that through error Christians have relations with the women of Jews or Saracens, and Jews and Saracens with Christian women. Therefore, that they may not, under pretext of error of this sort, excuse themselves in the future for the excesses of such prohibited intercourse, we decree that such Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress. Particularly, since it may be read in the writings of Moses [Numbers 15:37-41], that this very law has been enjoined upon them.

Moreover, during the last three days before Easter and especially on Good Friday, they shall not go forth in public at all, for the reason that some of them on these very days, as we hear, do not blush to go forth better dressed and are not afraid to mock the Christians who maintain the memory of the most holy Passion by wearing signs of mourning.

This, however, we forbid most severely, that any one should presume at all to break forth in insult to the Redeemer. And since we ought not to ignore any insult to Him who blotted out our disgraceful deeds, we command that such impudent fellows be checked by the secular princes by imposing them proper punishment so that they shall not at all presume to blaspheme Him who was crucified for us.

[Note by Schroeder: In 581 the Synod of Macon enacted in canon 14 that from Thursday in Holy Week until Easter Sunday, .Jews may not in accordance with a decision of King Childebert appear in the streets and in public places. Mansi, IX, 934; Hefele-Leclercq, 111, 204. In 1227 the Synod of Narbonne in canon 3 ruled: "That Jews may be distinguished from others, we decree and emphatically command that in the center of the breast (of their garments) they shall wear an oval badge, the measure of one finger in width and one half a palm in height. We forbid them moreover, to work publicly on Sundays and on festivals. And lest they scandalize Christians or be scandalized by Christians, we wish and ordain that during Holy Week they shall not leave their houses at all except in case of urgent necessity, and the prelates shall during that week especially have them guarded from vexation by the Christians." Mansi, XXIII, 22; Hefele-Leclercq V 1453. Many decrees similar to these in content were issued by synods before and after this Lateran Council. Hefele-Leclercq, V and VI; Grayzel, The Church and the Jews in the XIlIth Century, Philadelphia, 1933.]


Summary. Jews are not to be given public offices. Anyone instrumental in doing this is to be punished. A Jewish official is to be denied all intercourse with Christians.

Text. Since it is absurd that a blasphemer of Christ exercise authority over Christians, we on account of the boldness of transgressors renew in this general council what the Synod of Toledo (589) wisely enacted in this matter, prohibiting Jews from being given preference in the matter of public offices, since in such capacity they are most troublesome to the Christians. But if anyone should commit such an office to them, let him, after previous warning, be restrained by such punishment as seems proper by the provincial synod which we command to be celebrated every year. The official, however, shall be denied the commercial and other intercourse of the Christians, till in the judgment of the bishop all that he acquired from the Christians from the time he assumed office be restored for the needs of the Christian poor, and the office that he irreverently assumed let him lose with shame. The same we extend also to pagans. [Mansi, IX, 995; Hefele-Leclercq, III, 7.27. This canon 14 of Toledo was frequently renewed.]


Summary. Jews who have received baptism are to be restrained by the prelates from returning to their former rite.

Text. Some (Jews), we understand, who voluntarily approached the waters of holy baptism, do not entirely cast off the old man that they may more perfectly put on the new one, because, retaining remnants of the former rite, they obscure by such a mixture the beauty of the Christian religion. But since it is written: "Accursed is the man that goeth on the two ways" (Ecclus. 2:14), and "a garment that is woven together of woolen and linen" (Deut. 22: ii) ought not to be put on, we decree that such persons be in every way restrained b the prelates from the observance of the former rite, that, having given themselves of their own free will to the Christian religion, salutary coercive action may preserve them in its observance, since not to know the way of the Lord is a lesser evil than to retrace one's steps after it is known.


Roman Catholic Teaching makes clear distinctions about how the Jews ought to be treated. In a posting, some time later, Steve provided comments made by Jonathan Ray, the Samuel Eig Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies at Georgetown University:
The very short answer to your question is “yes,” the sections of the 4th Lateran Council that you cite are generally taken by historians to represent the anti-Jewish stance of the medieval Church.

The slightly more long-winded, though not full, response is as follows:

The 3rd and 4th Lateran Councils represent the high-water mark of the power and energy of the medieval Papacy. This was the time that a series of dynamic and capable popes sought to standardize and centralize Catholic religious practice and, more generally, enhance papal authority throughout the Latin West. Part of this effort included a renewed dedication to the implementation of a number of rules and policies that had been part of ecclesiastical doctrine for centuries but that had not been regularly (or, in some cases, even minimally) enforced by local bishops, kings, or town councils. The canons you cite need to be read against this general backdrop of centralization and reform.

The idea of separating Jews (and Muslims) from the body of Catholic society has its roots in Roman legislation. One can argue that the antiquity of such “separate and unequal” laws does not erase their underlying anti-Jewishness. The decision to enforce them with vigor, and to reproach those Christians that had heretofore ignored them does seem to signal a change in outlook of the medieval Church. Whether this was a much-needed reform instituted by hardliners, or a destabilizing attack on a society that had built bridges connecting religious communities depends on your stance.

Clearly, the language and the accusations (do they represent fact?) of Jewish “treachery” and “mocking” of Christians are touched with a certain measure of anger and malice. Moreover, the canons give credence to “reports” of Jewish wrongdoing such as anti-Christian taunts during Easter that were non-existent. On the contrary, medieval Jews typically shut themselves securely within their walled Jewish Quarters during Easter week to try and avoid the nearly perennial anti-Jewish violence that the holiday provoked among the Christian masses.

The canons also hint at the underlying and ongoing struggle for power between the Papacy and the various secular lords of medieval Europe. Popes were forever threatening kings and other lords (including bishops) to toe the line or risk retribution. Most kings saw these as empty threats, and refused to bow to papal pressure. England, Portugal Castile and Catalonia-Aragon were notorious in this regard. The Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, also locked horns with Pope Innocent IV not long after the promulgation of these canons. The kings were not necessarily friends of the Jews, but they refused to allow the Church to tell them how to govern their subjects. Ironically, nearly all the popes of this era followed royal practice in appointing Jews to positions of power, despite their own prohibitions in this regard.

If you are interested, I deal with the subject in greater depth with regard to Spain in my book The Sephardic Frontier.

Hope this helps.

All best,

Jonathan Ray
Samuel Eig Assist. Professor of Jewish Studies
Georgetown University

[Jonathan Ray is the Samuel Eig Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies in the Theology Department. Professor Ray specializes in medieval and early modern Jewish history, focusing on the Sephardic world. His research explores the "convivencia" or coexistence between Christian, Muslim and Jewish societies in Iberia and throughout the broader Mediterranean world. His courses include: Under Crescent and Cross: Jewish Middle Ages; Jews of Spain in the Middle Ages; and Jews and Judaism in the world of Islam.]


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