A careful examination of the role of the Catholic Church in persecution, pogroms, and, eventually, the Holocaust.
In 1987, Pope John Paul II ordered the Vatican’s Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews to investigate whether the church was in any way accountable for the slaughter of millions of Jews earlier in the century. The commission returned, 11 years later, with a carefully worded report admitting that the church had been guilty of “anti-Judaism,” that is, opposition to the Jewish religion, but not of anti-Semitism, opposition to the Jewish people. Comforting though it may have been to worried clerics, the commission’s finding was an evasion of historical reality, argues Kertzer (History/Brown Univ.; The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, 1997). He charges that the Vatican’s leaders instead engaged in a conscious campaign to denounce Jews “not only as enemies of the Church but as enemies of the nation, not only as threats to the Christian religion but to Christian people.” As late as the mid–19th century, he writes, the church demanded that Jews within Italy be confined to ghettos and limited to selling used goods for a living; when a Tuscan duke considered allowing the Napoleonic emancipation of the Jews to stand, Pius X angrily reminded him that “the spirit of the Church . . . has always been to keep Catholics as much as possible from having any contact with the infidels.” That spirit drove generations of hate-mongers, as Kertzer shows, and with only rare exceptions, such as the comparatively liberal Benedict XV, the popes of the 19th and 20th centuries actively gave ideological and material aid and comfort to the persecutors of Europe’s Jews. Their acts of complicity culminated in mass murder—an outcome, Kertzer suggests, that was all but inevitable.
On firmer ground than John Cornwell’s error-plagued Hitler’s Pope, and far better written, Kertzer’s study is nonetheless likely to be challenged.