Kertzer, David I., The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Antisemitism

David I. Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Antisemitism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001

The Popes Against the Jews


John T. Pawlikowski, OSM


David I. Kertzer, The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican"s Role in the Rise of


Modern Antisemitism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001.




David Kertzer adds yet another selection to what is becoming a virtual


"book-of-the-month" club on institutional Catholicism, antisemitism and the


Holocaust. A professor at Brown University and author of the much discussed The


Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara (a baptized Jewish boy forcibly taken from his parents by


church officials), Kertzer presents a detailed account of the significant role of the Popes


and other senior church leaders in fomenting societal antisemitism in the two centuries


preceding the II Vatican Council and its historic declaration on the Church and the Jewish






of the information in the volume has been exposed by other authors such as Ronald Modras.


But Kertzer has probed newly available archival material from Vatican sources more


thoroughly than any previous author on the subject. He actually does himself a disservice in


this regard by having his volume associated with John Cornwell"s Hitler"s Pope


through an endorsement by Cornwell on the book"s dustcover. Unlike Cornwell"s superficial


volume, whose notoriety has been based largely on misleading publisher"s hype, Kertzer has


presented us with a substantive volume generally based on sound scholarship even if one


takes issue with some of his arguments, especially towards the end of the book. This is a


serious work that deserves significant attention by Catholics as part of the honest


self-assessment of the church that Pope John Paul II made a core component of the recent


Jubilee celebration.


Kertzer begins his narrative with a discussion of the 1998 Vatican document on the


Holocaust "We Remember." This document, while well-intentioned, illustrates the


problem with the way Catholic leaders have traditionally handled the issue of Catholic


antisemitism. While "We Remember" does acknowledge, according to Kertzer, some


personal complicity in the spread of antisemitism by members of the Catholic Church, it


argues that the antisemitism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was essentially a


secular (even anti-Catholic) phenomenon and implies that the church in fact opposed such




I share some of Kertzer"s criticism of "We Remember" on this score. It did fail


to highlight that popular preaching, catechesis, as well as church art, had a decisive hand


in aiding the growth of modern antisemitism which "We Remember" is correct in


attributing primarily to non-religious factors such as the new genetics and its biological


racism. But Kertzer has failed to note the expanded interpretation of "We


Remember" offered by Cardinal Edward Cassidy, the document"s principal author. Nor does


he fully understand the theology of the church that is present within the document.


While Cardinal Cassidy"s interpretation of "We Remember" does not fully answer


Kertzer"s or my criticisms, it certainly does move us in the direction of a closer


connection between traditional Catholic and modern forms of antisemitism. Kertzer is either


unaware of Cassidy"s writings, as well as other commentaries, on "We Remember" or


simply chooses to ignore them. Neither represents sound scholarship on his part.


The main thrust of The Popes Against the Jews is the argument that the profound


inability of the popes and other Vatican leaders to deal with the challenge of political and


cultural modernity in Europe led to an active campaign, often employing classic Christian


antisemitic themes and activities, against the Jews who were seen as significant proponents


of modernism and liberalism, often referred to as Freemasonery. Here Kertzer is on solid


ground in my judgment, even if one might disagree with this or that particular point. I have


argued this thesis in some of my own writings. But Kertzer"s work on the newly available


Vatican archival documents solidifies this contention beyond question. Catholicism"s hundred


years" war with modernity, led by the popes whose administrations Kertzer examines in this


volume only came to an end at the II Vatican Council. In light of the papal activities cited


by Kertzer


such as a resurgence of the ritual murder charge, the dogged anti-Judaism campaign by the


semi-official Vatican newspaper Civilta Cattolica, and the active encouragement of


antisemitic political parties in Austria in particular the approval of Nostra Aetate


at Vatican II appears as even a greater about-face than we previously imagined. The late


Cardinal Joseph Bernardin called for total honesty in dealing with church history in such


matters. Kertzer"s volume should help the church confront its shadow side more profoundly


than it has. Only in this way can it retain moral integrity today.


While I believe the central thesis advanced in The Popes Against the Jews is on


target, the latter part of the book has definite flaws. I found the chapter on


"race" overly simplistic as Kertzer strains to make a direct connection between


Catholic antisemitism and biological racism. Kertzer is generally to be critiqued for


failing to address the continuity-discontinuity issue in terms of Christian antisemitism and


racial antisemitism far more thoroughly. He gives some indication throughout the book that


he does not see a simple straight line connecting the two. But the question needs a far more


direct airing than he provides.


Part three of the volume with its chapters on "A Future Pope in Poland" and


"Antechamber to the Holocaust" is poorly done. He skims through the papacy of Pius


XII in a few pages while offering a clear indictment. Either he should have stopped his


narrative with the papacy of Pius XI or done a far more extensive analysis of Pius XII.


Obviously he did not have the kind of archival material available to him for this period as


he did for the earlier papacies. This part of the book does not reflect sound scholarship.


In sum, The Popes Against the Jews is a challenging volume. While significantly


flawed at the end, it presents us with a basically accurate picture of direct, active


involvement of the papacy in the spread of antisemitism in the modern world. It is a history


that Catholics today need to integrate into their faith perspective rather than bury in a





John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, Professor of Social Ethics and Director of Catholic-Jewish


Studies at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, serves as Vice President of the


International Council of Christians and Jews and chair of its Theology Committee.

This review was prepared for publication in the National Catholic Reporter (U.S.A.).


It is published here with the permission of the author.