New York Times
September 23, 2001

'The Popes Against the Jews': Before the Holocaust


'The Jews -- eternal insolent children, obstinate, dirty, thieves, liars, ignoramuses, pests and the scourge of those near and far . . . managed to lay their hands on . . . all public wealth . . . and virtually alone they took control not only of all the money . . . but of the law itself in those countries where they have been allowed to hold public offices . . . [yet they complain] at the first shout by anyone who dares raise his voice against this barbarian invasion by an enemy race, hostile to Christianity and to society in general.'' Those words appeared in 1880 in Civilta Cattolica, the journal Pope Pius IX had ordered the Jesuits to publish in Rome as the informal organ of the Vatican -- every article was cleared before publication by the papal secretariat of state. The words were written by a founding editor of the paper, Giuseppe Oreglia, S.J., who was responsible for three dozen more articles in this vein during the 1880's. The articles were typical of Civilta Cattolica, and Civilta Cattolica was typical of Roman Catholic periodicals all over Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

David Kertzer, a professor of history at Brown University, has undertaken the sickening task of compiling a sampler of such material issuing from church-sponsored newspapers. He earlier wrote ''The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,'' which told how Pius IX took a 6-year-old boy away from his Jewish parents because the Inquisition had decided that the boy had been secretly baptized by a Christian servant working in the Mortara household. ''The Popes Against the Jews'' is even more disheartening than ''The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara,'' besides being a more formidable scholarly achievement, since it traces, over a stretch of two centuries, the Vatican's endorsement of things like the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, or the guilt of Alfred Dreyfus or the charge that Jews regularly commit ritual murders of Christian children. Pope John Paul II's document on the Holocaust, ''We Remember,'' said that the Catholic church in the past objected to Jews only on theological grounds, not racial ones. Kertzer easily destroys this falsehood. To quote again Oreglia's article, cleared by the Vatican secretariat of state: ''Oh how wrong and deluded are those who think Judaism is just a religion, like Catholicism, Paganism, Protestantism, and not in fact a race, a people, and a nation! . . . For the Jews are not only Jews because of their religion . . . they are Jews also and especially because of their race.''

Kertzer has done a staggeringly thorough job of tracing Catholic statements on the Jews, and in using the Vatican archives to show what support was given to the people making these statements. From this he argues that the debate over what Pius XII might have done during the Holocaust is a distraction from a more important question -- what did the Catholic church do to help bring on the Holocaust in the first place? It did a great deal. The anti-Semitic campaign against Alfred Dreyfus, the French military officer convicted of treason in 1894 on forged documents, was largely driven by a fanatical band of Catholics denouncing Dreyfus for his perfidious Jewishness. The Assumptionist Fathers made this a special mission of their daily newspaper, La Croix. Owen Chadwick, the author of the excellent ''History of the Popes: 1830-1914'' (1998), says of this campaign that it ''was the most powerful and extreme journalism ever conducted by an otherworldly religious order during the history of Christendom.'' Pope Leo XIII, though he criticized the paper for other reasons, never objected to this rabid effort. He said in 1899, ''I love La Croix.'' And no wonder. His own official newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, had also prejudged Dreyfus's guilt. Later, it defended anti-Semitic mobs resisting a reversal of his rigged conviction: ''The Jewish race, the deicide people, wandering throughout the world, brings with it everywhere the pestiferous breath of treason.'' Kertzer brings the story down to the late 1930's, when Pius XI's attempt at writing an encyclical condemning Nazi anti-Semitism was sabotaged by the superior general of the Jesuits (a Polish aristocrat) and the editor of Civilta Cattolica. For that matter Pius XI himself, who served as a papal diplomat in Poland during World War I, dismissed reports of pogroms there as inventions of Jewish propaganda. He wrote to the Vatican secretary of state: ''One of the most evil and strongest influences that is felt here, perhaps the strongest and the most evil, is that of the Jews.''

None of the modern Piuses comes off well. Pius X favored a high official in his secretariat of state, Monsignor Umberto Benigni, who became one of the two principal distributors of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Italy. Pius also refused to intervene in the 20th century's most famous trial of a Jew on the ritual murder charge, a trial conducted in Kiev in 1913. After a Catholic priest testified to the court that such murders were an established fact of history, British Jews asked the Catholic Duke of Norfolk to request from the pope a denial of the libel. Pius X's secretary of state would not deny the myth, or send information about false uses of it directly to the presiding judge. As Kertzer notes, ''by not taking this step, the pope allowed the Catholic press, including that part of it viewed inside and outside the church as communicating the pope's true sentiments, to continue to tar the Jews with the ritual murder charge.'' This is the pope canonized by Pius XII in 1954.

Pius IX's record was far worse, even apart from his kidnapping of the Mortara child. In 1867, he canonized Peter Arbues, a 15th-century inquisitor famed for forcible conversion of Jews, and said in the canonization document, ''The divine wisdom has arranged that in these sad days, when Jews help the enemies of the church with their books and money, this decree of sanctity has been brought to fulfillment.'' (Kertzer somehow misses the story of this St. Peter -- it can be read in Chadwick's ''History of the Popes.'') Pius IX not only gave the Cross of Commander of the Papal Order to a man famous for a book endorsing the myth of Jewish ritual murders, but established the feast of a boy ''martyr'' who was supposedly the victim of such a rite. In 1871, addressing a group of Catholic women, Pius said that Jews ''had been children in the House of God,'' but ''owing to their obstinacy and their failure to believe, they have become dogs'' (emphasis in the original.). ''We have today in Rome unfortunately too many of these dogs, and we hear them barking in all the streets, and going around molesting people everywhere.'' This is the pope beatified by John Paul II in 2000.

Kertzer lays out this revolting record with admirable calm, not giving way to the indignation that most readers must feel. A Catholic will especially wonder why John Paul II was so determined to beatify Pius IX. Determined he certainly was. The board of experts established to examine Pius IX's credentials did not include the man who knows most about him, Giacomo Martina, S.J., the author of the definitive three-volume life of him. Why was this? Probably because, when Kenneth Woodward of Newsweek asked Martina if, after decades of studying the man, he thought Pius IX a saint, Martina answered ''No, I do not.'' Owen Chadwick said that there was only one pope who would have canonized Peter Arbues -- Pius IX. I am afraid, in the same way, that there was only one pope who would have beatified Pius IX -- John Paul II.

Garry Wills is the author of ''A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government'' and ''Papal Sin.''

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company