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  • Were the Popes Against the Jews? Tracking the Myths, Confronting the Ideologues
  • C. J. T. Talar
Justus George Lawler , Were the Popes Against the Jews? Tracking the Myths, Confronting the Ideologues (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012)

In Popes and Politics: Reform, Resentment and the Holocaust (2002) Justus George Lawler noted the "accidental" nature of the book. It was not a book he "planned on writing."1 It was a book that marked a departure from previous published work, as its immediate predecessors were works of literary criticism. And yet, the skills of a close reader of literary texts, particularly when those are reinforced and augmented by years of experience as an editor evaluating manuscripts, provide the link with Popes and Politics and now with Were the Popes Against the Jews:Tracking the Myths, Confronting the Ideologues. In reading works concerned with the papacy and its role in the modern world, and particularly with its relationship with the Jews, he found "certain traits common in a greater or lesser degree to all of them."2 A stridency of tone, vehement condemnation of whatever a given author wanted to oppose, were compounded by errors of fact and errors of interpretation. In major part Popes and Politics represents a work of rectification.

That effort is renewed in Were the Popes Against the Jews. Unlike the earlier book which engaged a variety of authors, ranging among ideological consecrators of the papacy, its ideological denigrators and, "as professional advocates of objectivity and independence [who] must appear to be above the fray," historians,3 this one focuses on a single work: David Kertzer's The Popes Against the Jews: The Vatican's Role in [End Page 87] the Rise of Anti-Semitism.4 Like Popes and Politics, however, the current book also engages issues of church governance, gender conflicts, sexual morality, signs of the times, and doctrinal claims.

Lawler's initially favorable impression of Kertzer's book changed with closer scrutiny; "inaccurate translations, waffled data, and even doctored texts" transformed "original acceptance into accelerating disapproval."5 The perpetuation of these errors by reviewers who accepted Kertzer's claims, compounded by reviewers of these reviewers, motivated an extended critique. Since Kertzer maintained that modern anti-Semitism began in the 1860s, Lawler decided to begin his study with Pope Pius IX, omitting Kertzer's background material and reducing the number of popes at issue from nine to five: Pius IX, Leo XIII, Pius X, Benedict XV, and Pius XI.6 This abridged chronological span coincides with challenges posed to the institutional church as it had to cope with "unprecedented obstacles in the most crucial phase of its history since the Reformation."7 This reference to the church as institution is significant to Lawler's argument, as he will judge Kertzer's focus on individual popes decontextualized from their institutional setting a serious failing.

The subtitle of Kertzer's book, The Vatican's Role in the Rise of Modern Anti-Semitism, does not, to Lawler's mind, adequately represent its author's thesis: "its thesis is not that the Vatican played a role in the rise of modern anti-Semitism, but that it was 'crucial' to its rise."8 Since "the Vatican" becomes implicitly interchangeable with "the pope," it allows anti-Semitism to be attributed not to a relatively abstract entity, but to the person of each pope himself.

The first instance of this strategy occurs in Kertzer's examination of the Vatican controlled (and, farther afield, inspired) press. The popes are held responsible for the anti-Semitic campaigns conducted in the church press, most notably in La Civiltà cattolica and L'Osservatore romano, over which the popes exercised control. In essence, the papal press expressed publicly the mind of the pope. It is a failing (even among Catholics at times) to attribute a monolithic character to the Vatican. Such a characterization will not, as in this instance, stand up to the facts. Kertzer's account is [End Page 88] faulted for its failure to take into account instances of disagreements between the Vatican and the Civiltà on political and doctrinal matters during the final years of Leo XIII into the papacy of Benedict...


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