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  • Were the Popes Against the Jews? Harvard Weighs In—TenuouslyJustus George Lawler Responds to a Review of his Book in the Harvard Theological Review
  • Justus George Lawler

Last October, in the Harvard Theological Review, a twenty-four page book review with the following title appeared, “Review Essay, War without End: The Popes and the Jews between Polemic and History.” It was written by a Canadian scholar, Robert A. Ventresca, and the book that was severely critiqued in this “review essay” was the present writer’s Were the Popes Against the Jews? (hereafter WPAJ). That title, in turn, was an explicit reference to David Kertzer’s The Popes Against the Jews—a book that Lawler had also severely critiqued.

After the HTR article appeared, I wrote the co-editor, Jon Levenson (one of whose early books I had published), inquiring about the likelihood of his journal carrying in a future issue my response to Ventresca. Also, I was hoping that in light of the fact that “review-essay” was an unusual category—if not a completely new genre—it might be possible to give me a little more time for my reply. In the context of a civil exchange, I was told in effect that such responses had never appeared in the past, and so would not appear in the present. The thought occurred to me, so much for the triumph of tradition over individual talent—something on which T. S. Eliot had written. I was also taken aback by the negative decision itself, since I had made clear that my response would probably be considerably shorter than Ventresca’s rather lengthy article.

Levenson went on to say, “Neither the faults Ventresca finds in your work nor the weaknesses he finds in Kertzer’s were in any way influenced by the co-editors.” While I had to take Levenson at his word, it was also rather clear that from the perspective of these particular editors, the work of Lawler was “faulty,” while that of Kertzer was merely “weak.” The reference to co-editors may also clarify that distinction, since one of them, Kevin Madigan—who will make a cameo appearance shortly—was not only severely criticized in Lawler’s book, he was also cited as an ardent fan of David Kertzer, whom he regarded as “a national treasure.”

Moreover, it seemed obvious that no number of civil exchanges would obscure the fact that in the overall Ventresca viewed Kertzer as a model scholar, one to be praised, admired, and emulated. Of course, Ventresca does supply a modicum of mild—though [End Page 63] always deferential if not actually apologetic—criticism of The Popes Against the Jews. All this is intended to authenticate Ventresca’s evenhandedness as a balanced and fair “review essayist,” but some of it obviously represents his personal view of Kertzer as a scholarly and trustworthy student of the papacy’s relations with Jews and Judaism.

Thus it came as no surprise when fairly early in his review Ventresca observed, that “discerning readers can readily appreciate that, despite its shortcomings, Kertzer’s study is more fully grounded than most others in the relevant archival sources and scholarship.” Since central to Lawler’s “study” was his contention that Kertzer’s work was a travesty of serious scholarship, relying on doctored texts, bogus translations, rigged chronology, etc. it was obvious that Ventresca and Lawler were on a collision course (italics supplied).

This was not altered by Ventresca’s self-supporting observation: “In an early review John Pawlikowski called Kertzer’s book a ‘serious work’ based on ‘sound scholarship,’ which he believed merited the significant attention of Catholics and of all students of the subject.” But even the reference to “shortcomings” appeared to Lawler as another sham gesture of “impartiality,” particularly because Pawlikowski himself, as we shall see, was going to completely reverse himself on the alleged merits of Kertzer’s book.

Similarly, after a few sentences of more or less conciliatory commentary, Ventresca proceeded to indict Lawler for, among other things, engaging in “exploitation for apologetic-polemical ends,” and “sacrificing critical-historical argument for a false argument.” Such failings, the reader was told, “detract from …” [and here we get an...


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