Jewish Journal

The Vatican and the Shoah

by Aaron Leibel

Posted on Nov. 8, 2001 at 7:00 pm

A boy goes missing on the grounds of a Jewish factory and his body is found riddled with wounds. "Science has established the time and the method.... It has indicated the goal ... the murder was committed by people who wanted to extract the blood. Now of such people one race alone is known."

What type of person would repeat the centuries-old, outrageous ritual murder canard made against the Jews? An illiterate 13th century German country priest? An uneducated 19th century Russian Orthodox priest?

No, it was a 20th century Catholic scholar, the Rev. Paolo Silva.

It was published in 1914 in the Catholic journal Civilta Cattolica. And, writes author David I. Kertzer, professor of anthropology and history at Brown University, not only was that journal devoted to disseminating the pope's views, but articles were sent to the Vatican to assure that they were in accord with papal views before their publication.

Kertzer, author of "The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara," the story of the 1858 shocking kidnapping of a 6-year-old Italian Jewish boy from his family by police acting under orders from the Vatican, says he was moved to write this book after the 1998 publication of "We Remember: A Reflection on the Shoah," a report on the Roman Catholic Church and the Holocaust.

The report noted that the Holocaust had its roots in the rise of 19th century extreme nationalism and nonreligious, racial anti-Semitism, movements that the church did not support.

The idea that the church was responsible only for "negative 'religious' views of the Jews, and not the negative images of their harmful social, economic, cultural, and political effects -- the latter identified with modern anti-Semitism -- is clearly belied by the historical record," Kertzer writes in the introduction. "As modern anti-Semitic movements took shape at the end of the 19th century, the church was a major player in them, constantly warning people of the rising 'Jewish peril.'"

The author then devotes the next 290 pages to very-persuasively supporting that statement.

After reading the recurring vilification of Jews by church officials in Catholic journals during the 80 years before the Holocaust, what is surprising is not that some Catholics sometimes used violence against their Jewish neighbors, but that these instances weren't more widespread. After all, Jews were accused of conspiring to destroy the Christian religion.

The author notes two caveats to his research. First, he notes that the church is not solely to blame for the Holocaust. Germany had more Protestants than Catholics "and we know that anti-Semitism was widespread among Protestants as well."

Kertzer also notes that this is not a case of evil, because, in most cases, church officials "were convinced that they were doing God's work.''

The same could be said for many Nazi officials.

But the real question this book raises is how far Catholic-Jewish relations can be improved when they are based on a distorted view of history?

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