Author Rebuts Criticism of Popes on Jews

“Were the Popes Against the Jews? Tracking the Myths, Confronting the Ideologues” by Justus George Lawler. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2012). 405 pp., $35.

Reviewed by Eugene J. Fisher

Justus George Lawler’s “Were the Popes Against the Jews” effectively rebuts the negative critique of the popes of the 19th and 20th centuries in David Kertzer’s 2001 “The Popes Against the Jews” and in those of even earlier books by Daniel Goldhagen and John Cornwell. In so doing, Lawler makes a significant contribution to what has become an ongoing discussion among scholars and journalists. He carefully analyzes Kertzer’s presentation, showing where he fudges and manipulates historical facts and statements.

Lawler tracks Kertzer’s anti-papal attacks from the pontificate of Pope Pius IX through those of Leo XIII and Pius X, XI and XII. In Kertzer’s view, each was not only theologically triumphalist toward Judaism and presumed the ancient Christian teaching of contempt that held Jews collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, but also propagated modern racial anti-Semitism, making the Vatican the “antechamber of the Holocaust.” Kertzer accuses the popes of inventing the phrase “Satanic synagogues,” speaking of “Jewish dogs” running in the streets of Rome, and fostering and spreading ritual murder charges against Jews.

Lawler meticulously researches each accusation, providing the necessary historical context to understand the papal utterances as well as numerous statements and actions of popes seeking to defend and help the Jews in time of need.

Though incisive and in many ways decisive of the historical questions it takes up, Lawler is not a theologian and does not seem to be familiar with the important literature in the field of Catholic-Jewish studies. He often omits or misinterprets developments concerning the Second Vatican Council’s declaration on Catholic-Jewish relations, “Nostra Aetate,” No. 4, and subsequent official documents of the Holy See and of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as the works of the Catholic scholars in the field.

For example, Lawler erroneously equates the concepts of “fulfillment” and “supersessionism,” defining the latter as “super-added” when, in fact, the word means to “take the seat” or place of, which is in effect to reject the church’s fundamental teaching on the ongoing validity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people. He likewise equates modern Judaism with the state of Israel, though many Israelis as well as American Jews have been as critical of specific actions of various Israeli administrations over the years as is he.

Lawler reprints a lengthy and negative review he wrote in 1965 of Father Edward Flannery’s groundbreaking “The Anguish of the Jews,” ignoring the substantially revised second edition of the book. Father Flannery was my predecessor as director for Catholic-Jewish relations at the (then) National Conference of Catholic Bishops, so I take this slight a tad personally.

Perhaps even more personally, Lawler uses as a leitmotif a paragraph-long selection of phrases taken from reviews of the Kertzer book without giving the full reviews or even their citations so the readers can look them up. The words he takes from my own review, which was in the main critical, make it sound laudatory. Here, Lawler should have subjected his own writing to the rigorous standards to which he rightly holds Kertzer.

Fisher is professor of Catholic-Jewish studies at St. Leo University in Florida.

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