Justus George Lawler defends popes, outs critics

By  Ron Csillag, Catholic Register Special
  • August 9, 2012

Were the Popes Against the Jews?: Tracking the Myths and Confronting the Ideologues by Justus George Lawler (Wm. Eerdmans Publishing, 405 pages, hardcover, $38.99.)

Any book that attacks another book, especially if the target has been controversial and has burrowed under a few skins, walks a tightrope. The aggressor risks coming off as defensive and paranoid — ultimately lending credence to his prey.
Justus George Lawler’s Were the Popes Against the Jews? suffers from no such shortfall. In nearly 400 dense, carefully argued and eloquent pages, Lawler delivers a jeremiad against David Kertzer’s 2001 book The Popes Against the Jews, a book that styled itself as a scathing indictment of modern pontiffs. Kertzer gave us an image of the popes as gleeful anti-Semites who paved the road to Hitler’s gas chambers and even helped deliver the goods.
Kertzer’s book made a lot of people squirm. It quoted one modern pope publicly calling Jews “dogs.” Two other modern pontiffs are portrayed referring to Judaism as “Satan’s synagogue.” According to Kertzer, at the beginning of the 20th century, another pope refused to save the life of a Jew accused of ritual murder, despite knowing the man was innocent. Only a decade before the rise of Hitler, it is alleged another pope supported priests who called for the extermination of all the Jews in the world.
The Popes Against the Jews was hailed in the secular press and has been translated into nine languages. It also spawned a veritable cottage industry of similarly themed works slamming the Vatican, including A Moral Reckoning: The Role of the Church in the Holocaust and Its Unfulfilled Duty of Repair by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen (2003) and Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII by John Cornwell (2008).
Lawler’s response is a relentless carpet-bombing. Rather than being “America’s foremost expert on the modern history of the Vatican’s relations with the Jews” (as Lawler dryly quotes from Kertzer’s own web site), Kertzer is presented as guilty of a litany of literary and scholarly sins: Omissions, doctoring of texts, truncations, “slanted” and “intentional” mistranslations, at least one “whole-cloth fabrication,” factual errors and various instances of “shocking rhetorical subterfuge” that approach the “wearisome.” There’s even Kertzer’s “bewildering” grammar. As if that isn’t enough, Kertzer is accused of a general proneness to hyperbole, non-sequiturs and mind reading, which he exercises “when (he) is attempting to clinch an otherwise implausible argument.”
In his more caustic moments, Lawler hears “a Monty Python voice” in reading Kertzer, and says the author, in places, “cannot but evoke Charlie Chaplin.” All of which “raises question of whether Kertzer actually saw the text of documents he keeps referring to or whether he lifted the information — as proved to be true — from secondary sources.”
Lawler can be plodding and pedantic but his attack is careful and does not deviate from Kertzer’s presumably anti-Jewish popes; their deriding Jews as “dogs” and the Jewish religion as the “synagogue of Satan” under Pius IX; their approval of blood libels and ritual murder during the reigns of Leo XIII and Pius X; and their emboldening of the exterminators of Jews under Pius XI and Pius XII (also considered is Benedict XVI, to a lesser degree).
Lawler does betray a defensiveness when he firmly pronounces that popes publicly calling Jews dogs is “a well-established myth.” But he then feels the need to add that at one time, Jews called Samaritans dogs; St. Paul referred to gentiles as dogs; the mishnaic rabbis called Christians dogs; and the ruling classes have for centuries referred to riff-raff or the mob as dogs. Why the other examples if the first never happened?
Examples of Kertzer’s supposed shoddiness abound in Lawler’s account. While serving as a papal envoy to Poland in 1921 the future Pope Pius XI “was not only guilty of perversely failing to envision the slaughter of millions of Jews two decades later, but he was also guilty of complicity in that slaughter.”
The duplicity of Leo XIII in ritual murder “is entirely of Kertzer’s making.”
Lawler quotes a historian who found that the vast majority of uprisings against Jews occurred in predominantly Protestant towns, while later in Russia, “it was the czarists not the papists who safeguarded the blood libel.”
The fact that Kertzer is preoccupied with Jews does not mean that every seemingly negative expression by anyone connected to the Church represents an attack on them, Lawler argues. Neither does it mean that Jews were the intended objects of the evil wrath of the pope.
Lawler, a liberal Catholic, emphasizes that nothing in his book is primarily (italics his) about correcting blunders and distortions. Neither is it about refuting serious errors of fact. Rather, Kertzer is motivated by a personal, obsessive, “almost pathological antipathy to these popes.” As one reviewer supportive of Lawler put it, Kertzer and his admirers “are endeavouring to replace an authentic historical narrative with an ideologically driven polemic.”
Lawler makes a convincing case in debunking Kertzer.
(Csillag is a freelance writer in Toronto.)

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