In the controversy over Catholic co-responsibility for the Holocaust, Coppa aims for balance. By restricting the focus of his investigation to the popes rather than Catholicism at large, he zeroes in on what is probably the most hotly contested aspect of the study of anti-Semitism, where polemical one-sidedness has been all too frequent in condemnation as well as in defense of Pope Pius XII’s “silence.” A first chapter helps frame the long history of relations. It starts to supply background relevant to the spectrum of historical papal “disparagement” and “protection” of Jews by going back to the ancient, medieval, and early modern Church.
One option that shapes the whole framework of the study is the distinction between modern anti-Semitism of a racist character and ecclesiastical “anti-Judaism,” based on supercessionism, the idea that Jews rejected their Christ and thereby forfeited their rights as God’s People to the Church. The author does not engage in any kind of extended theological discussion on this or other topics. However, the different inspiration of the Church’s take on Judaism from that of Hitler and the Nazis is clear. Offsetting this insight is the considerable overlap of religious and racial anti-Semitism as practiced precisely in the twentieth century, raising difficult questions. To what extent and in which ways did the anti-Judaism of the Christians prepare the ground for the reception of the more pernicious racial laws and practices? How much cultural and economic discrimination did the modern papacy itself foster? (Tentative answer: popes through Pius XII, with the notable exception of Pius XI, generally only warned against Jewish cultural influence; they did not commit themselves as to Jewish socio-economic clout, but neither did they much restrain Catholics who excoriated the perceived prominence of Jews as liberal capitalists on the one hand and communists on the other.) The book does reflect a certain balance. Still, one wonders how justified is Coppa’s implied claim that he has done much better than all who have gone before him in this endeavor (see his review of a recent Italian study in The Catholic Historical Review 90  151-53).
Coppa undertook an immense task of which his bibliography gives some idea. He lists over 250 published “primary sources” and about 575 “secondary sources,” while referring often to locations of archival material which he less often actually cites. Throughout the chapters, however, signs of haste appear. (See the review by John Jay Hughes in the July 2006 issue of The Catholic Historical Review 92, 339-41, for other instances; cf. also Doris Bergen’s review of Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, in Church History 75 , 201-203.) Highly annoying to this reviewer was the plethora of typographical errors wherever the electronic spell-checker was out of its depth. How many student papers will cite the former Good Friday prayer pro perfidis Judaeis as “perfideles” (213)? Or refer to Robert F. Drinan, SJ, as “Tom Drinan” (260)? So many hasty errors make one uneasy about some of the interpretations offered and some of the judgments passed or omitted for the sake of balance in the course of the book.
Eschewing polemics as he does, however, Coppa presents a fairly nuanced view of the complicated data on Vatican efforts and omissions. In the end, the Holocaust and John XXIII’s Vatican Council stand out as the critical junctures that moved Catholicism definitively beyond anti-Semitism and even beyond its hereditary anti-Judaism. Particularly interesting is the eighth and final chapter on Pope John Paul II. The Christian-Jewish dialogue was a continuing preoccupation of the Polish pope, who aimed steadily for a reconciliation that would confront “the Church’s anti-Judaic past.” Coppa takes the reader through all the fluctuations of this recent relationship as reflected in the pages of the Catholic, Jewish, and secular press. The historical value of these contemporary reminders is to bring out what an epochal change is in process on both sides of this relationship, and how it was so tragically prompted by the Holocaust.