Justus George LAWLER. Were the Popes Against the Jews?: Tracking the Myths, Confronting the Ideologues. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2012. xviii + 387 pages. $35.00 hc. ISBN 978-0-8028-6629-5.
Reviewed by Robert P. RUSSO, Lourdes University, Sylvania, OH 43560

Justus George Lawler has had a distinguished career as an editor of several monthly and quarterly journals. He has also authored a myriad of books on such varied topics as popes, politics, and the Holocaust, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and poetic structures of transcendence. Lawler’s latest publication may seem like a polemical attack, albeit an extremely well-written one, against David I. Kertzer, author of The Popes Against the Jews (2001). However, after finishing Lawler’s volume, one becomes all the more appreciative of the effort. Hopefully, future historians and authors will internalize Lawler’s greater message, and learn of what not to do in the research and writing of scholarly works. Sadly, Lawler continually proves that Kertzer’s lauded work is replete with “factual errors, mistranslations, and faulty arguments that cumulatively…seriously undercut [Kertzer’s] reliability” (p. xiv).

Lawler answers the question of papal anti-Semitism in the first sentence of his Introduction, affirming “the answer is, of course they were. Their entire tradition was built on the belief that Judaism prepared the way for Jesus and his message, both of which the Jews had rejected” (p. viii). He then proceeds to refute Kertzer’s faulty claim that the popes prior to the Holocaust (especially Leo XIII and Pius IX), had referred to the Jews as dogs and “Judaism in official documents as the ‘synagogue of Satan’” (p. 51). Lawler then demonstrates that Kertzer either took statements out of their context and twisted them, or slanted certain information, oftentimes truncating clarifying statements to further his agenda of papal hatred.

Lawler, in paralleling the work of Kertzer, includes chapters on the power of the press, anti-Semitism vs. Anti-Judaism, and the ritualistic murder of the Jews due to the duplicity and inaction of Leo XIII and Pius X. The most fascinating chapter is entitled “Righteous Petitions and Doctored Texts.” Here Lawler, while not surprised that a Jewish “scholar” like Kertzer would doctor information to further papal discord, wonders why Catholic scholars would follow a similar logic. Although he might cynically say that certain Catholic scholars are illogical, Lawler rightfully surmises that “scholarly work tainted by deceptions and ruses could be proffered as a gesture of solidarity with the six million [Jewish victims] raises questions as to whether such denunciations of papacy and church are genuinely impelled by Holocaust concerns—or by something else, possibly related to an agenda regarding church governance or church reform” (p. 240).

Later in “Righteous Petitions and Doctored Texts,” we learn that Kertzer’s attempt to criticize a pope (Pius X) and his secretary of state (Cardinal Rafael Merry del Val) in refusing to save the life of a Jew convicted of ritual murder in Kiev, was also a ruse in that Kertzer pretended that “he did not see material in the document [which proved contrary] on which he was completely reliant for his description of the events being chronicled. Even more damning was Kertzer’s feigning ignorance of material on the very page that he was in the process of quoting and paraphrasing” (p. 258 – 259). At this point, readers of both works may also be wondering, “What sort of self-respecting editor or publisher would ever allow a work to be published that was based upon lies, faulty evidence, and the research of recently opened Vatican archives which in fact never even occurred?”

After struggling with the above-mentioned question, I have come to the conclusion that works such as Lawler’s are necessary to combat those who would seek to turn hearsay and false information into facts and profits, achieving renowned status, and creating a negative history of hate (i.e. Nazism) that fosters a hatred of a different kind in the present (i.e. hatred of the papacy). Lawler’s work is highly recommended, especially for those who appreciate works rife with cynicism and wry humor. It is extremely well-written and researched—one would expect nothing less from a man with Lawler’s background. However, one should also note that Lawler does not minimize the suffering of the Jewish people, and the senseless slaughter of six million individuals. He puts history into its proper perspective, and although there may have been more that the popes could have done to prevent the mass exterminations, the fault does not lie with the papacy but with the numerous ideologies of those who claimed that superiority translated into excuses to commit acts of murder.


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