Q: Why did you write this book?
A: In 1997 I published a book, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, the story of a small Jewish boy who, in 1858, was forcibly taken from his parents on orders of the Inquisitor of Bologna and sent to a Catholic institution in Rome. The Church still had police powers in parts of Italy and the Inquisitor had been told that the family's Catholic maid had secretly baptized the boy. So my interest in how the Church treated the Jews goes back a way. But it was two events in early 1998 that led me to want to write this new book. A Vatican Commission, charged by the Pope with determining whether the Church bore any responsibility for the rise of modern anti-Semitism and for the Holocaust, reported that the Catholic Church had played no role whatsoever. At the same time, the Vatican announced that scholars would, for the first time, be allowed into the archives of the central office of the Inquisition. From what I knew about the history of Vatican relations with the Jews, I was skeptical about the Commission's report, and found the prospect of working in the long-sealed Inquisition archives too exciting a possibility to pass up.
Q: What is its main premise?
A: While anti-Semitism has an ancient history, the development of modern anti-Semitism, of the sort that would make the Holocaust possible, arose only in the late nineteenth century. The Vatican maintains that modern anti-Semitism did not grow out of the long history of Christian anti-Judaism, but from new nationalist movements that arose in Europe in the nineteenth century. What I show in the book, based largely on documents found in the Vatican archives, is that the Vatican was very much involved in the development of modern anti-Semitism. I also show that the distinction made by the Vatican today between religious anti-Judaism, which the Church acknowledges to have marked its past, and social-economic-political anti-Semitism, which it claims not to have embraced, is not tenable. The Vatican championed a view of the Jews as sinister enemies of the state and of the people, and, well into the twentieth century, called for keeping them quarantined from healthy Christian society.
Q: Are you arguing that the Catholic Church is responsible for the Holocaust?
A: I argue that the Catholic Church shares responsibility for making the Holocaust possible. This of course is not to argue that the Holocaust was the outcome of Catholic Church action alone, an assertion that would be ridiculous. First of all, the Christian roots of anti-Semitism go back centuries, and affected Protestantism as well as Catholicism. Germany in fact had a Protestant majority, though a very large Catholic minority. Moreover, Nazism, as a secular religion, was no friend of Catholicism. But if we look at what happened in Germany, Austria, Poland, France, Italy, and other countries during the Holocaust, I think we can only make sense of it by understanding how the Catholic Church, along with other Christian churches, encouraged people to view the Jews.
Q: So what is the Catholic Church guilty of?
A: The Catholic Church promulgated the view, into the twentieth century, that the good people of Europe were endangered by the presence of the Jews. Into the twentieth century, the Vatican spread the belief that Jews were required by their religion to torture and murder Christian children to use their blood for their Passover matzah. The Vatican was involved, secretly, in building Europe's most important anti-Semitic political party -- the Austrian Social Christian party -- at the turn of the twentieth century. When Mussolini announced the racial laws in 1938, throwing Jewish children out of public schools, throwing their parents out of their state jobs, stripping Jews of membership in professional societies, the Pope voiced no objection to any of these measures. Indeed, the Vatican indicated that they were in harmony with Church policy. The list could go on....
Q: Is the Catholic Church today still perpetuating Jewish stereotypes, even if in subtle ways?
A: Unfortunately, it took the Holocaust to lead the Church to radically rethink its attitude toward the Jews. With John XXIII and the Second Vatican Council, the centuries-old vilification of the Jews was at last rejected, the liturgy was altered to remove offending elements, and catechism was changed to remove references to Jews as killers of Christ. The current pontiff, Pope John Paul II, has done a great deal to improve Church relations with Jews, as evidenced by his visit to the Rome synagogue and, more recently, his visit to Israel. Yet the Church's legacy does keep popping up, as is inevitable. For example, I just returned from Bologna, where I visited a newly restored church right off the main piazza. Its beautiful oratorio is dominated by a set of statuary depicting an episode from the New Testament. A plaque helpfully explains the scene. While mourners surround the body of the Virgin Mary, who has just died, an evil Jew has come to desecrate her corpse. Fortunately, an angel appears and strikes down the Jew. Images of this sort are still around in the churches of Europe.
Q: Leading up to the Holocaust, were there any heroes in the Catholic Church, people who defended the rights of Jews?
A: I show in my book that there were always people in high positions of the Church who sought more humane treatment of the Jews. For example, when the Pope was restored to power over the Papal States in 1814, following Napoleon's defeat, the Vatican faced the question of whether to make the Jews go back into the ghettoes. Napoleon had, of course, freed them years earlier. Cardinal Consalvi, the Vatican Secretary of State, passionately pleaded with Pope Pius VII not to reestablish the ghettoes. Yet, he argued in vain. Or, to give another example, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Archbishop in charge of the British Catholic Church pleaded with Pope Leo XIII to end the Vatican campaign that branded the Jews as sadistic murderers of Christian children. The Pope referred the matter to the cardinals of the Inquisition, who rejected the Archbishop's plea, writing in a private note that the archbishop who made the complaint had clearly become a "dupe" of the Jews. Of course, as the Holocaust itself got underway, there were bishops in Germany and elsewhere who pleaded with Pope Pius XII to take a firm public stand against the Nazi slaughter of the Jews, and some of them paid with their life. As we know, the Pope did not heed their call. Of course, if we look at priests, nuns, and Catholic laity, there were many thousands who risked their lives to hide Jews.
Q: Why did you decide to focus on the Popes, rather than the various levels of the Catholic hierarchy?
A: Throughout the book I try to get as close to the Popes as I can. There are a number of reasons for this. Of course, given the Pope's authority in the Church, knowing what the popes wanted done and what they thought is absolutely central to my task. But I was also concerned to deal with a common defense found in the Church. It goes something like this: yes, as in any large organization you can find extremists in the Church, people filled with hatred. But the popes were always protectors of the Jews, and indeed the Jews often turned to the popes just because of their well-known generosity in dealing with them. Fortunately, newly available Vatican archives allowed me to find out just what the popes themselves were doing as far as the Jews went. That said, the book also looks at others in the Vatican hierarchy, and shows their role in the rise of modern anti-Semitism.
Q: How did you find such incriminating information about the Church and its historic treatment of Jews?
A: The Church deserves a great deal of credit for making its archives open to scholars. I have mentioned the central archives of the Inquisition, which were opened only in 1998, but the Vatican Secret Archives have been opened to researchers much longer. The papal records dealing with the formative period of modern anti-Semitism, in the late nineteenth century, were opened for the first time in 1979. At the moment, with minor exceptions, no Vatican records after 1922 can be consulted, so I had to turn to other sources in dealing with the most recent period. Other information is more publicly available. For example, the two publications most closely tied to the Vatican historically-- the Vatican's own daily newspaper, L'Osservatore romano, and the Jesuit bi-weekly, Civiltà Cattolica-- were both filled with the most grotesque kinds of anti-Semitism.
Q: It's surprising you were given access to the archives, given your history of writing sometimes unflattering things about the Church. How did you obtain permission?
A: Well, there are actually several different Vatican archives, and each one is a separate story. Perhaps of greatest interest from this point of view is the archive of the Inquisition. When Cardinal Ratzinger announced that archive's opening, the New York Times asked me to write an op ed about it, which I did. In order to get permission to work there, I had to send in a request directly to Cardinal Ratzinger, along with a letter of recommendation. I asked my friend, historian Carlo Ginzburg, to write for me, as in announcing the opening of the archive to scholars, the Cardinal had cited Ginzburg's request of 19 years earlier (the Church moves slowly!). There was tremendous interest in the scholarly community in what would be found in the Inquisition archives, yet only twelve places for scholars had been provided for. Just why my request was approved I can only guess, but again I think it is a tribute to the Church that it was granted.
Q: Even though you've studied interfaith relations extensively, did any of the information you discovered in the Archives shock you?
A: I found much that I had not known about the role played behind the scenes by the Vatican in the growth of modern anti-Semitism. I also found out things about the earlier period I found shocking. For example, I learned that in the first half of the nineteenth century, when the Pope controlled Rome, Jewish women and children were regularly seized by papal police from their homes in the ghetto and locked in the Church institution set up to convert the Jews. While the women were free to go after forty days confinement if they still refused to accept baptism, their small children were baptized immediately. The women were told they would never see their children again if they refused to accept baptism themselves. For the later period, I must say that what most shocked me was the persistence of the Vatican commitment to the charge of Jewish ritual murder into the twentieth century. I still find this hard to fathom.
Q: Will the Catholic Church be taken by surprise by what you found or is this information already known at the Church's highest levels?
A: There is much in the book that will be new even to high officials of the Church today. But in answering your question we should keep in mind that the Catholic Church is a large and complex institution. While the Vatican's official position is that the Church played no role in the rise of modern anti-Semitism, there are many good Catholics who know very well that this is untrue. My book provides a great deal of previously unknown evidence to show just how extensive the Vatican's role in the development of modern anti-Semitism was. In some circles of the Church it will not be welcome reading.
Q: How do you think the current Pope will respond to this book?
A: I would like to flatter myself by thinking that the Pope would read the book, but of course that is unlikely. However, I see myself as having embraced and responded to the Pope's own call for a clear-eyed look into past Church treatment of the Jews. The Pope has argued that only by properly understanding this past can we look forward to a brighter future, and I would like to think that my book will play a significant role in this process.
Q: What can the Church do to take full responsibility or to make restitution? Is restitution even possible?
A: I am not a theologian, nor a moral philosopher, and I am not especially interested in apologies, much less restitution. What does bother me is the misrepresentation of history and an unwillingness to confront the past truthfully. Let me give a small example. A couple of days before the beatification of Pope Pius IX in September 2000, I did a live national Italian radio debate with a monsignor from the Vatican congregation for the promotion of saints. In that debate, in response to the claim that Pius IX was kindly disposed to the Jews, I cited his remarks at an audience in 1871 in which he referred to Rome's Jews as "dogs" who were running barking through the streets, molesting the good people of the city. The next day, at a Vatican press conference, in response to a journalist's question about my remarks, the Vatican official said that no responsible historian would put any credence in what I had said. When the journalist subsequently contacted me about the quote, I referred him to a volume titled "The Speeches of Pio IX" published by the Vatican in 1872, edited by a priest. In addition to giving him the page number where the quote about the dogs was to be found, I pointed out the page of the preface which reported that the Pope himself had read and approved the proofs of the book before publication. If there were any apology I am interested in from the Vatican at the moment, I guess it would be for what was said about me at that press conference. But I'm not holding my breath.
Q: Why are you interested in this subject? Is there personal significance for you?
A: As I mention in the introduction to my book, when I was a child my father was director of inter-religious relations for the American Jewish Committee. It was right after World War II, and he spent a great deal of his time working with Catholic clergymen to improve Church-Jewish relations. He had great respect and affection for these Catholic colleagues, and he was never so proud as when he received a special medal from Rome honoring him for his efforts to bring about Catholic-Jewish reconciliation. I would like to think that, through a very different path, I am in this book doing something to build on my father's work.
Q: Are you hopeful for the future of Jewish-Catholic relations?
A: Yes, I am. If we put things in a larger historical perspective, the amount of progress made in recent years has been tremendous. I do think, though, that until we can all confront the truth about the past, a dark cloud will remain.