Friday, April 27, 2012

First Madigan, now Kertzer. Open season on historians.

This post will probably put the fox into the hen house, but it is time the battle was taken to those who have for some time now enjoyed engaging in a largely unchallenged polemic against historians who do as their craft demands, namely seek the truth.  For several years now apologists, that is, a group of neo-conservative writers and journalists, some with academic qualification, many with none, have taken it upon themselves to "set the record straight" on Pius XII, the Catholic Church and everything related to it.  In their, extremely limited understanding of Catholic theology and history, they believe they have the right to impose their version of  a "fatwa" on those with whom they disagree.  In email correspondence with colleagues in more than a few places around the world there is a growing anger that these "snake oil" merchants and bullies have gone too far. I have taken deep offence at their unbridled attacks on historians.  I have also taken deep offence at their appalling lack of customary good manners and basic decency.

In February William Doino took aim at Harvard's Professor Kevin Madigan in First Things, penning a particularly nasty and grossly inaccurate piece of historical revisionism and apologia.  Why?  Because Madigan had the nerve to pen a review of two books he found to add substance to the ongoing historical discussion about the Catholic Church and its role/s during the Holocaust.  Doino believed Madigan’s positive assessment of both works - David Cymet History vs Apologetics and Gerald Steinacher Nazis on the Run - was, historically distorted and flawed to the point that suggested Madigan was operating from a more insidious agenda, namely supporting the white-anting of the Catholic Church through “pope bashing”.

Curiously, while dismissing Steinacher’s work as “a pseudo-scholarly mess” with no examination of how he reached this conclusion, Doino spends most of his time creating so much smoke that the lay reader might be forgiven there is something in his vigorous defence of Pius XII.  Even this writer was not spared.  I was quoted by a responder to the First Things article.  It appears that speaking in defence of those who have been unfairly treated by those whose own writing demonstrates an appalling lack of familiarity with the material is simply not acceptable.  Doino replied by rounding on the responder who had referenced “an author who similarly fails to acknowledge the major errors and omissions of Madigan, Steinacher and Cymet, but nonetheless takes strong exception to my work.  Since the same author once wrote a review praising John Cornwell’s  Hitler’s Pope as “particular satisfying in most respects” (see Patterns of Prejudice, volume 34, no. 4, 2000, p.68), that is hardly surprising”.  And I am guilty as charged.  I have changed my opinion on Cornwall; but then recognising one’s mistakes and engaging in serious research in order to come to a more balanced and historically satisfying conclusion is part of the process of ongoing education. (I have little doubt that this will be used against me - the idea that one can change and grow does not seem to be part of the apologist's world-view.)

Finally, Kevin Madigan wrote a review, not a manifesto.  Doino’s determination to pillory Madigan is fruitless; he has not pointed out one single historical error in his column, and he won’t, because they are not there.  That being said, the maxim “don’t kick a man when he is down” seems not to apply to the apologists.  Shortly after Doino’s column was published, the doyen of the papal revisionists, Ronald Rychlak joined the fray with an even more vehemently anti-Madigan article.  It is another tiresome, twisted attempt to silence historians from doing their job.  I am not surprised there are some in the Vatican who appreciate what the apologists do, write and say.

If Kevin Madigan was pursued by the equivalent of a bar room brawler spoiling for a fight, the Provost of Brown University, RI,  David Kertzer is being targeted by an academic version of Terminator.

Justus George Lawler’s Were the Popes Against the Jews arrived on my desk just before Easter.  I started reading it a couple of days ago.  My first impressions can be summarised thus:

1.  What on earth did David Kertzer do to warrant such vitriol and venom in this book?  What ever happened to academic courtesy and plain old-fashioned good manners?
2.  Where does the anger that fuels Lawler’s writing originate?  It can’t be in the history, it must come from somewhere else.  It has the vehemence of someone spurned.
3.  History – where is it?  There is polemic by the bucket load, but where is the research, reference to archives visited, material read and analysed?  Most of this book is compiled from secondary sources.  Much of what is found in the text has to be dug out from the purple prose that litters so much of this book.
4.  Language:  this is a very difficult book to read; the prose is turgid and stilted.  Why Lawler has chosen to write this way is beyond me.  It simply makes reading the book incredibly burdensome.
5.  A more honest title of the book would be Against David Kertzer and his ilk.

I am familiar with Kertzer’s work and have found it sound, well researched with evidence drawn from archival sources and reliable secondary sources.

Several things in Lawler’s book cause concern, not least of which are repeated unfounded inaccuracies. 

A simple example is the assertion that appears to form the principle thesis, namely that Kerzter asserts there was some secret Antisemitic conspiracy promoted and led by popes and their secretaries of state.  This theme chimes like a chorus throughout the book.  It reaches a high-point in chapter four, where Lawler says that Kertzer “invented a papal conspiracy”.  This is arrant nonsense.  Not only does Kertzer not speak of plots and conspiracies, his writing points to an accepted culture of contempt, a political-cultural milieu where Jews were perceived as negative influences on Christian society.  And the popes were not alone in thinking along those lines; it was nearly de rigueur in 19th century Europe.

Lawler’s obsession about Pius IX’s reference to Jews as “dogs” caught my attention (Chapter 4).  I was curious enough to write to Professor Kertzer and ask him directly what it was all about.  From my own reading of the literature of the time, especially from the papal-endorsed Civilta Cattolica, the language did not strike me as all that surprising.  This is an extract from the email correspondence I had with David Kertzer:

Lawler’s fixation with my quote from Pius IX on Jews as dogs, which I only mention in one paragraph in the book, is another genre of misrepresentation and bad faith. He accuses me of “a misquote” and concealing the real quote, yet when he ultimately, after repeating the charge many times, reproduces the full quote, he fails to show any misquote at all. He also, beginning in his introduction, with a long accusation, and then repeated later in the book, voices great suspicion that if I had the quote why I did not “pull it out” during my debate with the Monsignor when I mentioned it. The whole dog incident took place as follows: I was asked to debate the bishop who was I think secretary of the Vatican office in charge of making saints, on a live nationally broadcast well known radio program in Italy on September 1, 2000, two days before the beatification of Pius IX. As the program was at 9 a.m. Italian time, and while the monsignor and the host were in the Rome studio, I was sitting in the dark in my Providence kitchen … where it was 3 a.m.. When the bishop for the umpteenth time said how kindly a view of the Jews Pius IX had, I, among other things, mentioned his reference to Jews as dogs running through the streets of Rome. This he denied the pope had ever said. A day or two later I got an email from John Allen, noted Vaticanologist and journalist, asking for the source of the dog quote, given that the bishop had denied it existed. I gave him the volume and page from the Vatican publication of the pope's speeches. He checked and then got back to me letting me know he had found it and that what I had said was accurate. But now Lawler casts nasty insinuations about my motives in not producing the document when the monsignor questioned it during the debate….

Somehow I find Kertzer’s explanation far more convincing that Lawler’s conspiracy theories.

The 1913 ritual murder trial of Menahem Beilis in Kiev is another fixation Lawler has (Chapter 6). The details of the trial are readily available.  I was left wondering if there was a second edition of Kertzer’s book, because the distortion of facts engineered by Lawler bore little relation to the account I had read in Popes against the Jews.  Lawler asserts that Kertzer supports the idea that the antisemitic Cardinal Merry del Val actually delayed in sending a crucial piece of supportive evidence to Russia that would help get Beilis acquitted (132-133) My reading of Kertzer has him acknowledging Merry del Val as quite likely instrumental in the eventual acquittal.  Lawler’s harping on supposed mistranslations and manipulations of text grinds on and on, to the detriment of any positive critique he could make.

Lawler’s treatment of the Jesuit journal Civilta Cattolica is simply absurd.  To even suggest that the pope did not have complete or significant editorial control is risible (27).  It was well known that the pope or secretary of state met with the editors of Civilta to review the next edition.  The pope knew the content of the journal and approved it.  Lawler is the one engaging in conspiracy theories if he would have us believe that some underling crept in and changed articles after the next edition had received the papal placet.

His whole apologia claiming that the Civilta had no impact on the spread of Antisemitism, that it was simply repeating what others were saying, is beyond belief.  Further, his attempt to deny that the local Catholic press looked to Civilta for a signal of what the Vatican thought about issues of the day would not be taken seriously by any credible historian.

Even Howard Heinz Wisla “gets a guernsey” in this narrative.  Lawler demonstrates neither historical common sense in checking his sources, depending on the account written by William Doino, (356) and repeating Doino’s errors nor going and reading the very texts he cites to verify accuracy!  It looked to be a case of the pot (Lawler) calling the kettle (Kertzer) “black”.

Finally, the disdain and contempt shown towards the historians who signed the Letter to Pope Benedict XVI in February 2010, is simply nasty.  The reader can make up their own mind. (See 245-254)

I finished reading the book – having skimmed large sections because they are all but unreadable – felling quite angry that Justus George Lawler should squander his talent on such nasty and mean-spirited attacks;  angry I had wasted the money buying it;  angry that an historian of the calibre of Michael Burleigh had lent his considerable reputation to support it; angry that reputable and credible historians such as David Kertzer, Kevin Madigan, and many others, are lambasted and ridiculed; and angry that historians are forced to defend themselves personally and professionally from ideologues and apologists who claim for themselves the moral high ground from which to pontificate to the rest of us.  It is time for this nonsense to stop.

David Kertzer

(I am more than happy to engage in serious dialogue with readers.  I will not engage in debate with polemicists or publish comments that are offensive.)


  1. Dr O'Shea,
    the arguments are so many and so I prefer to focus on only one.
    I just read the two letters mentioned in Rychlak 's article: Hudal to Montini and the reply (p. 148 of Steinacher's book).
    Well, I have to agree with Rychlak.
    Steinecher claims that Hudal wanted an amnesty for war criminal so he suggested to Montini an amnesty for 'German soldiers'.
    Actually Hudal writes about ' prigionieri per motivi unicamente politici' e 'persone senza un delitto o crime fuori da quello del campo della politica' (that is: political prisoners who have committed no crimes) and not about 'German soldiers'; no 'soldiers' and no nationality.

    And again nowhere in Montini’s reply there is any mention of a "German clergy's different attitude' with respect to amnesty wanted by the Vatican for those prisoners.
    Dr O'Shea, what is your opinion?

  2. My prior comment did not seem to appear, likely because of a clicking error; please delete it if it does appear, as I have not had a chance to review it. My question to Dr. O'Shea is as follows. Church history being long, complex, & intertwined with that of Europe, why can not those exploring it do so with a blithe spirit, as opposed to severe moral judgment? When reading about the military history of the WWII, antagonism is simply not so great, even though the actual damage done to human lives by virtue of bullets, bombs, & the like was vastly greater than anything the Catholic Church, lacking any troops but those funny guys in the Swiss outfits, could have done. For me Pope Pius XII, assuredly a figure of virtually no importance as respects the Battle of the Bulge, did the best he could, given that he was fully subject to the nasty prejudices of his time & society. Few find disagreeable SAECULO EXEUNTE OCTAVO, even though it celebrates what all now recognize to have been a rather nasty empire, one responsible, as were others Catholic & Muslim, for racist slave trade. The ability of the Church to effect government acts was, obviously, far greater with King John. In any case, the end result was Nostre Aetate, the most fabulous civil rights document for Jews in over one thousand years.


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