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The Church and anti-Semitism—again

Kevin MacDonald

February 2, 2009

Recently there has been a media uproar about the reinstatement of the Society of Saint Pius X (SSPX), a traditionalist Catholic group, that broke off from the Church after the reforms of Vatican II. Jewish groups are furious that there would be any attempt to reconcile these traditionalists to the Church. This is not surprising since the issue that led to the schism was the reform of the Church initiated by the Second Vatican Council and its declaration  on Judaism, anti-Semitism, and non-Christian religions.

The man behind the schism was Marcel Lefebvre. Lefebvre not only objected to the changes wrought by Vatican II but also opposed Muslim immigration to Europe. As noted in the National Catholic Reporter,

A troubled history with Judaism has long been part of the Catholic traditionalist movement associated with … Lefebvre — beginning with Lefebvre himself, who spoke approvingly of both the World War II-era Vichy Regime in France and the far-right National Front, and who identified the contemporary enemies of the faith as “Jews, Communists and Freemasons” in an Aug. 31, 1985, letter to Pope John Paul II.

Within the past year, a priest of the SSPX stated that the Jews were “co-responsible” for the death of Christ. One of the reinstated bishops, Richard Williamson, has questioned standard accounts of the Holocaust.

All this raises once again the issue of anti-Semitism and the Church. Visiting St. Peter’s in Rome last summer I noticed that there was a fairly large and prominent crypt of St. John Chrysostom. There is also a large statue of Chrysostom as part of the Altar of the Chair of St. Peter by Bernini, as well a statue on the colonnade. Chrysostom was certainly an important Doctor of the Church. But he is also one of history’s most well-known anti-Semites:

Although such beasts [Jews] are unfit for work, they are fit for killing . . . fit for slaughter. (I.II.5)

[The Synagogue] is not merely a lodging place for robbers and cheats but also for demons. This is true not only of the synagogues but also of the souls of the Jews. (I.IV.2)

Shall I tell you of their plundering, their covetousness, their abandonment of the poor, their thefts, their cheating in trade? (I.VII.1) (St. John Chrysostom, Adversus Judaeos) 

Or consider St. Jerome: “If you call [the synagogue] a brothel, a den of vice, the devil’s refuge, Satan’s fortress, a place to deprave the soul, an abyss of every conceivable disaster or whatever else you will, you are still saying less than it deserves.” 

Or St. Gregory of Nyssa: [Jews are] murderers of the Lord, assassins of the prophets, rebels against God, God haters, . . . advocates of the devil, race of vipers, slanderers, calumniators, dark-minded people, leaven of the Pharisees, sanhedrin of demons, sinners, wicked men, stoners, and haters of righteousness.

I wrote a chapter on this in Separation and Its Discontents, proposing that the Catholic church in late antiquity [4th–6th century AD] was in its very essence a powerful anti-Jewish movement that arose out of resource and reproductive competition with Jews. This idea of mine hasn’t received much attention — perhaps because it leads to some basic questioning about our beliefs and our culture. Darwin really did have a dangerous idea. But since the issue is topical right now, I thought that I would use this opportunity to summarize the argument there, followed by some further comments on anti-Jewish attitudes in Catholicism.  

      The 4th and 5th centuries were a time of increased anti-Jewish attitudes at all levels of Roman society. Preachers and bishops like Chrysostom portrayed the Jews very negatively and attempted to erect walls between Jews and non-Jews.

 

      Jews had become economically prosperous during this period even though the society as a whole was losing population and declining economically. Accusations of Jewish greed, wealth, love of luxury and of the pleasures of the table became common. Jews were prominent in certain sectors of the economy, including the slave trade, banking, national and international trade, and the law. Jews had also developed monopolies in specific industries, including silk, clothing, glassware, and the trade in luxury items. Jews were seen as wealthy, powerful, and aggressive.

 

      Church actions against the Jews and the anti-Jewish rhetoric of the Church Fathers struck a deep resonance with popular attitudes. A historian noted that “if the Christian populace so many times threw itself into the attack on synagogue after synagogue, it was not because it passively accepted orders given from above. … If the anti-Jewish polemic was so successful, it was because it awakened latent hatreds and appealed to feelings that were already there.”

 

    Emperor Constantine, who established the Church as the religion of the Empire, had bishops in his entourage who held strongly anti-Jewish attitudes. Constantine himself stated that the Jews are “a people who, having imbrued their hands in a most heinous outrage [i.e., killing Christ], have thus polluted their souls and are deservedly blind.”

 

    Several of the Church Fathers, including Chrysostom, came from areas where there was a long history of conflict between Jews and non-Jews. Chrysostom describes Jews as numerous and wealthy and seems to have seen Judaism more as an economic force than as a religious organization. He often compared Jews to predatory beasts and accused them of virtually every evil, including economic crimes such as profiteering. St. Jerome also refers to Jews as encircling Christians and seeking to tear them apart. Jerome complained about the Jews’ love for money in several passages. And he complained that the Jews were multiplying “like vermin” — a comment that clearly suggests a concern with Jewish reproductive success.

 

   Outspoken anti-Jewish attitudes were typical of many who rose in the Church hierarchy and among many prominent Christian writers of the 4th and 5th century (e.g., Eusebius, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, St. Jerome, St. Ambrose, St. Cyril of Alexandria, St. Gregory of Nyssa). In the Eastern Church during this period, the monks were “militant anti-Semites” who had considerable influence among the Church hierarchy. The suggestion is that anti-Semitism was of prime importance in attaining positions of power and influence in the Church during this period. Individuals exhibited their anti-Semitism openly, as a badge of honor, and were made saints of the Church after their death.

 

   A significant percentage of all Christian writings during the period are essentially anti-Jewish. These writings are attempts define an ingroup fundamentally opposed to Jews. Christians saw the Old Testament and the New Testament as fundamentally opposed: “The adversos Judeaos tradition represents the overall method of Christian exegesis of the Old Testament. . . . It was virtually impossible for the Christian preacher or exegete to teach scripturally at all without alluding to the anti-Judaic theses.”

 

      This rhetoric was meant to apply not only to the Jews of the Old Testament but also to their descendants in the contemporary world. According to Chrysostom, Jewish responsibility for killing Christ and their many other vices had been passed to the descendants of the ancient Jews as inherited traits.

 

    Anti-Jewish references occurred in Christian liturgy and rites, especially those surrounding Holy Week emphasizing the role of the Jews in the crucifixion of Christ. Prayers intended for use by the masses of Christians contained reproaches against the Jews. Christian holidays and periods of fasting were set up to be directly opposite to Jewish ones and to act as anti-Jewish commemorations. For example, the Christian Holy Week originally coincided with the Jewish Passover, but the Christian liturgy emphasized Christian mourning for the Jewish act of deicide at a time of Jewish rejoicing. Friday became a fast day commemorating the crucifixion, whereas for Jews, Friday was a joyous time prior to the Sabbath. Anti-Jewish attitudes were deeply ingrained in the important documents of the religion and closely connected to expressions of Christian faith.

 

      The culmination of this perceived Jewish evil is, of course, the rejection and killing of Christ. According to Eusebius — an important Christian theoretician, by rejecting Christ as the Messiah, the Jews rejected God and forfeited their status as the Chosen People. Their punishment for this rejection can already be seen by their defeats at the hands of the Romans, their loss of secular power, and the loss of their priesthood.

 

    The result was a very potent anti-Jewish ideology. Christian anti-Semitism was not only intellectually respectable, it also developed an emotionally compelling anti-Jewish liturgy. With the political success of the Church, society as a whole became organized around a monolithic, hegemonic, and collectivist social institution defined by its opposition to Judaism.

 

      Christian writers, such as Eusebius, described Judaism as an ethnic entity, but they saw Christianity as a universalist religion that would eventually include all of mankind. Eusebius repeatedly contrasts the universalist message of Christianity versus the religion of the “Jewish race.” The new covenant is “not for the Jewish race only” but “summons all men equally to share together the same good things.” Eusebius thought of Jews as biological descendants of Abraham who have rejected the universal message of Christianity, which remains open to them if only they would see the light.

 

    This Christian ideology was accompanied by an increase in anti-Jewish actions sanctioned and even encouraged by the Church. Monks “stirred up mobs of Christians to pillage synagogues, cemeteries, and other property, seize or burn Jewish religious buildings, and start riots in the Jewish quarter.” Christians were able to destroy synagogues with virtual impunity and with the tacit or open approval of the Church. The Church pressured the government to forgive anti-Jewish acts.

 

     A number of anti-Jewish laws were enacted, including laws against Jews owning Christian slaves, laws discouraging social contact and intermarriage with Jews, and laws regulating economic relationships between Jews and non-Jews. Jews were barred from the legal profession and government service, and they were prohibited from making accusations against Christians or even testifying against them in civil or criminal legal proceedings.

 

      The government was often reluctant to pursue these anti-Jewish restrictions and did so only as a result of ecclesiastical and popular pressure. The Church was active and influential in changing imperial legislation regarding the Jews, and the wording of the laws often betrays extreme hostility to the Jews. The Church developed the ideology that it was superior to the emperors — clearly a necessary condition if the Church was to be an instrument of anti-Semitism rather than having only a spiritual function.

 

    As with the official Muslim position, Jews were allowed to exist within Christian societies, but, as a condemned people, their life was to be miserable. With this type of ideology it is easy to see that Christian religious ideology would be inconsistent with Jewish wealth, political power, and reproductive success.

 

      I suggest that the reason for Christian universalism was that the Empire had become a polyglot, ethnically diverse “chaos of peoples” (quoting race theorist Houston Stewart Chamberlain). The world became divided into Jews and non-Jews. The Jews remained an ethnic group, while the non-Jews developed a religious identification as Christians.

 

    The result was that ethnicity had no official place in Christian religious ideology. This in turn had a number of important consequences in later centuries. On the one hand, there is no question that Catholicism was able to serve as a viable institution of ethnic defense in other historical eras, notably the Middle Ages when, as James C. Russell notes, the Church was influenced by German culture. On the other hand, the strands of Christian universalism can lead to compromising the ethnic interests of Christians. Indeed, since Vatican II, Catholicism has become part of the culture of Western suicide. In the US, it is in the forefront of the open borders movement. It is therefore not at all surprising that Jewish organizations would be dismayed by any retreat from Vatican II.

Fundamentally, the Catholic traditionalists seem to desire a return to an older form of Catholicism capable of defending the West as a cultural entity and perhaps implicitly as an ethnic entity. Indeed, it is interesting to read the article on Judaism in The Catholic Encyclopedia from 1910 — during the papacy of Pius X.  The article shows that Catholic attitudes on Jews had not changed much in the 16 centuries since Eusebius. Jews in the time of Jesus are described as a "race" that rejected the call of Jesus for repentance, showing no sorrow for sin, unfit for salvation and rejecting the true kingdom of God in favor of earthly power: "Jesus justly treated as vain the hopes of His Jewish contemporaries that they should become masters of the world in the event of a conflict with Rome."

[The Kingdom of God] is the Christian Church, which was able silently to leaven the Roman Empire, which has outlived the ruin of the Jewish Temple and its worship, and which, in the course of centuries, has extended to the confines of the world the knowledge and the worship of the God of Abraham, while Judaism has remained the barren fig-tree which Jesus condemned during His mortal life. ...

[After the resurrection of Jesus,] the Church ... took the independent attitude which it has maintained ever since. Conscious of their Divine mission, its leaders boldly charged the Jewish rulers with the death of Jesus, and freely "taught and preached Christ Jesus", disregarding the threats and injunctions of men whom they considered as in mad revolt against God and His Christ (Acts 4).

The article portrays Church laws against Jews, such as laws against Jews having Christian slaves and forcing Jews to live in ghettos, as necessary to protect the Christian faith. And it accurately portrays the Church in later centuries as at times protecting Jews against popular anti-Jewish actions. However, it asserts that the causes of popular anti-Semitism included real conflicts between Jews and non-Jews and are not only due to Christian religious ideology. In particular, the causes of anti-Semitism are described as follows:

These ideas on the causes of popular anti-Semitism are pretty much the same as the ones I emphasize in my overview of historical anti-Semitism.

The Catholic Church has played the role of ethnic and cultural defense in the past. It is certainly not surprising that Jewish organizations are alarmed by any suggestion that it might be returning to its historic self-conception. Indeed, the Southern Poverty Law Center, a quasi-Jewish organization that is the epicenter of leftist intolerance of any remnant of the traditional culture of the West, has also targeted traditional Catholics using its familiar methods of disinformation and intimidation (see The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Hate Mongers).

Let's hope the traditionalists don't give in to what will be a furious onslaught to prevent any glimmer of the resurgence of traditional Catholicism.

Kevin MacDonald is a professor of psychology at California State University–Long Beach.  

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