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Press: The anti-Semitism staunched by Vatican II

04 September 2020


THE arguments about Pope Pius XII and the Holocaust seem interminable. But last week brought some real news from the magazine The Atlantic.

David Kertzer’s piece started with an examination of a cause celèbre from 1953, when the Roman Catholic Church in France kidnapped a couple of Jewish children who had escaped the Holocaust after their parents were deported and murdered. The children, then aged three and four, had been sheltered by a middle-aged, unmarried Catholic woman who had them baptised and then refused to return them to their aunt, who had managed to flee to New Zealand.

When the courts sided with the aunt, the children were smuggled into Spain. The hierarchy took the view that the children were now Catholics, and must not be handed over to a Jewish family where their faith would be in peril.

Kertzer takes up the story: “It was a struggle that pitted France’s Jewish community, so recently devastated by the Holocaust, against the country’s Roman Catholic hierarchy, which insisted that the boys were now Catholic and must not be raised by Jews.”

Eventually, the Church surrendered, after months of obstruction and delay. But research in the Vatican archives, unsealed earlier this year, has revealed a new and unpleasant twist.

“At the centre of this drama was an official of the Vatican curia [Monsignor Angelo Dell’Acqua, later to become Cardinal Vicar of Rome] who, as we now know from other newly revealed documents, had helped persuade Pope Pius XII not to speak out in protest after the Germans rounded up and deported Rome’s Jews in 1943.”

The language of Dell’Acqua’s 1943 memorandum is saturated with anti-Semitism. Criticising a note from a Jesuit adviser who wanted the Pope to protest against the imminent deportation of 2000 Jews from Rome to their deaths in the camps, Dell’Acqua writes that “it may even be true” that Italians are not in fact anti-Semitic, or “decisively hostile toward the Jewish milieu”, but “it does not seem opportune to say so.”

Again, he says that in the Note proposed by the Jesuit adviser, “the mistreatment to which the Jews are allegedly being subject by the German Authorities is highlighted (page 5). This may even be true, but is it the case to say it so openly in a Note?”

The story has two aspects still relevant today. It illustrates one of the ways in which Vatican II was a genuine revolution. The acceptance of Jews and Judaism in the document Nostra Aetate did not just overturn nearly 2000 years of anti-Semitism: much more immediately, it overturned the attitudes of the generation that had, until then, been running the Church.

And the language of that memorandum illustrates the power of dehumanisation. Fewer people would write about Jews in those terms today in Europe or the United States, but it is easy to imagine official documents that take this line today about Muslims from Afghanistan or Iran.


SARAH DITUM had a piece about the decline of the trade of journalism, in the website UnHerd. Her perspective was sharp and unusual, because she had started as a journalist twice: once in the 1990s, before the internet mattered, as a reporter on a local paper. “Local papers were places that could take you places, if you were good, if you were ambitious. I wanted this so badly — I wanted the cynicism, the self-deprecation, the hack’s pride in being a hack, underpinned by a fierce private seriousness about what their papers meant to their readers.”

Then, university, children, and marriage intervened. But, in about 2010, she started writing again, this time as a voice on The Guardian’s website Comment is Free. She made herself a name that way, but got none of the things that she had wanted when she went into the trade.

“Every morning started with the Today programme, scanning Twitter, reading the headlines, especially reading the headlines in the Mail, in search of something that I could be mad enough about to write 600-800 fiery words on it.

“The economics of this kind of content required fast output (since timeliness is critical) and high engagement (since this is how editors, and writers, measure success). I write quickly when I’m angry, and anger begets more anger, so people are more likely to share and react.

“Not everything I wrote when this was my main form of journalism was bad, but only some of it was good, and the worst of it had a dishonesty that made me feel ashamed.”

She would not, she thinks, go into journalism a third time today. Comment is Free was an instructive disaster whose chief lesson is that comment is cheap but reporting is expensive. It is also a trade that you learn by apprenticeship, as Ditum did. So the collapse of local papers has also entailed a collapse in the opportunities to learn how to be a reporter.

If we are ever going to restore one of the foundations of a working democracy, it will be a very long job.

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