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The Vatican ... again.

Nancy Nowakowski Robinson, Institutional Anti-Judaism: Pope Pius VI and the "Edict Concerning the Jews" in the Context of the Inquisition and the Enlightenment

(Pittsburgh: Xlibris Corporation, 2003). Paperback, $18.69.


This volume is essentially a master's thesis completed in 2000 at the University of Pittsburgh. Thus, though it cannot be considered a major scholarly work, it nonetheless makes an important contribution to our understanding of papal/Vatican views of Jews and Judaism, especially in Italy (including the then papal states). Its unique dimension is its thorough analysis and translation (the first time into English) of Pope Pius VI's edict regarding the Jews, released originally in 1775 and reissued in 1794. This is an important document that has had little exposure in English-speaking scholarship, in part because no English translation has been available until this volume appeared. Certainly, in the future, anyone interested in working on the history of Catholic-Jewish relations will need to deal with its implications. With the evidence presented by Nowakowski Robinson from this edict, and other papal and Vatican pronouncements from the same era, she has demonstrated that theological anti-Judaism and social antisemitism were deeply imbedded in the mindset of Catholic leadership of the period. No one who takes seriously the evidence brought forth by Nowakowski Robinson can ever argue that anti-Judaism/antisemitism were peripheral to Catholicism. They were a central reality even though they did not aim at the total extermination of the Jewish people, as was the case for Nazi antisemitism. But without question this mindset sought to keep Jews miserable and marginal in society, especially in the papal states, where the church had supreme political power.

The edict issued by Pope Pius VI has been described by some scholars as one of the blackest pages in human history. It reversed a considerably more compassionate and reforming attitude toward the Jews by Pius VI's predecessor Clement XIV. Tracing its roots back to the papacy of Paul IV in 1555, this edict was meant to undergird the Catholic Church's new campaign against the Jews. But it had a second purpose as well, namely, to restore the power of the Inquisition, which Clement XIV had significantly curtailed.

Some historians have argued that the edict has to be understood within its historical context. The papacy and the papal states were under attack from the growing secular forces in Europe, and the represented a response to these forces. Controlling the Jews enhanced public perceptions of the Vatican's power and authority. Such an interpretation sees the edict as more of a byproduct of a wider struggle facing the church than a frontal ideological attack on Jews and Judaism.

Nowakowski Robinson disagrees with such an interpretation, which tends to lessen the force of its anti-Judaism. She sees the edict as a practical implementation of a consistent theology of Jews and Judaism in place in the church for hundreds of years. This theology maintained that Jews were to live in a state of degradation so as to demonstrate divine punishment for the Jews resulting from their supposed role in Jesus' death and their rejection of him as the promised messiah.

I believe Nowakowski Robinson is basically correct in her view, but she could have strengthened her position with a more sustained argument showing a direct link between the provisions of the edict and this anti-Judaic theology. As she presents it, this in fact highlights one drawback of this important work. Her argumentation is not always substantive and sustained and repetition does occur more than once; it is one drawback of this important work.

Nowakowski Robinson devotes the major part of her study to detailed commentary on each provision of the edict; she also provides background information on local situations affected by the edict (especially in Rome). The commentary is often insightful, but these details are largely based on good secondary sources rather than any original research on her part. This is certainly acceptable for a master's thesis, however. Nowakowski Robinson's analysis definitely brings a measure of clarity and understanding to a discussion of the edict that no previous author has yet provided, particularly for an English-speaking audience. Certainly her contribution can serve as an excellent point of entry for further scholarly reflection on this document.

One caution that Nowakowski Robinson notes several times is the importance of recognizing that, while the edict definitely influenced the quite harsh Vatican/papal treatment of Jews, relationships between Jews and Catholics at the ground level were often far more cordial. Ordinary Jews and Catholics often interacted quite positively on a personal level even though structural realities resulting from the edict sometimes created barriers to such friendly interaction.

Toward the end of the volume, Nowakowski Robinson devotes considerable space to the question of whether the provisions of the edict were actually enforced. This question has arisen of late because several revisionist historians, in part supported by the Vatican, have argued that they remained paper provisions with no practical consequences. She takes strong exception to such claims, offering in response eleven persuasive arguments for their concrete implementation. Taken together, they establish a strong counter-argument against such revisionist thought.

Overall, Nowakowski Robinson has provided us an important window into a previously little-known document that is generally well argued even if one might have liked more organizational tightness of the material.

* John T. Pawlikowski is a Servite priest and professor of social ethics at the Catholic Theological Union, a component of the theological schools at the University of Chicago, and a founding member of the United States Holocaust Memorial Council. Father Pawlikowski is the author of 10 books and the editor of New Theology Review, and a member of the editorial boards of Explorations, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Journal of Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies. His awards include the Raoul Wallenberg Humanitarian Award for Distinguished Contributions to Religion.
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Author:Pawlikowski, John T.
Publication:Journal for the Study of Antisemitism
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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