The following is my review of Chiesa cattolica e minoranze in Italia nella prima metà del novecento: Il caso Veneto a confronto, ed. By Raffaella Perin. The review appeared in the Catholic Historical Review, winter 2015, vol. 101, no. 1, pp. 171-172.
With antisemitism in Italy on the rise, any new research about this intractable problem is welcome. In their study of the Church’s response to minority groups in Italy from 1900 to 1950, Rafaella Perin and her fellow authors present important information about the country’s Protestants and Masons, but the Jewish problem dominates the book. In general, the authors criticize the Church for its antagonistic relations with Italian Jews.
Yet the Church’s relentless, almost obsessive, centuries-long compulsion in Italy to convert the Jews illustrates a key difference between what the authors in this anthology call anti-Jewishness and antisemitism. Anti-Jewishness involves an antipathy toward Jewish culture, particularly its tribalism. The Catholic version of anti-Jewishness allows hope for the Jews, if only they can see Christ. Antisemites see no hope for them. They are fated by blood to be what they are: the cause of everything that is wrong in the world.
It requires a complete lapse of faith and a repudiation of Christ himself for a Catholic to become an antisemite. The ethnicity of Jesus is an insurmountable problem for a would-be Catholic antisemite who retains any understanding at all about the faith. The Church opposed the racism of the Fascists when, influenced by the Nazi regime, they promulgated the racial laws of 1938. Cardinal Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster, archbishop of Milan, publicly attacked Nazi antisemitism as a flagrantly anti-Christian heresy.
Jews historically came under implacable criticism from the Church, however, not for the taint of their blood, but for their perceived clannish obstinacy in rejecting the Gospel of the Church Universal. The authors of this collection draw mainly on the diocesan literature of the period from the Veneto, in the northeastern part of the country, for their arguments about the Church’s perception of Jews, Protestants, and Masons as the country’s archetypal anti-Catholics. These three groups formed a de facto alliance, later joined by socialists and communists, engaging in what Catholic authors believed to be a relentless struggle to harm the Church, to ridicule its traditionalist beliefs, and to banish it from the public sphere.
In the Italian Catholic mind, the Protestant Reformation bore primary responsibility for undermining the unity of Western Christendom. Martin Luther would not be alone, Catholics charged, in rebelling against the moral guardian of Western civilization in Rome. For the Church, the Protestant Reformation had set in motion a historical dialectic of civilization-disorienting falsehoods leading inevitably to the moral confusion and desolation of modern times.
The Church viewed the Risorgimento in the long historical context of anti-Church subversion dating back to the Protestant Reformation. Protestants, Masons, and Jews led the nineteenth-century struggle for Italian unification, which triumphed at the expense of the Church. Throughout the post-Risorgimento period, Catholic writers denounced these minorities for having created an anti-Catholic nation-state and for then continuing a relentless campaign to bring about the final defeat of the Church.
The authors do not set for themselves the task of documenting the activities of Italy’s Jews, Protestants, and Masons. They limit their inquiry to an analysis of the Church’s response to the threats that it perceived itself to be facing. They make it plain that in their opinion the Church, lacking an ecumenical outlook at this time, misperceived its actual situation. To do their subject full justice, however, they would have to provide a similarly cold look at the Church’s adversaries, whose own passive portrayal in the book seems underdrawn.
University of Montana