Church's Advance of Jewish Intellectuals During the Rise of Racism

Author: Paolo Vian

Church's Advance of Jewish Intellectuals During the Rise of Racism

Paolo Vian

A timid Cardinal and library recluse foresees and fights anti-racial trends

With regard to the Catholic Church's attitude to the racial laws promulgated by the Fascist regime in Italy between September and November 1938 it has been written that "certain belated second thoughts" and the "hospitality given to Jews and resistance fighters by religious institutes" will not be able to obliterate the culpable acquiescence of the hierarchy.

The antithesis between "hospitality from below" and "silence and connivance from above", between the centre and the periphery, is also a reason widespread among those who intend to defend the Church's actions in the diversity of her members in those difficult years. Yet, historically speaking, such a reconstruction cannot withstand an attentive look at the sources and events; in short, it seems completely unfounded.

Rather, one can and must speak of a lively and diversified picture with different positions and evaluations, if you like, chiaroscuri, [patches of light and shade].... But it is not legitimate to bring forced generalizations to bear, disregarding outstanding cases of opposition and open condemnation of the racist theories and laws, cases that cannot be hastily dismissed as "praiseworthy exceptions" to a presumed rule but that on the contrary represent an element that cannot be disregarded and was far from secondary in the situation that we are recalling.

And this does not only apply to the brave Pontiff who guided the Catholic Church from 1922 to 1939 but also to important figures in the Catholic hierarchy and the College of Cardinals: outstanding spokesmen of the Roman Curia, as well as heads of institutions who worked with determination and clarity under the eyes of the Pope and of the world and with an unequivocal orientation.

These cases ought also to induce one to be cautious when painting a superficial portrait of a "prophetic Pope" who in the end was deserted by his Curia, by all diplomacy and mediation, acquiescent to the incipient barbarities that were to converge in the tragedy of the Shoah.

Cardinal Giovanni Mercati (1866-1957), Librarian of Holy Roman Church from 1936 until his death, was a retiring man all his life. He was far more at ease among the library shelves than at ceremonies or in a crowd. He governed no diocese, he did not hold a university chair, he had no students nor did he promote journals; he never wrote a book that was popular or for the wider public, and refused to author entries for the "Italian Encyclopaedia". He travelled very little.

"A guileless and timid library recluse" — as he called himself in June 1936 — he was in the loftiest sense of the term a scholar of the calibre of Louis Duchesne and Andre Wilmart, "without respite, without bounds", one of the greatest who lived between 1850 and 1950 and whose life "alone was worth an academy and a school", as Fr Giuseppe De Luca wrote of him.

Well, this priest from Emilia, ever exposed and, as it were, resigned to misunderstandings and trivializations about "bookworms", was actually one of the truly great historians able to perceive the course of civilization through the events and vicissitudes of manuscripts and texts. And it has sometimes been such historians, deemed so abstract and distant from reality, who have proven to be the best judges of the age in which many of their contemporaries were living.

The relations between Achille Ratti and Giovanni Mercati dated back to their common service as "scholars" of the Ambrosian Library in Milan where the Emilian priest had assisted the more elderly Lombard priest in 1893 and had worked with him until 1898.

Their relations lasted and indeed they became closer in the years that followed, after Mercati moved to the Vatican where, in 1914, he was joined by the future Pius XI who became Prefect of the Library. Mercati succeeded him in this office, as Pro-Prefect in May 1918 and as Prefect in October 1919.

Hence the relationship between Fr Achille and Fr Giovanni was very close. It continued during Ratti's brief diplomatic and pastoral experiences and was consolidated after the Papal election in February 1922.

Pius XI's privileged relationship with the Apostolic Library was also thanks to his intense human and intellectual friendship with Mercati. Thus it is not at all surprising that at the Consistory on 15 June 1936 Pius XI willed to raise both Mercati, then Prefect of the Library, intending him for the office of Librarian and Archivist of Holy Roman Church, and the Pro-Prefect, Eugene Tisserant, whom he summoned to become Secretary of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, to the dignity of Cardinal.

The creation of these two Cardinals reminded Ratti of the Cardinals created almost a century earlier in February 1838 by Gregory XVI, who honoured Angelo Mai and Giuseppe Gasparo Mezzofanti, that is, the "daring Italian" researcher of palimpsests — the erudite discoverer of Cicero's De re publica, who had won the enthusiasm of Giacomo Leopardi — and the polyglot Orientalist who had stunned the world.

Yet, in spite of being so authoritatively proposed, the comparison is not intended to suggest some vaguely academic atmosphere. In the address of thanks to the Pope, read on his behalf by Tisserant at the time of the imposition of the Cardinal's hat on 17 June 1936, Mercati was firm and determined.

He emphasized the Pope's action not only "for good studies and scholars" but above all "on behalf of religion and Christian devotion, and in defence of the principles of morals and the fundamental institutions of human society, threatened by many new forms of barbarity in the guise of the most progressive types of civilization.

"These new forms of barbarity, with the foolish arrogance of claiming to be the measure, indeed the only source of truth and law and the only salvation of states and of humanity, almost as if they were God, annihilate the human personality and freedom, reducing all to a flock of slaves".

It would be hard to find contemporary parallels to these and to other words of Mercati against "pride" and the "ungenerous exclusivism whether of race or nation" as clearly marshalled against the totalitarian and racist involution then weighing on Europe.

Moreover one should realize that these words were spoken a little more than a month after the end of the War in Ethiopia and the proclamation of the rebirth of the Empire from the balcony of the Venice Palace, and a month before the uprising which unleashed the Civil War in Spain.

It was the time when "consensus" was still predominant in Italy, when Hitler had only been in power for three years, while Western democracies were flattering and courting the German dictator in that ill-fated policy of appeasement which lead to the surrender of Munich.

And it should be borne in mind that Mercati's words preceded by almost a year Pius XI's two famous documents, against Hitlerism and Bolshevism, Mitbrennender Sorge (14 March 1937) and Divini Redemptoris (19 March 1937) and seem extraordinarily far-sighted to us today.

As was said then and confirmed recently by Annalisa Capristo on the basis of unpublished documents, the words spoken at the moment of the imposition of the Cardinal's biretta cost Mercati his seat in the Academy of Italy but was one of the clearest and finest acts of Christian opposition to 20th century totalitarianism and racism, when they had not yet displayed their potential for death and ruin.

Events were soon to confirm Mercati's predictions. After the publication in Italy of the Manifesto of Racist Scientists (July 1938), between the summer and the autumn an increasing number of measures destined to safeguard the "defence of race in Fascist schools" and the expulsion of foreign Jews were brought into force.

From the special, highly sensitive observatory of the Vatican Library, where, as we shall see, both Italian and foreign Jews arrived, Mercati took stock of the evil-smelling tide that was rising. Impelled by thoughts born from contact with Jewish scholars or scholars of Jewish origin — such as Elias Avery Lowe and the German priest Hubert Jedin, the great historian of the Council of Trent who had a Jewish mother — on 15 December 1938 (a little more than a month after the "Kristallnacht", the Reichskristallnacht,9-10 November 1938) the Cardinal launched an appeal addressed to American universities to accept scholars unjustly ostracized by their homelands.

The text, published in 2002, is known to few, hence it is worth making known its essential parts. It sketches a profile not only Mercati's intricate and laborious style but also his human and evangelical passion:

"Even though he may not dare to say so, every unbiased person who is not misled by false ideas or specious information, by political passion or by other particular interests, profoundly deplores the fact that in certain States, for the sole reason of their origin, multitudes of innocent people, including numerous distinguished and praiseworthy figures, have been indiscriminately eliminated under the pretext — that applies more or less to any people, state or class and party — of wrongdoings and abuses of a part of the race and of liberating the country from their influence on all its public and private life.

"They are more or less ruthlessly stripped of their possessions and by some, the most vociferous, are scoffingly covered with disgrace and even pointed out to the young and to others, to be despised. The vast majority, increasingly fearful of the very powerful, have fled to avoid jeopardizing their situation.

"Thus, merely living has become very difficult and almost unbearable to these unfortunate ones, deprived as they are of the common benefits of social and civil life. They would therefore emigrate — if this were not impossible for the vast majority — and if, for the few who could risk facing the uncertainties and deprivations of every adult emigrant obliged to find shelter and make himself a position, difficulties were not created both by his native country, which cares little for the person but cares much for his money and does not let him leave with it, as much as by other countries that are already burdened by unemployment and not willing to accept too many others who have been purposely reduced to unemployment and poverty by competing and opposing countries".

Mercati shows with perspicacity and sensitivity that he understood the hardship of intellectual emigrants, often no longer young and almost always considered useless by both those who expelled them and those forced to accept them. He then brings into play his full capacity for persuasion in order to present the advantages of an acceptance that would incomparably enrich the country that opened its doors to them.

"Among the above-mentioned unfortunate ones, it seems that the most able and active academics who have given proof of their ability in research and other such distinguished works are to be recommended in a very special way to the American universities and institutes that assist scientific enterprises.

"The number of such researchers and experts is everywhere minimal because they require special genius, a long and careful training and practice in an unusual combination of favourable circumstances for the development and productivity of the mind.

"They are not beginners whose success and perseverance are to be doubted. They are experienced. They are men who have tirelessly sought and collected information for years, considering the inability to work usefully and being unable to report the results of their efforts to the public as death, banned as they are from professorships, from laboratories, from academies, from society, from bookshops and no longer finding publishers for their works.

"It is of course of great interest to ensure, even at the cost of sacrifice, that they do not remain neglected or become disheartened but rather continue and, by migrating to places under kinder skies, arrive at study centres in both the old and new worlds.

"By supporting and assisting them not only is one doing a humanly good deed, a private charity as one would with any other of their unfortunate companions, but one is also taking a provident and wise step for the general public, indeed a universal good, since true scientific progress ultimately benefits the whole world".

Mercati, not yet satisfied, went even further. He underlined the specific requirements and consequent advantages of all those called to accept these individuals. "Everyone knows how important and how difficult it is for institutes for higher education to have excellent and capable teachers eager to train good students and prepare the most able for scientific work.

"North America, like the most developed and advanced nations, has some of these very able scholars but not many. Now since even people of indisputable standing and merit are perfunctorily ostracized in Europe as if there were dozens of them and they were useless — not even a Grazio Ascoli [the linguist Graziadio Isaia Ascoli (1829-1907)], a Steinschneider [the Hebrew scholar and bibliographer (1816-1907)], a Hertz [the physicist, Heinrich Rudolf Hertz (1857-1894)], or a Traube [the philologist Ludwig Traube (1861-1907)] would be saved — wealthy America has a unique opportunity (but which we hope will never be repeated) to choose the greatest and thus promote its schools to an unequalled supremacy".

Finally, the Cardinal felt it behoved him to explain the reasons that legitimized his intervention, not for private or factional interests but solely in defence of humanity: "In the most sorrowful times of the siege and then the depression and shortage in Germany, I studied how best I could help German scientific ventures in my own small way, both with my own action and by asking for and passing on subsidies. Today I do not hesitate to do likewise in the same spirit for other serious experts of those same disciplines in difficulty, who arc advocates of what is true and honest, who are men like us and are also called to the Kingdom of God and to eternal life".

Mercati's text is extraordinary for various reasons and not the least, for making no concessions to making the Jewish people feel guilty, a widespread practice even among those disposed to defend them.

In Mercati's opinion wrongdoings and abuses attributed to Jews are in reality "more or less" identifiable in "any people, state or class and party". Thus it was not permissible to recall these faults as a pretext for legitimizing an intolerable persecution.

The Cardinal desired that the letter remain confidential and not be "given as food to the wider public", precisely to prevent it from becoming "a pretext for who knows what excesses" — as he said in a letter to Lowe on 15 December 1938 — it would suffice to show it "to those who must be urged to take the matter into consideration".

However, since Mercati, solely ad notitiam, sent the text to Angelo Dell'Acqua, at the time an official at the Congregation for Extraordinary Ecclesiastical Affairs, the letter came to the knowledge of Pius XI. Then in the last weeks of his life, the Pontiff decided to make his own the appeal of the former member of the Ambrosian and Vatican Libraries.

On 10 January 1939, he arranged for the document, modified and translated into Latin, to be sent to all the North American Cardinals, accompanied by a personal letter from him.

"Looking with human and Christian eyes at every work of charity and assistance for the advantage of those who are undeservedly suffering and afflicted, we consider that the document should also be sent to you.

"We likewise believe that Our Lord Jesus Christ would not be displeased with this care and good office for those who belong to the people who were his people, for whom he wept and, on the Cross itself, invoked mercy and forgiveness! We are sure that you will welcome this indication with your well-known generosity and in that profoundly charitable spirit that so deeply distinguishes you and which without any doubt bears in mind those for whom the Most Precious Blood of the Redeemer was also poured out".

The Cardinals of Boston (William O'Connell), Philadelphia (Dionisio Dougherthy), Chicago (George William Mundelein), and Quebec (Rodrigo Villeneuve), were asked to do their utmost for the appeal to be accepted in the broadest way possible — the see of New York was vacant at the time subsequent to the death of Cardinal Patrick Josef Hayes on 4 September 1938.

Although the whole history of Pius XI's Letter and of Mercati's appeal which preceded it was described by Alberto Giovannetti in the columns of this newspaper on 26 January 1961, it seems to have been unjustly ignored by those concerned with the attitude of the Catholic Church and the Holy See to the racist laws.

Nevertheless it contributed, to an extent that it would be hard to overestimate, to that extraordinary translatio studii that took place between Europe and America between the 1930s and the 1940s, which saw the trans-Atlantic migration of the best Jewish intellectuals who found in America not only an asylum and a refuge, but above all the possibility of a new life, writing an important page in the history of 20th century culture.

To conclude, let us now return to Mercati. The words published on 17 June 1936, the appeal, confidential yet targeted, fit into a commitment that he made already before the "crucial and terrible year [1938] for European Jews" (E. Mendelsohn). The Prefect of the Vatican Library felt that it was his human and Christian duty from the beginning of the 1930s to provide shelter in the Vatican Library for scholars ostracized for racial reasons, thus giving them the possibility to work and thereby offering them the opportunity to restore meaning to their uprooted and broken lives.

The list of these scholars to which the Vatican opened its doors and offered hospitality, often also seeking to find them a permanent position in another country, is a long one and includes important names in humanistic research. Among them should be recalled: Roberto Almagia, Herbert Bloch, Charlotte Busch, Umberto Cassuto, Anna Maria Enriques — whose case moved Cardinal Elia Dalla Costa, Giorgio La Pira, Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, before his tragic death, after atrocious torture, on the banks of the Mugnone river on 12 June 1944, where the Florentine archivist was shot together with another six anti-Fascists — Giorgio Falco, Jacob Hess, Hubert Jedin, Paul Oskar Kristeller, Stephan Kuttner, Gerhart B. Ladner, Friedrich Lenz, Giorgio Levi Della Vida, Alexander Turyn and Richard Walzer.

The sequence is more impressive and eloquent than any other consideration. And all this — it is right to stress — took place a few metres from the Apostolic Palace, under the eyes of the Pope — who was informed of all that was happening in "his" Library — and of the world, in the Vatican, at the centre and in the heart of that apparatus which, surprisingly, is sometimes depicted as deaf to the cry of pain that rose from the persecuted.

In the Mercati affair, taking a public stance, practical dedication and full institutional involvement were interwoven in a strategy that appeared evident to contemporaries. When on 7 September and 12 October 1938 Amos Parducci, vice-President of the Lucca Accademy of Science, Literature and Arts, sent Mercati a personal form to fill out, at the order of the National Ministry with a view to the censure of academics of the Jewish race, he received from the Cardinal an indignant and furious reply.

Only a few weeks later, on 7 January 1939, Agostino Gemelli — yes, even the "anti-Semite" Gemelli of the Conference on Guglielmo da Saliceto, Bologna, wrote to Mercati on 9 January 1939 recommending to him the name of Gino Sacerdote, a former director of the Electro-Acoustic Institute of the National Council of Research: "in order to find a post", the Franciscan wrote, "that would permit him to continue his studies would be an act of praiseworthy merit, and I hope, Your Eminence, that what you said to me will be possible".

One might continue at length, recalling other aspects of a multi-facetted action of those who desired to remain without memorial slabs or monuments, unconcerned as they were with posthumous fame but anxious only to do their duty as men and as Christians at that time.

May these examples suffice to demonstrate that documents often deny what is commonplace and induce those who are humbly respectful of history and of the unequivocal voice of events to avoid unjust simplifications.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 February 2009, page 10

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