Rorate Caeli

The Jews Under the Popes and in Christendom

A previous post from Bonetus (January 13) referred to the legal restrictions on the Jews under the papal government of Rome, which was finally suppressed by the liberal-Masonic Kingdom of Italy in 1870. The history of the Jews in Rome is similar in many ways to their history in other parts of Christendom prior to the French Revolution. One of the most important books one can read on the topic is the massive work The Jewish Revolutionary Spirit and Its Impact on World History, by E. Michael Jones (visit Mr. Jones provides documentation for his major historical theses, often from recognized Jewish historians. This blogger found the rhetorical style to be over-general and over-heated at times, and sometimes the connection asserted between some historical process and “the Jews” seemed a bit tenuous. Nevertheless the basic point is clearly demonstrated: “Judaism” under the rabbinic schools and the Talmud since 70 A.D. is significantly different from the revealed religion of the patriarchs and Moses, and the community of Jews who disbelieve Jesus of Nazareth will always produce a certain number of individuals whose ideas and actions objectively undermine, in characteristic ways, the influence of Christian faith in society. If a reader keeps this in mind, and Jones says as much in his own way, then his understanding of the Gospel and of history will be enriched without having to a priori suspect all Jews of nefarious designs against the Church.

Jones' book contains relatively little on the Jews in Rome itself under the popes. A survey of many histories by authors both Jewish and non-Jewish can provide a rough outline.

Well before the coming of Peter and Paul, the Jews were established in Rome under a legal agreement with Rome. They were authorized to freely practice their religion and were not required to worship the emperor or the gods, a privilege which the Christians were not to enjoy until Constantine. The Jews lived and prospered in Rome with not only prejudice and contempt from the surrounding host society: there were conversions and partial conversions from the Roman upper classes, especially women, and the utterly different religion of Moses with its invisible and one God could exercise a certain fascination on the Romans.

As the Empire gradually became Christian in the succeeding centuries, the Synagogue did not cease to attract as well as repel. In the context of everyday social and economic contact, many Christians were drawn by Jews to worship in synagogues and to consider the Jewish religion superior, thus denying their baptism and faith. Rabbis often had considerable medical knowledge together with a reputation for special powers. Jews were very open in denying the basic truths of Christian faith. Their presence was objectively a danger for the eternal salvation of baptized Christians who were weak or poorly instructed. The bishops reacted energetically with their preaching and by prohibiting Christians from social and economic contact with the Jews, which also necessitated getting laws passed to bar Jews from government positions. It is in the context of a still socially respected and influential Synagogue that one can understand the large body of sermons of St. John Chrysostom collected under the title “Against the Jews”. The great shepherd of souls and Doctor of the Church was doing everything he could to persuade his flock not to succumb to the very real attraction of the Synagogue. He was also handing on the Church's New Testament faith that her Lord, foretold by Moses, had fulfilled the Mosaic ritual prescriptions and rendered them obsolete.

Since the Jews had in large part rejected the Gospel, the Church was composed almost entirely of non-Jews who as Romans or residents of other parts of the Empire inherited the legal relationship with the Jews which their forefathers had: namely that the Jews are a foreign group within the state and may only continue to be so on terms set by the host society, now officially Christian and believing itself duty-bound to protect its faith from corruption. This is why papal Rome and medieval Christendom restricted the Jews in various ways. The practice of Judaism by the Jews themselves was protected by the Church against outbursts of popular or politically manipulated violence associated with eternal ups and downs of taxation on Jews by money-hungry rulers and Jewish money-lending to poor Christians at often exorbitant interest. One of the most famous letters of Pope Gregory the Great reprimanded a bishop who had not respected the legitimate freedom of the Jews in his diocese. But the Church always insisted on restricting Jews from contact with Christians. St. Thomas in question 10 of the Secunda Secundae of the Summa explains the Church’s power to do so and the necessity to protect the faith of the weak. There are other aspects of St. Thomas's legal thought, ethics and theology which would also be relevant to this issue. At any rate the laws could be sweeping and blind, imposing great suffering on the Jews as a group, as for example Pope Paul IV’s 16th century bull forcing all the Jews of Rome to have their residence in a small area along the Tiber, with consequent overcrowding and its attendant health and social problems, not to mention the flooding of houses when the Tiber overflowed its banks.

To be continued.