The Point – February 1957

Edited Under Fr. Leonard Feeney M.I.C.M. — Saint Benedict Center

February, 1957


Courage of the Faith in the Thirteenth Century

For five full years now, The Point has considered its most urgent work to be that of alerting Catholics to the dangers which threaten their Faith. Our monthly articles have thus been, purposefully, more “anti” than “pro.” And it was in the midst of exposing the workings of what we might call the “accepted” enemies of American Catholics — the pope-hating, birth-controlling, lodge-going heretics — that we made a discovery. Our readers were quite prepared to learn that Mrs. Eddy’s Christian Scientists and Billy Channing’s Unitarians were ill-disposed toward those of Romish persuasion. But the information that the Jews were also, and more so, enemies of the Faith, left many a bit skeptical.

We have, therefore, spent several months in discussions of the Jewish threat to the Church, which even our most cautious readers now recognize as infinitely more deep-rooted and far-reaching than anything which American Protestantism could contrive. Looking ahead to future issues, we have one regret: A Catholic understanding of the entire Jewish problem presupposes a familiarity with the Church’s traditional position on the Jewish people, and her repeated legislations in their regard. Our readers are still hazy about this all-important matter, and so …

There is no fairer way of determining the Church’s official attitude toward that people whom Saint Paul calls the “adversaries of all men,” than to study what the teaching body of the Church has had to say about Jews when it was most free to speak. In short: In the days when the Catholic Church was on top, where were the Jews to be found?

Now, the most scrupulous historian would have to agree that the Church was never more exalted as a world influence than it was in the thirteenth century. During all the twelve hundreds, from the reign of Pope Innocent III to the pontificate of Boniface VIII, the Catholic Church was spectacularly and indisputably “on top”!

The thirteenth was a century of holiness. It was the age of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, Saint Louis of France, Saint Ferdinand of Castile, Saint Edmund of Canterbury, Saint Simon Stock, Saint Peter Nolasco, Saint Raymond of Peñafort, Saint Thomas of Hereford, Saint Hugh of Lincoln, Saint Gertrude the Great, Saint Mechtilde, and Saint Philip Benizi. It was the glorious age of Saint Clare, Saint Francis, and Saint Dominic, and it saw them establish the religious orders which today bear their names: the Poor Clares, the Franciscans, and the Dominicans. It heard the teaching of four of the Church’s twenty-nine brilliant Doctors: Saint Anthony of Padua, Saint Bonaventure, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Albertus Magnus. It witnessed the spread of the Christian guilds and the rise of the Gothic cathedrals. It was the century when Our Blessed Lady’s Rosary was first recited, and her Brown Scapular first worn. It gave our liturgy the Stabat Mater, the Dies Irae, and the entire Office and Mass of Corpus Christi, including the benediction hymn, Tantum Ergo Sacramentum. Three General Councils of the Church were held during the thirteenth century, at one of which cardinals were for the first time given their familiar insignia, the red hat. It was the century of the final Crusade, of the first Inquisition, of England’s Magna Carta, and Marco Polo’s explorations. And in all this activity of the faithful, there was everywhere the maternal hand of the Church, guarding, reproving, encouraging, and guiding.

With all of Christendom thus ordered and disposed toward a full Christian life, the Church had the time, and the recognized authority, to look beyond its flock to the unbaptized Jews. The result was a detailed program governing the presence of Jews in all the Catholic nations of Europe. Below, we have pieced together a quick chronology of the development of this program.

On July 15, 1205, Pope Innocent III wrote a letter to the hierarchy of France to remind them that the Crucifiers of Christ ought to be held in continual subjection. And if the Jews of France would not accept this rightful state — if they would not abide by the regulations drawn up for them by the Holy See — then, the Pope instructed his bishops, “We give you our authority to forbid any Christian in the district from entering into commercial relations with them, under pain of excommunication.”

Three years later, in a letter to the Count of Nevers, this same Holy Father set forth Catholic teaching even more plainly: “The Jews, against whom the blood of Jesus Christ calls out, although they should not be killed, lest Christian people forget the Divine Law, yet as wanderers ought they to remain upon the earth, until their countenance be filled with shame.”

Spurred by the Pope’s words and example, a council of French bishops, meeting at Avignon in 1209, enacted a severe code of anti-Jewish restrictions. And in 1212, another council, at Paris, added to these measures by forbidding any Christian mid-wife from assisting at the birth of a Jewish child.

In 1215, Pope Innocent III convoked a general council of all the bishops of Christendom, the decrees of which would be ratified by him personally and be binding on the whole Catholic world. Canon 68 of this assembly, known as the Fourth Lateran Council, prescribes that “Jews of either sex, in every Christian province, and at all times, be distinguished in public from other people by a difference of dress.” And Canon 69 declares, “It is most absurd that a blasphemer of Christ should exercise power over Christians … and we renew the decree forbidding that the Jews be given public offices.”

Pope Honorius III, who succeeded Innocent III in 1216, got his pontificate off to a decisive start by ordering that the new synagogue built by the Jews in Rome should be immediately demolished.

In 1219, papal authorities ruled that any Jew buying a house from a Christian must pay property taxes to the Church. The same year, the Archbishop of Toledo in Spain established an annual tribute to be paid by every adult Jew in his diocese.

The year 1222 saw the English Council of Oxford imposing general strictures on the Jews and the Golden Bull of Hungary forbidding them to hold public office. The first quarter-century was rounded off by the Council of Paris, which ordained in 1223 that Christians must not be employed in Jewish households.

The anti-Jewish code of the Fourth Lateran Council was re-enacted in 1227 by the bishops of France meeting at Narbonne; while the city of Marseilles, to implement Lateran’s Canon 68, ruled that every Jew in the area who had reached his seventh year must wear on his chest a large, bright-colored disc.

In 1228, the newly-elected Pope Gregory IX decreed that all Crusaders indebted to Jews were to be free from paying interest. And in December of 1230, King Louis IX (Saint Louis) of France declared that Jews could not make legal contracts nor leave the estates of their lords.

In 1233, Pope Gregory wrote to the hierarchy of Germany: “Ungrateful for favors and forgetful of benefits, the Jews return insult for kindness and impious contempt for goodness … they who ought to know the yoke of perpetual enslavement because of their guilt.” The Pope also wrote to Saint Ferdinand, King of Castile, charging him to see “that the perfidious Jews never in the future grow insolent, but that, in servile fear, they shall ever publicly suffer the shame of their sin.”

The year 1240 marks the beginning of open war on the Jewish Talmud. In early Lent of that year, Pope Gregory IX instructed Saint Louis and Saint Ferdinand that, while the Jews of France and Castile were at their synagogues, their homes should be searched and copies of the Talmud confiscated. Saint Louis followed this search by ordering, in June of 1242, Europe’s first official public burning of the Jewish book.

In 1244, Pope Innocent IV, continuing Gregory IX’s tradition, issued the famous Impia Gens. In it, he assailed the Talmud as “containing every kind of vileness and blasphemy against Christian truth,” and ordered the book seized, wherever it might be found, and destroyed. Accordingly, Saint Louis held another Talmud-burning at Paris in 1244, and still another in 1248.

Meanwhile, in distant Dublin, a law had been passed in 1241, prohibiting the selling of any Irish land to Jews. And, back in France, Pope Innocent IV convened the General Council of Lyons in 1245, which reaffirmed all the Church’s anti-Jewish enactments. The following year, a local council of French bishops, meeting at Beziers, forbade Jews to practice medicine.

Shortly after the Council of Lyons closed, Archbishop Philip of Savoy demanded that the Jews get out of the city entirely. Thereafter, no Jew lived in Lyons for a century, and any who passed through had to pay a toll, the same as was paid for cattle, both entering the city and leaving it.

Apparently hoping that they would be more fortunate in the second half-century than they had been in the first, the Jews petitioned Pope Innocent IV, in April of 1250, to let them build a new synagogue at Cordova, Spain. The petition was refused.

In December of 1254, Saint Louis of France, with the blessing of the Holy See, expelled all Jews from his kingdom. Seven years later, they were banished from Brabant, in Germany, and the year after that, from Treves.

The year 1263 saw a public burning of the Talmud at Barcelona, Spain. And in 1265, Pope Clement IV ordered death for any Jew in the Papal States found with a Talmud in his house.

In 1266, the Council of Breslau cautioned Christians not to buy meat or other provisions from Jewish dealers. It also prescribed putting the Jews in a ghetto, to be “divided from the section inhabited by Christians by a fence, wall, or ditch.” The following year, the Council of Vienna forbade Jewish doctors to treat Christian patients and, in conformity with the Fourth Lateran Council, decreed that, whenever a Viennese Jew appeared in public, he must wear a pointed hat.

In July of 1267, Pope Clement IV issued the bull, Turbato Corde, extending the Inquisition begun by Gregory IX, so that it could deal not only with heretics, but also with Jews who had seduced Catholics from the Faith. The city of London was aroused in 1271 to prohibit Jews from acquiring any more property there. And, in 1274, occurred the death of the great Saint Thomas Aquinas, who in his De Regimine Judaeorum told Christian rulers: “Jews, in consequence of their sin, are or were destined to perpetual slavery; so that sovereigns of states may treat their goods as their own property; with the sole proviso that they do not deprive them of all that is necessary to sustain life.”

The year 1275 opened with the Jews being expelled from Marlborough, Gloucester, Worcester, and Cambridge in England and, in 1276, from Bavaria.

In August of 1278, Pope Nicholas III directed the Jews of Lombardy to attend weekly sermons given for them by Dominican preachers. The Pope further stated that Jews “who, through fear, though not absolutely coerced, had received Baptism and had returned to their Jewish blindness, should be handed over to the secular power.”

The Council of Ofen, held in Hungary in 1279 and presided over by a papal legate, decreed that any Christian responsible for putting a Jew in public office was to be excommunicated.

In 1280, England adopted Lombardy’s practice by obliging all Jews in the kingdom to attend weekly sermons. This same year, King Alphonso X of Leon and Castile imprisoned his entire Jewish population until it had paid a special levy, plus an additional fine for each day of delay.

Archbishop Peckham of London, a city growing acutely uncomfortable for the Jews, gave orders in 1283 that all the synagogues in his diocese must be closed. And the same year, King Pedro of Aragon decreed that no Jew could hold a position that would give him jurisdiction, power, or authority over Christians.

In November of 1286, Pope Honorius IV wrote to the English Archbishops of Canterbury and York, calling the Talmud “that damnable book” and urging them “vehemently to see that it be not read by anyone, since all evils flow from it.” A few months later, in May of 1287, King Edward I had the Jews of England thrown into prison. And finally, on November 1, 1290, Edward ordered all Jews to be deported from the country — to which they were not allowed to return till the time of the Protestant Cromwell, almost four centuries later.

Two events mark the final year of the thirteenth century: On June 13, Pope Boniface VIII issued his bull Exhibita Nobis, ordaining that Jews could be denounced to the Inquisition without the name of the accuser being revealed, so as to protect Christians against Jewish reprisals. And, to bring the century to a blazing conclusion, the city of Paris held, in 1299, one more public burning of the Jewish Talmud.

Some months ago, the American Jewish Committee’s magazine, Commentary, carried an article which gave details of the anti-Jewishness of the Church in France during the Middle Ages. One of the items which most annoyed the A.J.C. spokesman was an inscription placed over the gate of the Cemetery of the Holy Innocents in Paris. In bold letters, it read, “Beware of a Jew, a madman, and a leper.”

This French inscription makes a pithy summary of all that the Church, at its height of power, tried to indicate concerning the Jewish people. Jews were to be avoided, quite as one would avoid the mad and the leprous. They were to be restrained and quarantined, lest their perfidy and filth infect Christian society. The Church’s prudent devices (ghettos, badges, and the rest) were thus the fruit of a mother’s solicitude for her children. It was only when Europe turned against its mother that these safeguards vanished and the Jewish infection spread abroad in the land — leaving the once-Christian West in its present, unspeakable state of misery.


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