‘Blood Libel Never a Church Teaching,’ Says Prominent US Catholic Academic, as Defenders of Antisemitic Italian Painting Come Forward
The Italian Catholic painter whose artistic rendering of a medieval blood libel caused a storm of protest in the Jewish community last week is winning over some supporters notwithstanding.
An editorial published on Wednesday in the Italian newspaper L’Quotidiano Italiano praised artist Giovanni Gasparro’s creation — titled “The Martyrdom of St. Simon of Trento By Jewish Ritual Murder” — as “objectively a masterpiece.”
The paper, which serves the Adriatic port city of Bari where Gasparro resides, described the painter as an “internationally-renowned artist,” noting as well that “ecclesiastical bodies” of the Catholic Church were among those who had purchased Gasparro’s works in the past.
Critically, the editorial defended the historical veracity of the blood libel episode depicted in Gasparro’s painting — which features stereotypically-lurid Jewish characters crowding around a terrified infant as they drain his blood.
In March 1475, the discovery of the body of a missing child named Simon in the Italian city of Trento, supposedly in the cellar of a local Jew, led to the entire Jewish community being charged with the “blood libel” — the false accusation that Jews used the blood of Christian children for religious rituals. The result was an anti-Jewish frenzy in which Jewish men, women and children alike were tortured and beaten, and the leaders of the community burned at the stake following a show trial.
But as one leading American Catholic academic pointed out in an extensive interview on Wednesday, unlike the long-ago spurned charge of “deicide” — collective Jewish responsibility for the execution of Jesus by the Roman authorities — historically the 900-year-old blood libel was never endorsed by Catholic teachings.
“This particular accusation of Jews killing Christian children was never a church teaching or doctrine, and was rejected even by Popes during the medieval period,” Prof. Philip Cunningham — director of the Institute for Jewish-Catholic relations at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia — told The Algemeiner.
One of the several pontiffs to have rejected any theological basis for believing the blood libel was Gregory X (1271-76), who asserted, “Most falsely do these Christians claim that the Jews have secretly and furtively carried away these children and killed them, and that the Jews offer sacrifice from the heart and blood of these children, since their law in this matter precisely and expressly forbids Jews to sacrifice, eat, or drink the blood, or to eat the flesh of animals having claws. This has been demonstrated many times at our court by Jews converted to the Christian faith: nevertheless very many Jews are often seized and detained unjustly because of this.”
In the case of Simon of Trento, however, this doctrinal rejection of the blood libel did not prevent the 15th-century Pope Sixtus IV from declaring that the Trento Jewish community had deserved its punishment. Nor did it prevent Pope Gregory XIII from canonizing Simon as a “martyr” during the 16th Century. It was not until 1965 — the year that the Second Vatican Council issued its historic “Nostra Aetate” Declaration disavowing antisemitism — that Simon’s canonized status was formally revoked by Pope Paul VI.
Yet more than fifty years after the Catholic Church recognized the “Jewish covenant with God” through Nostra Aetate, Prof. Cunningham said, there were still some “outliers” who espoused antisemitic views and continued to believe that “this is a zero-sum game, and if the Catholics are right, then the Jews have to be wrong.”
And while Wednesday’s newspaper editorial in Italy defending Gasparro lauded the painter as a part of the “traditional Catholic world who celebrates Mass according to the ancient Roman rite,” Cunningham cautioned against the misuse of such labels.
“‘Traditionalism’ is absolutely not the same thing as tradition,” he explained. “The deicide charge was taught by lots of Christian theologians for centuries, so you can call it part of the Christian tradition, but not the blood libel — that was outlandish even by the standards of the time.”
Instead, the spread of the blood libel around Europe was a reflection of local superstitions derived from certain religious practices such as the eucharist, in which the bread and wine consumed by believers is held to be the body of Jesus.
During the period that the blood libel surfaced, said Cunningham, there was a “deeply physical understanding of the eucharist,” encouraging the folk belief that the Jews would continue shedding the blood of Christians just as they had allegedly done with Jesus himself.
These popular legends were frequently accompanied by baser economic motives for demonizing Jews, Cunningham said. Debts owed to Jews could be voided by persecuting the local community through such libels, while towns and cities whose inhabitants were canonized could look forward to lucrative annual pilgrimages drawing outside visitors.
Asked about his own reaction to Gasparro’s painting, Cunningham said he had been “appalled by it.”
“It clearly revives all of the old tropes and visual stereotypes and caricatures in the context of an incident that historically-speaking is very murky,” he said.
The task of countering those with Gasparro’s views was not equivalent to a battle between “left” and “right,” Cunningham emphasized.
“I don’t want to to give the impression that the historic changes in relations with Jews are what you might call ‘liberal’ or ‘left-wing’ phenomena,” he said. “It encompasses the entire mainstream community. There are bishops who might be labeled ‘right of center’ who strongly condemn antisemitic actions on the part of Catholics, and who promote positive relations with Jews.”
Cunningham stressed that those who opposed the “living” Catholic tradition established by Nostra Aetate had distanced themselves from their faith “by their own choice.”
“They are no longer simply ‘right-of-center,’ so to speak,” Cunningham remarked. “They are outside the community.”