Catholicism Supported Anti-Semitism?

I am currently taking a college-level history class, and I am learning quite a bit from it. One of the things that I came across while studying was that Pope Innocent III, as a result of one of his councils, mandated that Jews wear some sort of mark (which clearly indicated their religion). At the time, Jews were forced to wear either the infamous “yellow star of david” or a pointed “dunce cap” to indicate that they were not Christian. Here is the specific quote from the Fourth Lateran Council:

“In some provinces a difference in dress distinguishes the Jews or Saracens from the Christians, but in certain others such a confusion has grown up that they cannot be distinguished by any difference. Thus it happens at times that through error Christians have relations with the women of Jews or Saracens, and Jews and Saracens with Christian women. Therefore, that they may not, under pretext of error of this sort, excuse themselves in the future for the excesses of such prohibited intercourse, we decree that such Jews and Saracens of both sexes in every Christian province and at all times shall be marked off in the eyes of the public from other peoples through the character of their dress. Particularly, since it may be read in the writings of Moses [Numbers 15:37-41], that this very law has been enjoined upon them.”

Although it is true that this practice was started by the Saracens, how is it possible that a council of the Church decreed such a clearly anti-semitic and hateful thing as this? Perhaps it can be argued that this is not a matter of morals, but I think that anti-semitism is very much a matter of wrong morals…

It does seem like a ridiculous thing to say. Why not say, how about we stop having relations with those we aren’t married to? And if a Christian is fornicating, does it really matter with who? And finally, rather than require those he has no jurisdiction over to wear strange garments, why doesn’t he just tell Christians to wear a special garment so they know that when they’re condemned to hell for fornication, at least it wasn’t with a Jewish person!

It is no secret that the Church has had a shaky relationship with the Jews, particularly during the Middle Ages but more recently as well. This would extend all the way up the hierarchy to cardinals as well as popes. At the same time, more recent scholarship has pointed out that some of those negative relationships have been exaggerated and certain popes treated the Jews with more respect than had previously been thought. Still, there was plenty of anti-Semitism on the part of the Church although relations between Catholicism and Judaism have improved tremendously in modern times.

I hope your professor is taking an even-handed approach in teaching about the Church’s relationship with the Jews and other minority groups of the period. That is, there is no point in whitewashing the religious conflicts, and yet painting the leaders of the Church as nothing but anti-Semitic is likewise far from the whole truth of the matter.

Just because they are ordained doesn’t mean they can’t sin. Throughout history, individuals in the Church, including priests, bishops, and popes, have sinned and made bad decisions. In some cases, there were entire groups doing bad things. You have to separate faith and morals (doctrine) from everything else the Church has done. Church doctrine has always professed the equality of all people under God. There have been dark periods where leaders in the Church were not following this doctrine, but the Holy Spirit eventually corrects the Church as Jesus promised in the Bible.

Here is a statement about it from Catholic Answers apologist Michelle Arnold.

The gist of the text considers two concerns: 1., Christians interacting with non-Christians without knowing that they were non-Christian; 2. in a Christian society where Holy Week was strictly observed with outward signs of mourning, the Council fathers thought that non-Christians were mocking our Lord by dressing conspicuously different from the prevailing society.

The Council’s solutions to these problems were to require non-Christians in a Christian society to make themselves known as non-Christians and for non-Christians to remain indoors during Holy Week. (Note that the Council did not require non-Christians to wear mourning clothing, which would have compelled them to participate in Christian observances.) This is definitely not the regulations that a Church council would pass today, as we no longer live in a Christian society and because the requirements were insensitive to non-Christian sensibilities. However misguided the regulations (and we can agree that they were misguided), these requirements were not intended to be anti-Semitic, but protective of Christian sensibilities.

In any event, these were disciplinary requirements, not doctrines, and so do not fall under the purview of infallibility.

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