Pope Gregory the Great on Forced Conversion


By Eli Kavon

As a student of history, I am intrigued by the conflict between the theology of religious institutions and the realities of history. The best example that comes to mind is that of Innocent III—the most powerful medieval pope—and his failure in the thirteenth century to force French nobility to stop taking loans from Jews at high interest. For Pope Innocent, the profession of moneylending put the Jews in an advantageous position over Christians, a reality that ran counter to the humiliation Jews deserved as killers of Christ. While Jews often benefited from the protection of Emperors and Kings who kept the Church from exercising its power over secular rulers, sometimes the conflict between reality and theology did not serve the Jews well. The best example of this phenomenon is Pope Gregory the Great’s condemnation of converting Jews to Catholicism by force and the subsequent history in Christendom of Jews being coerced into converting to Christianity.

Pope Gregory was no friend to the Jews. While a member of a noble senatorial family in Rome, he was the first monk to occupy the papacy. Historian H. H. Ben Sasson describes how Gregory’s attitude toward Jews in the seventh century was typical in many ways of the theology of the Church. In a sermon on Ezekiel, delivered during his years as Pope from 590-604, Gregory paints a portrait of the Jews as the evil and materialistic Esau in contrast to his spiritual brother Jacob who represents Christianity. The Jews, as a stiff-necked people who rejected their own prophets and eventually murdered Jesus, were forfeited as the elect of God. Jews only observed the letter of the law in their Esau-like materialism, a material aspect that Christ abolished. This typology that turned the Hebrew Bible’s understanding of Israelite election on its head, was typical of Christian polemics against Judaism, theological attacks to which Jews responded defending their faith in the face of this anti-Jewish theology.

Yet, Gregory the Great, according to historian Jacob R. Marcus, while eager to convert Jews to Catholicism, had a “distaste for forced baptisms.” In a letter to two bishops Pope Gregory writes “For, when any one is brought to the font of baptism, not by the sweetness of preaching but by compulsion, he returns to his former superstition, and dies the worse from having been born again.” For this pope, writing in June 591, the condemnation of forced conversion of Jews was not a sign of tolerance but a practical matter. Jews must be brought to the baptismal font “through the sweetness of their teacher.” If converted by force, they would resist the conversion. Gregory’s stand on this matter is borne out by later history: the return of conversos and their descendants to Judaism in the Papal States, the Ottoman Empire, and Protestant Amsterdam. While forced conversion in Spain and Portugal resulted in many Jews becoming good Catholics, there are many examples of the failure of this coercion.

In another letter, written to a Roman official in Palermo, Gregory objects to a local bishop’s seizing of a synagogue and his conversion of the site into a church. The Pope demanded that the Jews in Palermo be compensated for the value of the stolen property and have the contents of the synagogue be returned to them. The concern of the Pope here was not love of the Jews but the adherence to legislation that already granted Jews privileges but also discriminated against them.

Gregory, the first Pope to bear that name, set a theological precedent in the Church that Jews not be forced to convert to Christianity. While this theology was often subverted by the historical reality of forced conversion of Jews by Crusaders and the Jews’ subjection to a century of intense missionizing in Christian Spain before the 1492 expulsion, it did allow Jews to prosper and thrive even in an environment in Christendom that was hostile to them, especially in the earlier part of the medieval period. Popes, as well, condemned ritual murder accusations against the Jews, but the historical reality is that the “Blood Libel” is still with us. Still, it would be an injustice not to recognize that certain aspects of Gregory the Great’s theology were of benefit to the Jews of Europe.