CATECHUMENS, HOUSE OF (called also Casa dei Neofiti):
A Roman institution for converting Jews to Catholicism, which the Jews, by means of taxes, were compelled to support. The Vatican founded this house for converts March 21, 1548 (Rieger, ii. 64), by setting apart various sums from its revenues. By a papal decree of Jan. 1, 1565, certain revenues were to be used for the support of the catechumens, and the fines levied on Jews for possessing scrip certificates of indebtedness, lending money on interest, or engaging in certain occupations were to go to their support also. Under Pius V. forcible conversions occurred in large numbers. His successor, Pope Gregory XIII., continued the institution. Hitherto many Jews became converts through the fear of powers that might be exerted against them; now many took this step in the hope of profiting thereby. For Gregory XIII. ordained that all church dignitaries should assist the converts by material encouragements and recommendations. Whereas the Vatican had protected these converts up to this time, it was decided that the Jews themselves had now to bear this burden. Sirleto, protector of the catechumens or neophytes, was active in his opposition to the Jews. Before the establishment of the House of Catechumens all conversions that took place were voluntary. The House marked the second stage, since it was designed as a retreat and prison for recalcitrant neophytes during the process of transition. Later, when the revenues for the catechumens had fallen to a very low point, conversion by means of the compulsory attendance of Jews three times a year at Christmas sermons against Judaism was begun.
Sixtus V., by a bull of Oct. 22, 1586, permitted the Jews to rebuild synagogues on the earlier sites, provided the contributions for the support of catechumens be not reduced in amount. And Clement VIII. reduced the tax of the Jews of Rome for the support of the House of Catechumens from 2,500 scudi to 800 scudi, whereof 300 scudi fell to the Cloister of Converts.
After the Jews had been expelled from the Romagna, with the exception of Rome and Ancona, those remaining were, in later times, taxed oppressively. In Nov., 1604, the chief rabbi of Rome, Joshua Assouth, with his four children, was forced to enter the Casa dei Neofiti, and the latter were baptized (Rieger, l.c. 193). Besides, where the neophyte refused to become a convert voluntarily, force often was applied, and finally the victims were killed by hanging. If they accepted baptism, a grant of money from the government was usually made in addition to the sum derived from Jewish taxes. The catechumens, as a Roman institution, survived until late into the eighteenth century. As late as 1784 sixty Jewish children were thrown into prison because two other children were being hidden from the officers of the Casa dei Neofiti; they had to be given up to release the remainder (Rieger, l.c. 253; "Monatsschrift," pp. 399 et seq.). The Jewish contributions to the Casa were abolished in 1810 (Rieger, l.c. 359).
- Revue Et. Juives, ii. 281, ix. 77;
- Vogelstein und Rieger, Gesch. der Jud. in Rom, ii. passim, Berlin, 1895;
- Berliner, Gesch. der Jud. in Rom. ii. 2, passim, Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1893;
- Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, p. 46, London, 1896.