e-mail us

Spring Books

Centuries of ‘Jew hatred’ brought to light:
Rabbi: Will painful tale find Catholic reception?


By James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin, 756 pages, $28


There have been more positive encounters between Roman Catholics and Jews since the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in 1965 than took place in the previous 19 centuries of the church. The council’s historic Nostra Aetate declaration of that year was overwhelmingly adopted by the world’s bishops and asserts that the Catholic church “deplores the hatred, persecutions and displays of anti-Semitism directed against the Jews at any time and from any source.”

Nostra Aetate strongly repudiated the infamous deicide or “Christ-killer” charge that some Catholics had hurled against Jews for centuries, and it also called for building “mutual respect” between the two ancient faith communities. The now historic declaration broke the high dam of indifference, suspicion and ignorance that previously existed.

During the past three-and-a-half decades, Nostra Aetate was followed by a blizzard of urgently needed bishops’ statements, guidelines, notes, reflections, liturgical reforms, a host of other official Catholic pronouncements, and hundreds of interreligious conferences all intended to reverse the long record of malevolent Catholic actions and teachings vis-à-vis Jews and Judaism.

The past century was a wretched one for what is euphemistically called “inter-group relations.” It was a 100-year period that tragically included two world wars, fascism, Nazism and communism, atomic and hydrogen bombs, the Holocaust and other acts of brutal genocide. Against that grim record of mass murder and totalitarianism, the inauguration of constructive Catholic-Jewish relations and the attempt by Christian leaders to eradicate the taproots of religious anti-Semitism was a true revolution of the human spirit, and ranks among the 20th century’s most positive developments.

This first phase of post Vatican Council relations was capped by Pope John Paul II’s trip last March to Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. I was in Jerusalem during those days, and vividly remember the pope’s dramatic meeting with Israel’s leading rabbis and his visits to the Israeli president’s residence and the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. The culminating event was the heartfelt written prayer that John Paul II lovingly placed in a crevice of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest site, on the last day of his visit.

The pope’s physical presence and personal piety in Israel dramatically concluded the initial chapter of positive Catholic-Jewish relations that began with Nostra Aetate and ended at the Western Wall. The next chapter requires the full implementation of those positive gains in every Catholic parish, school, seminary and university.

In its own way the poignant prose of James Carroll’s new book, Constantine’s Sword, represents a kind of closure as well. Like a Middle East archeologist, Carroll, a Boston Globe columnist and former Paulist priest, has dug deeply through layer after layer of historical debris in an anguished and fervent attempt to discover the core of Christian hatred of both Jews and Judaism, a hatred that has permeated and bedeviled the church for centuries. Of course, he did not have to dig too far to locate the basic problem.

In the middle of his lengthy and eloquent work, an exhausted Carroll ruefully concludes that Christian theology itself is the root cause of “Jew hatred”: “However pagan Nazism was, it drew its sustenance from groundwater poisoned by the church’s most solemnly held ideology -- its theology.”

While almost every major figure and every important event in Christian-Jewish relations appears in Constantine’s Sword, beginning with Paul of Tarsus and ending with John Paul II of Wadowice, Carroll believes the warrior emperor’s conversion to Christianity in 312 A.D. was the critical turning point for both church and synagogue, when “the power of an empire became joined to the ideology of the church.” The results of this “second greatest story ever told [Constantine’s conversion] … led to consequences better and worse [for the church] -- although not for the Jews, for whom, nothing good would come.”

Carroll is horrified by his findings and ends his book with a personal plea for a new relationship between Catholics and Jews built upon mutual respect and understanding: “I have felt flayed … my faith is forever shaken, and I will always tremble.” The Anguish of the Jews, written by the late Fr. Edward Flannery in the 1960s, is a major pioneering work, a figurative bookend of Catholic self-discovery of religious anti-Semitism. Constantine’s Sword, written 35 years later, is another painful voyage of self-discovery and it represents the other bookend.

Not surprisingly, the cross as symbol and reality is a major leitmotif in both books. Flannery opens his work describing how the electric light cross on a Manhattan office building caused his Jewish friend to shudder in fear during the Christmas season. Even in modern New York, the cross ignited bitter memories of Christian-led physical assaults, pogroms upon European Jewish communities.

Constantine’s Sword also opens with a cross, the one standing in the Auschwitz death camp. Carroll angrily decries the utter inappropriateness of the large wooden cross erected at a place where over a million and a half Jews were murdered during the Holocaust: “For Jews [Auschwitz is] the abyss in which meaning itself has died; what happens when Auschwitz becomes the sanctuary of someone else’s recovered piety?”

Because Carroll is a former priest and his book is a brilliantly written personal mea culpa, it will undoubtedly be positively received by what is often called the “secular” media. They frequently adore mavericks and iconoclasts who seemingly have rejected their religious or political past. But members of the media would be making a big mistake if they define Carroll and his book in such terms. He simply does not fit into their neat categories.

Carroll remains a faithful Catholic who dearly loves his church, warts and all: “Jesus offers me, a non-Jew, access to the biblical hope. … The church is how God’s promise to Israel is available to me, a Celt whose ancestors could have been among the northern tribal peoples recruited to the army of Constantine.”

The Jewish community will also warmly welcome Constantine’s Sword, but unlike the secular media, it will, I hope, do so for the right reasons. That is because Carroll forthrightly addresses the evils of anti-Semitism and confirms, indeed validates, the bitter history that Jews have stored up in their collective memory banks.

But I am most concerned about the book’s reception and its lasting impact, if any, among Catholic clergy and laity. The book’s most controversial section deals with the church and Hitler, and Carroll saves his most withering criticism for Pius XII’s actions and inactions during the Second World War.

However, Carroll does not “indict” or demonize the wartime pope as John Cornwell does in his 1999 book, Hitler’s Pope: The Secret History of Pius XII. Instead, Carroll asserts that Pius XII’s actions and inactions during the 1930s and 1940s are the telltale “evidence” of the Catholic church’s basic problem with Jews and Judaism: “The pope’s silence is better seen … not as the indictment … of Catholicism’s moral failure … but as the evidence … of the worst thing about my church, which is the worst thing about myself. I offer [Constantine’s Sword] as my personal penance to God, to the Jewish dead and to my children.”

I wonder whether Carroll will quickly be discredited and labeled a self-hating Catholic who is piling on a beloved pope who may be destined for sainthood. Will Carroll’s rich historical research be nitpicked and minimized in an attempt to discredit his awesome and troubling conclusions? Will Carroll’s ardent plea for a “a new Christology” that will “embrace a pluralism of belief and worship … that will banish from Christian faith the blasphemy that wills the suffering of God’s beloved ones [the Jews] and the inhuman idea that anyone’s death can be the fulfillment of a plan of God’s” be dismissed as inauthentic Catholic doctrine?

It would be an enormous loss if Carroll’s book were relegated to the literary dustbin of neglected and unread books. Constantine’s Sword is useful, even indispensable, as we enter the second phase of Catholic-Jewish relations, a period that will increasingly emphasize theological issues and questions. Carroll posits a radical Christian theological approach to Judaism that merits full discussion in both communities.

An important theological question involves the place of messianism within the Catholic-Jewish encounter. The precise details of messianism were always controversial but are central in Jewish religious thought. Today Israelis of every religious persuasion are grappling with the political and social dimensions of messianism within a Jewish state. Carroll has painfully constructed a coherent messianic vision that is profoundly rooted in his religious faith. It, too, demands thorough consideration at any serious encounter between Catholics and Jews.

Another feature of current Catholic-Jewish relations is the intensified call coming from both communities to open up all the pertinent wartime records of the Vatican to competent Catholic and Jewish scholars of the period. So far this has not been done, but the issues raised about World War II in Constantine’s Sword cannot be summarily dismissed. The many unresolved questions surrounding the church’s action during the Holocaust will be a key focus of all future interreligious relations. They cannot be avoided, and Carroll tells us why.

Unfortunately, Constantine’s Sword is being published at a moment in history when many leaders of Christianity, Judaism and Islam are retreating from interreligious outreach and the critical self-examination of their own traditions. Extremists in all three camps are using strict theological conformity as a potent weapon to club opponents into submission and to gain political power for themselves.

It remains an open question whether Carroll’s painfully honest and important book will thrive, even survive, in such a climate. The use or abuse of Constantine’s Sword will be an accurate barometer of our religious condition.

Rabbi A. James Rudin is the American Jewish Committee’s senior interreligious adviser. His e-mail address is rudinj@ajc.org

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001