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Explaining Centuries-Old Hatred:
ConstantineĂs Sword: The Church and the Jews


by James Carroll
756 pages,
ISBN: 0618219080


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Explaining Centuries-Old Hatred
by Nicholas Maes

One has to be half mad to attempt a history of the Jews and the Catholic Church. The subject requires not only a familiarity with a vast range of material, both religious and historical, but a capacity to interpret events from multiple perspectives. Add to these a willingness to challenge two thousand years of official Church doctrine, no easy task for a committed Catholic, and the task assumes Herculean proportions. Happily James Carroll, novelist, cultural critic and former priest, possesses the requisite qualities in abundance and displays them to elegant effect in his extraordinary book Constantine's Sword.

Constantine's Sword is three books in one. Formally it is a comprehensive history of Jews and the Catholic Church, but at the same time it chronicles the author's life-long intellectual and religious development, and concludes with a lengthy call for Catholic reform. Although historiography, autobiography and social/religious activism seldom mix easily together, Carroll manages to hold all three genres in perfect balance, offsetting them against each other in a way that reveals the ongoing influence of distant happenings on the present.

Carroll's starting point is the presence of the Pope's Cross in Auschwitz. Although this cross was intended as a symbol of Christian atonement, Jews have viewed it as an attempt to Christianize their experience of the death camps, and a posthumous proselytism of the Jewish dead. The point is that, when seen through Jewish eyes (and Carroll struggles hard to achieve a Jewish sensibility), the cross is no symbol of piety and redemption, but the reminder of an ideology that has plagued the Jew for centuries, and in fact paved the way for the Final Solution. Constantine's Sword, then, is no less a study of the meaning of the cross than it is a history of Jewish/Catholic relations.

Although Carroll writes at length about the historical Jesus and the early Church, the story of the cross begins with Constantine's acquisition of imperial power (312 AD). At this time the Church was relatively powerless, and although an intense rivalry existed between Christian and Jew, the latter barely felt the influence of the former. The cross, too, was unimportant as a symbol in the congregant's eyes, being more a token of shame than of humankind's salvation. With the emperor's gradual elevation of Christianity above the empire's other religions, however, and his promotion of the cross as a central feature of Christian iconography, the relationship between Jew and Christian changed.

The Church was greatly strengthened. Just as important, the sudden prominence of the cross as a symbol of Christian unity and power triggered a dramatic theological shift: Jesus' crucifixion displaced the Resurrection as the pivotal event in the salvation narrative. This emphasis on the murder of Christ cast the Jew in a new, damning light. True, from the outset the Gospels had attributed this crime to the Jews (to avoid upsetting the Roman authorities whom recent scholarship argues were the more likely culprits), but it was only with the exaltation of the cross, and its accompanying ideology, that the Jew as executioner stirred the Christian imagination. Indeed, soon after the importation of the ŠTrue Cross' to the west, theologians preached vigorously against the Jew, and fourth century Europe witnessed its first pogroms.

In an attempt to stop this eruption of violence, and to define the Jew's standing within the framework of the New Testament, Augustine posited in his City of God that the Jew's presence among Christians served the desirable function of demonstrating Christianity's fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. In this capacity, the Jew was entitled to survival, but because of his blindness and ancestral guilt was to live in a state of enforced subjugation, his back kept permanently bowed to the ground. This formulation became a blueprint for the Church's official attitude to the Jew, and Carroll uses it as key to understanding Jewish/Catholic relations as they developed from Augustine's day to modern times.

The Church took very seriously Augustine's enjoinder to oppress the Jew. Throughout the Middle Ages, it sanctioned the forced conversion of the Jews, their expulsion, their segregation, their exclusion from guilds, the destruction of their sacred texts and, overall, their continual denigration. All of this occurred in the name of the cross. At the same time, Church officials remembered that the Jew had a role of (negative) witness to play, and often struggled to protect his communities from the capriciousness of the Christian mob¨hence (to list but a few Jewish tragedies) the attempt to rescue Rhineland Jews from the Crusaders; Gregory X's repudiation of the Blood Libel; Clement VI's efforts to quell the massacres of Jews at the time of the plague; papal criticism of anti-Jewish violence in Spain. These acts, too, occurred in the name of the cross.

On the one hand, then, it is possible to observe many instances of Church intervention on behalf of the Jew. The irony is that the Jew needed rescuing because Church policies, notably its insistence on the Jew's humiliation, repeatedly inflamed the Christian mob to begin with. The Church invariably was extinguishing fires that its own callous outlook had ignited.

Post-enlightenment developments did little to change the Church's engrained hostility to the Jew. While the onset of secular, democratic values worked to the Jew's advantage, they simultaneously undermined the Church's holdings and authority. Indeed, in the eyes of Church officials, the emancipated Jew became a symbol for Liberalism's reversal of Catholic traditions, and as secularism continued to spread across Europe, Christian intellectuals identified the Jew with every mutation of the modern era, Unionism, Anarchism, Communism, etc.

And then came the Holocaust. Although Carroll is careful to distinguish between the Church's anti-Semitism and Nazism's eliminationist ambitions, he argues the Holocaust could not have occurred if not for the Christian's visceral hatred of the Jew, a frame of mind the Church had encouraged in its congregants through its perennial denunciation of its age-old rival. Yes, the Vatican was complacent under the Nazis and failed to pursue the same aggressive tactics that it had deployed against Bismarck through the Kulturkampf; yes, Pius XII hamstrung German Catholics with his Reichskonkordat, and vacillated shamelessly in the face of Jewish suffering; and yes, the Church never acted to prevent pro-Nazi authorities from making use of its baptismal records and so furthering the objectives of the Final Solution; in spite of all these specific failings, however, the Church was most culpable, in Carroll's view, because over the centuries its teachings instilled in the Christian European an attitude that was prepared to accept the Nuremberg Laws and, far worse, an Auschwitz.

In his book's final segment, Carroll issues a call for Vatican III. Despite his rejection of its old ideologies, Carroll is convinced that a renewed Catholic Church can serve as a beacon of moral advancement for a global audience that is caught between various strains of fundamentalism and a spiritually barren scientific rationalism. But first the Church itself must undergo reform, and this process is impossible unless its chief source of sinfulness, its relentless anti-Semitism, is neutralized. This Špurgation' would have to reach much further than Vatican II's rejection of Jewish guilt, for example, and would necessitate a reinterpretation of its primary texts (the anti-Semitic Gospels in particular), a denial that Christ is the sole source of redemption, and a retreat from the Church's infatuation with power politics.

But who is Carroll to indict the Church and propose a program of reform that would stand two thousand years of tradition on its head? This question is a crucial one, and Carroll deals with it at length by juxtaposing his narrative of Jewish/Church relations with a description of his own evolution as a Catholic. Besides informing us of his progress to the priesthood, Carroll reveals that he was in Germany with his family in the 1950s and attended a variety of passion plays and church services with his mother. A thread that binds his experiences together is a willful blindness on the part of his teachers and fellow congregants to the Church's historic detestation of the Jew. Even as he condemns this blindness, however, Carroll readily admits that, had he been living in Hitler's Germany, he might have been as complacent about the Jew's persecution as any other German Catholic. The sinfulness he attributes to the Church, in other words, is a sinfulness he recognizes clearly in himself, and it is this capacity for self-criticism that lends his book its passion, integrity and sense of urgency.

To be sure, Constantine's Sword contains its share of imperfections. Carroll's reconstruction of events in the immediate aftermath of Jesus' death, i.e. his new-age theory that a ŠHealing Circle' of family and friends somehow gave rise to the tradition of Jesus' resurrection from the dead, is misplaced in a narrative that is otherwise well-researched and analytic. His Freudian allusions, too, to his mother are distracting and unhelpful. He also occasionally arranges his material like a novelist and not an historian, thereby creating a sense of historical inevitability when nothing more than coincidence is at work (e.g. the fact that Trier was the site of a number of telling events). And many of his references are to Šradical' Christian scholars (Kung, Ruether, Crossan, et al.), a tendency that provides his more traditional critics with an excuse to downplay the force of his arguments.

More seriously, while Carroll's call for Church reform follows consistently on his indictment of its treatment of the Jews, it seems unlikely that Catholic officials would take his proposals to heart. Can the Church disavow its foundational texts and abandon core theological suppositions, including its monopoly on redemption and salvation, without undermining its authority, and by extension, its sanctity in congregants' eyes? Carroll is right, the Church must reshape its picture of the Jew and abolish any lingering trace of anti-Semitism from its theology. The question is whether this conceptual shift must involve a sequence of further reforms that might possibly undermine Catholic identity altogether, or lead to a barely perceptible difference between Church ideology and outright secularism.

These criticisms notwithstanding, Constantine's Sword is an important book. An understanding of Christianity, and by extension Western history, cannot be complete without an awareness of the European's obsession with the Jew. By documenting this obsession in detail, and demonstrating the deadly, causal link between Church ideology and the concentration camp, Carroll persuades his readers that it is not the Jew who threatens Catholic identity, but the Catholic who does so when he perceives the Jew as a threat to his religion. Indeed, it is only by accepting the Jewish qualities of the figure on the cross, and acknowledging Judaism as his source of inspiration, that the Church will reverse its aggression of the last two thousand years and secure Constantine's sword in its sheathe where it belongs. ˛

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