Catholics and Jews: A Review of Constantine’s Sword

By Eugene L. Pogany


Catholics and Jews: A Review of Constantine’s Sword

By Eugene L. Pogany

Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, James Carroll’s masterful and impassioned sweep of the Catholic Church’s two-thousand-year history, begins and ends with the image of the cross at Auschwitz. His premise is that the history of the Catholic Church is founded on its contemptuous definition of the Jews as the “negative other,” and that the crucifix planted on the ashen soil of that quintessential death camp represents not only a Christianizing of the Shoah–the Holocaust–but a blindness to the historical demonizing of Jews by the Church which culminated, necessarily if not sufficiently, in the destruction of European Jewry.

The book is anchored in Carroll’s Christian conscience. It is the product of his life-long grappling with Catholicism’s past and future relationship with the Jews, a relationship that he feels is absolutely central to the future viability of his much-beloved Church. Carroll lays out his arguments with deep reverence and longing for the Jewish Jesus, one who came to his fellow Jews to teach love and the nearness of God’s kingdom. His writing, however, is alternatively animated by righteous anger and anguished shame for the egregious missteps and tragic missed opportunities of his Church to more fully right its relationship to Jews, to history, and to God.

Carroll traces this theme from its religious and psychological roots in the Gospels, written a generation after the death of Jesus by his Jewish followers as they attempted to forge a new identity. He then moves on to the decisive political roots of Jewish disempowerment when, in the fourth century, Emperor Constantine was inspired in battle by a vision of the crucifix and subsequently converted to Christianity. With his conversion, the cross became both the religious emblem of the Roman Empire and the symbol of the new temporal power of the Church. The newly empowered Christian faith would thereafter supersede Israel as “God’s Chosen,” and the symbol of Jesus’ death would overshadow the meaning of his life. Subsequently, Christian history would be marked by often-murderous contempt for the “perfidious Jews.”

With the Crusades, Jews were seen as infidels, co-equal to the Moslem occupiers of Jerusalem, and were slaughtered by Christian soldiers along their way to liberate the holy city. Following the first Crusade, a papal bull was issued in 1119 C.E. to reinforce St. Augustine’s earlier plea, in 427 C.E., not to kill the Jews, but to allow them to wander the earth as evidence of their rejection by God. It would be reissued by more than twenty popes over the next four centuries. A few years later, the first “blood libel” accusation of ritual murder would claim countless Jewish lives and communities in pogroms, as would the Black Plague two centuries after that when Jews were accused of poisoning wells. Throughout, Jews were isolated, proselytized, coerced into rigged disputations, and forcibly converted or martyred. Mounting indignities and massacres culminated in the Inquisition, with its attendant burnings, expulsions and subsequent ghettoizing, which lasted until the end of the nineteenth century. With the Holocaust, Christian aims to convert or isolate the Jews transformed into Nazi genocidal policies, which many believed were fueled in part by Christian anti-Semitism.

In light of this oftentimes ugly and grotesque intersection of Catholics with Jews throughout history, one could easily be overcome by explosive outrage and terrible sorrow, even despair, over the possibility of healing the schism between Catholics and Jews. However, since the Holocaust, much progress has been made, beginning with Vatican II’s denunciation of anti-Semitism in 1965 and its revoking of the age-old charge that the Jews were “Christ-killers.” The Church’s 1998 “We Remember” proclamation went further by confessing the sins of its followers for their passivity, indifference and complicity throughout history and especially during the Holocaust. And then John Paul II’s prayers at the Western Wall in March of 2000 went a long way toward healing age-old wounds by dramatically legitimizing Judaism as Christianity’s “older brother.”

Carroll, as others, admires the efforts of this compassionate Pope. Nevertheless, he points out the terrible irony that the Church, in defending its own purity and innocence, in the midst of the admitted sinfulness of its followers, has never fully acknowledged its ambivalence in protecting the Jews from its very own teaching of contempt, which was embedded in its scriptures and dogmatic writings.

Carroll’s critics, especially within the Church, feel that he does not sufficiently acknowledge the progress that has been made. Indeed, in the light of such a troubled relationship spanning two millennia, much healing has occurred with extraordinary swiftness. In Boston, Jews and Catholics have come together, not only to promote dialogue, but to help train Catholic educators to discern the anti-Semitic content of the Gospels and Christian history and to appreciate the legitimacy of the Jewish reading of the Bible. As a Jewish member of that effort, I can personally attest to the sincerity and devotion of Catholics–from the Cardinal to parochial school principals and teachers within the archdiocese–to right Catholicism’s relationship with Judaism, even while that sincerity is not yet entirely mirrored by Vatican statements.

Carroll himself is aware of some of these efforts. He applauds the texts fundamental to them and is highly respectful of their authors. Yet, he is still troubled by how the Church can seek dialogue, reconciliation and forgiveness but continue to embrace its own infallibility and superiority. As evidence of that ambivalence, only months following the Pope’s transformative visit to Jerusalem, the Church reaffirmed that it alone is the true path to salvation through Jesus Christ. It also advanced the cause for sainthood of Pope Pius IX, who, during the nineteenth century, sent Jews back to the Roman ghetto, referred to them as “dogs,” and raised a kidnapped and baptized Jewish child as his own. There are indications, as well, says Carroll, of discreet efforts to continue the cause of Pope Pius XII, whose silence during the Holocaust has not yet been thoroughly examined, partly because the Vatican has still not fully provided access to its own wartime archives.

James Carroll’s effort is a comprehensive and bold challenge, even if some may find it an insufficiently nuanced piece of historical scholarship or a harsh and unjust effort to use the Holocaust as a way to influence the traditionalist direction of the Church taken by John Paul II. Others will take issue with Carroll’s revisionist theological de-emphasis of Christ’s passion and resurrection and his invalidation of the Christian reading of the Hebrew Bible’s prophecy regarding Christ’s life, death, and mission.

But it is precisely the humanness and passion of Constantine’s Sword that will reach lay Catholic readers–more than Vatican proclamations typically do–and provoke them to reflect on and understand Christianity’s long and sorrowful relationship to Jews. The book is also a bold challenge to the Church hierarchy to find its conscience and capacity for self-reflection in order to become nothing short of a repentant Church, capable, hopes James Carroll, of someday silently removing the crucifix at Auschwitz.


About Eugene L. Pogany

Eugene L. Pogany is a practicing clinical psychologist in the Boston area whose recent book, In My Brother's Image: Twin Brothers Separated by Faith After the Holocaust, was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. He lives in Newton, Mass., with his wife and two sons.