National Book Award winner James Carroll (An American Requiem) has sparked controversy with his latest book, an ambitiously heartfelt history of the relationship between the Catholic Church and the Jews. Constantine's Sword begins at the foot of a cross looming over a field at Auschwitz; the meaning of that unambiguously Christian symbol's presence in a place where so many Jews met an horrific end spurs Carroll's quest for a re-imagining of not only Catholicism but of Christianity's (and Western civilization's) self-identity.
Carroll, a former priest struggling with an ongoing spiritual crisis, lays the ultimate blame (without letting Hitler and the Nazis off the hook) for the Holocaust -- the "Shoah" to Jews -- on the Catholic Church's long history of anti-Judaism. It's a theological stance that he says led to an ingrained anti-semitism almost impossible to cut from civilization's core today. He believes that things didn't have to turn out this way, citing points in history when "lesser" theologians propounded ideas that could have steered the Church down a less damning path had they been heeded. The greatest sticking point, Carroll says, is the Church's insistence on placing Jesus' death on the cross -- and the blame for that death on the Jews as a people -- at the center of Christian religion, rather than the fact of Jesus' life and experience as a human.
Carroll loves the Church, but is firm in insisting that it is a human institution subject to the frailties of the humans who belong to it. He rejects, for instance, the notion of papal infallibility, a "recent tradition" put forward today as, well, gospel truth. He uses the Jewish ghetto in Rome as an example of the papal infallibility fallacy: up and down the ghetto walls would go from papacy to papacy, its inhabitants pawns in the power games from one pope to the next. In another illustrative example, Carroll says that John Paul II's impulse to apologize to the Jews for the atrocities they've endured is admirable, but that the language of his apologies is couched too much in Christian terms. To correctly right history's wrongs, Carroll believes that the Church has to give the Jews their rightful place as God's Chosen. Their covenant with God, Carroll says, was not revoked or replaced by the fact of Jesus' life or death.
The cross was the symbol under which Constantine led his armies to conquer, a symbol of Roman denigration lifted up as a victorious standard. Wrongly lifted up, Carroll says, just decades after Jesus' death, as those early New Testament writers lifted the role of "the Jews" in that death out of historical context. This meticulously researched history, sifted as it is through one man's spiritual crisis and longing, is a provocative and necessary examination of the supposed "truth" at Christianity's center.