Constantine’s Sword: The Church And The Jews, A History

Review & Commentary

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  1. Review

    In 1979, Pope Paul II celebrated Mass at Krakow near Auschwitz where the Nazi killed a quarter of a million non-Jewish Poles and a million and a half Jews. In his sermon, the Pope called Auschwitz the "Golgotha of the modern world" and expressed his hope that a place of prayer and penance could be built on the site to honor the Catholics martyrs who were killed there and to atone for the murders. In 1984, a group of Carmelite nuns moved into an old building near the gate of Auschwitz with the intention of offering prayers in memory of one of their sisters, Edith Stein, known as Sister Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, a convert from Judaism, who was murdered there. The leaders of Jewish groups throughout the world immediately protested the presence of the nuns at the death camp. Polish Catholics from nearby towns came to the defense of the nuns and at one point they planted a large wooden cross from the papal altar at Krakow in the field next to the convent. This action precipitated a storm of controversy across the world, which raged for years. However, the cross remains there to this day.

    One day in November 1996, James Carroll, novelist, essayist, and former Catholic priest stood alone before that cross at Auschwitz. Questions crowded into his mind and tore at his heart. He writes, "I was seeing the cross in its full and awful truth for the first time." Deeply troubled but inspired by what he saw, he wrote this astonishing book about the tragic two-thousand-year history of virulent anti-Semitism interlaced with his own life Journey.

    The author’s thesis is that Auschwitz is "the climax of the story that begins at Golgotha." But he makes clear that the beginning of the story is the Church’s interpretation of the cross. He devotes a major part of his book to the New Testament Origins of Jew Hatred. The origin, history, and continuing conflict between Judaism and Christianity is the Jewish denial of the Christian claim that the crucified Jesus is the Messiah and the reaction of the early Church to that denial. The conflict is evident in the New Testament and highlighted in the Passion story of the canonical Gospels, which culminates in the rejection of Jesus by the Jews and his crucifixion by the Romans. Thus began a parting of the ways between Christians and Jews and the continuing practice of the Church defining Christianity as a replacement of Judaism.

    The separating paths followed by Judaism and Christianity became irreconcilable in the fourth century when Constantine not only transformed the Empire but the Church and the place of the Jews. Before Constantine, the cross was one of many identifying symbols used by Christians. But Carroll writes, "The place of the cross in the Christian imagination changed with Constantine." He gave his army a new standard to carry into battle, a "long spear, overlaid with gold, formed the figure of the cross by means of a transverse bar laid over it." The cross, upon which Jesus, the prophet of the Kingdom of God, was executed by the Romans as a threat to their domination, became the instrument for maintaining and expanding the Kingdom of Caesar. For Carroll, this act of Constantine put the cross at the center of the Christian story for the first time. He writes, "When the death of Jesus – rendered literally in all its violence, as opposed to metaphorically or theologically – replaced the life of Jesus and the new life of Resurrection at the heart of the Christian imagination, the balance shifted decisively against the Jews."

    Illuminating his historical research with a searching of his own soul, Carroll traces the tragic history of the Church’s hatred of the Jews over two millennia, from Constantine through the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, to Nazism. He concludes that "the cross at Auschwitz, transcending whatever benign intention attaches to it," embodies this history which includes "supersessionism, medieval absolutism, the cult of martyrdom, the violence of God, the ancient hatred of Jews, and the Christian betrayal of Jesus Christ." In the final part of his book, Carroll issues a call for Vatican III. As a result of what he discovered in his study, he is convinced that the time has come for a gathering of those invested in the future of the Catholic Church. While it would be "Centrally Catholic, it will include Jews and Protestants, people of other faith and no faith, clergy and laity and, emphatically women."

    The agenda for the Council would consist of five items to which he devotes separate chapters. Agenda Item 1 will be to confront and deal with the anti-Judaism of the New Testament. Item 2 will be to deal with the issue of the Church and power. Carroll asks "if it is possible to reverse Constantine and reclaim the cross for Jesus Christ, and for those who are left out of every imperial victory, or rather, defeated by it." Item 3 will be the exploration of a new Christology. Carroll insists that the cross "must be re-imagined and de-emphasized, as a Christian symbol." The suffering and death of Jesus must be seen as part of the continuum of this life, not separated from what he said and did. Item 4 will be a consideration of the holiness of democracy. The Church must turn away from monarchy and embrace democracy, "the latest gift from a God who operates in history." Agenda Item 5 is repentance. This item must be taken up only after the members of Vatican III have dealt with the previous agenda items "all of which point to attitudes and structures of denigration that must be uprooted if the Church is truly going to turn toward the Jews with a new face."

    Carroll suggests that this repentance requires expression in a penitential rite, which would consist of dismantling the cross at Auschwitz by removing the horizontal beam and uprooting the vertical beam, which is a "reversal of the instructions Constantine gave his soldiers." By this act, "the cross would be returned to Jesus, and returned to its place as the cause of his death, not the purpose of his life."

    At the conclusion of this monumental work, Carroll confesses that in the telling of this story, he has "felt flayed by every word." He writes, "This has been the story of the worst thing about my Church, which is the worst thing about myself." Yet he declares that while his faith is "forever shaken" and he "will always tremble," he has felt "readier than ever before" to claim membership in the Catholic community. He writes, "This tragic story offers a confirmation of faith, too. God sees us as we are, and loves us nevertheless. When the Lord now turns to ask me, ‘Will you also go away?’ I answer, too, with Simon Peter, ‘Lord, to whom shall I go?"’

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