“Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews” by James Carroll (Houghton Mifflin, $28)
James Carroll loves the Roman Catholic Church. Unfortunately, the church he loves isn’t the church he has. Carroll yearns for that short, winsome time when he was ennobled by liberation theology, Vatican II and his bold opposition to the war in Vietnam. But the hopes of that moment faded away as first Pope Paul VI and, later, Pope John Paul II extinguished John XXIII’s reformist platform.
Two evils lie at the heart of the reactionary church: anti-Semitism and authoritarianism. They are, in Carroll’s view, inextricably bound together. Their roots lie in the grand misunderstanding that gave birth to the church in the first place.
After the death of the first-century Galilean preacher Jesus Christ at the hands of the repressive Romans, a coterie of sensitive, subtle Jews gathered to speak about the painful loss of their teacher. Over time, the metaphoric and symbolic language they used to talk about their teacher was misunderstood by the following generations. Words used metaphorically, like “resurrected” and “son of God,” were taken literally, particularly as this group fought for legitimacy inside the fraternal debates that pitted them against their major opponents for Jewish communal leadership, the Pharisees.
The message of divine love preached by the Galilean teacher was eventually overcome by the rise of institutional politics. Over time, the church became interwoven with the politics of the Roman Empire, especially after Constantine formally made Christianity the state religion. The early polemical texts condemning Jews came to be read literally, rather than as the heated figurative speech of an internal Jewish communal struggle. Thus were born the conjoined twin evils of church authoritarianism and anti-Semitism.
The early church authorities developed a name and an ideology to justify both their authoritarianism and anti-Semitism: supersessionism, which was taken to mean that the old covenant God had made with the Jews was superseded by the new one made with the church, through the death and resurrection of Jesus.
In its fights for supremacy, the church became a rigid, hierarchical, authoritarian institution insensitive to the true message of unlimited, unqualified, unconditional divine love.
Along the way, Carroll dispenses with quite a few items most associated with the Roman Catholic Church, such as the divinity of Christ, his crucifixion, death and resurrection; the cult of the Virgin Mary, and the adulation of the cross and sacred relics.
Carroll ends with a call for a Vatican III, harking back to his moment of Catholic optimism before he left the priesthood.
Anti-Semitism isn’t really the issue that animates Carroll, but his cudgel. He’s self-righteously, sorrowfully, soulfully, humbly pained and angry that the church is a conservative, indeed reactionary, institution, which denies priests the right to marry, women the right to abortion and to the priesthood, married couples the right to contraceptives, and oppressed peoples the right to revolt. If only John Paul II were John XXIII.
He would like to argue that all these oppressive church views flow from anti-Semitism and that the church is ultimately responsible for the Shoah, but he cannot. In spite of Carroll’s almost insatiable ideological drives, he is still an honest writer.
As 150 prominent rabbis and scholars teach in “Dabru Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity”: “Nazism was not a Christian phenomenon.”
The second is John Paul II’s revolutionary Roman Catholic teachings about Jews and Judaism and his rejection of supersessionism.
With Pope John Paul II’s declaration that Jews are the church’s “elder brothers,” Catholic supersessionist ideology has come to an end. It may take some time for this rigid, hierarchical, authoritarian institution to spread that message across its billion-member flock, but this pope has made clear that that message shall be spread.
One gets the impression that for Carroll, Jews are never quite real. Church anti-Semitism, a real, painful and avoidable evil, becomes in his hands a tool, a club, to call for church reform. But, in the end, he does little to illuminate and describe the tasks that today’s Jews and today’s Catholics must confront together.
James Carroll will read from and speak about “Constantine’s Sword” on Sun., April 29, at 7 p.m. at the Museum of Tolerance. Limited tickets. Call (310) 772-2452 for details.