As I feared, the above post was too long when it included all of the book reviews. The America
and First Things
reviews are here.
Two Millennia of Catholic-Jewish Relations
The Church and the Jews
By James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin. 756p $28
At this writing, I have read five reviews of Carroll’s book and
participated in a daylong conference at Brandeis occasioned by its
publication. One review, by Rabbi James Rudin for Religious News
Service, is generally laudatory; another, by Andrew Sullivan in The New
York Times, more cautiously so. The three reviews in the Catholic
press, on the other hand, are very strongly negative on the book, both
as history and as theology.
reviewers (Robert Wilken in Commonweal, Msgr. George G. Higgins in his
column and Robert Lockwood for the Catholic League for Religious and
Civil Rights) cover the spectrum of Catholic life, so these responses
cannot be put down to a particular ideological distaste for Carroll’s
thought. Carroll is strongly in favor of improving Catholic-Jewish
relations today and in the future, as are his reviewers. I, too, of
course, share that goal. Yet you can put me down in the regretful “no”
camp regarding the book. No, I cannot recommend it to anyone, Jewish or
Christian. While it has some genuinely good writing that I would be
tempted to run off and hand out in a course on Catholic-Jewish history,
its flaws are deeper than its merits.
chief flaw, mentioned by all three reviewers for the Catholic press and
hinted at by Sullivan, is that the book uses the tragedies of the Jews
over the centuries in order to make the quite unrelated and entirely
internal Christian point that the author thinks the church should be
structured differently than it is—i.e. as a democracy—and that its
Christology is too high—i.e. that the church really believes that Jesus
was and is God as well as a man. For Carroll, this leads to
“exclusivism” at the heart of Christian theology, which means that all
human beings in some way known only to God are saved in and through the
incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, even those who are not
my part, I do not think this is a flaw in Catholic theology. In fact, I
would argue that in essence Christian teaching on the unicity and
universality of the Christ event are in substance no more exclusivist
than either of the other two monotheistic traditions, Judaism and
Islam, both of which begin with the premise, as does Christianity, that
no other God than ours is real. All other gods than the God of Abraham
are, we three traditions agree, false gods, the worship of whom is
idolatry. Other traditions contain spiritual riches from which we
Christians can learn, and may well be a response to the Holy Spirit.
one agrees with Carroll’s theology, however, the point remains that he
has absolutely no right to use Jewish suffering over the centuries to
push it forward. Ironically, Carroll’s failure here can best be
paralleled by, and is a logical inversion of, that of the early church
fathers, whom he rightly criticizes for having used the historical
incident of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple as a “proof” of the
divinity of Christ. Why else, they argued, would God have been so
righteously angered at his own people, unless they had killed his Son?
See how the Jews suffer and are dispersed? That is God’s punishment for
deicide. So, too, I believe, does Carroll fall into the classic
Christian temptation to use Jewish suffering as a proof text. This,
history has shown (and Carroll himself writes a lot of that history
extremely well), is a very dangerous course to take. Self-projection
may make for good narrative in a novel, but it is not very good history.
is a novelist, and a good one. When he evokes the experience of being
in the seminary in the late 1960’s, he portrays my generation of
seminarians very well. One had to have been there. And he was. I
related very closely to these segments of his book. But, again, why
here? My own involvement with Catholic-Jewish relations, stemming from
the same period but not, as was Carroll’s, characterized by a 30-year
pause, came from my involvement in the civil rights movement, in which
he seems uninterested, though he is only a couple of years older than I.
major flaw mentioned by his critics stems from what will be perceived
as a strength by many casual readers of this popularized history. This
is his projection onto the stage of two millennia of Jewish-Catholic
relations his own, personal life-narrative. Carroll’s failed
relationship with his pro-Vietnam war father is used as a paradigm for
the parent-child relationship between Judaism and Christianity. There
is some insight to be gained from this, of course, but it is overdone
to Carroll’s thesis is that the Second Vatican Council in effect blew
it with regard to Catholic-Jewish relations. The “Declaration on the
Relatinship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions” was watered down
(a charge I would rigorously reject). Therefore, he argues, it needs to
be done over again. He proposes five agenda items for his “Vatican
III.” Two involve restructuring the church to make it more democratic.
O.K. Good luck. Three, however, have to do with Catholic-Jewish
relations. And here he is in over his head. He admits to having spent
only a year researching this book. There may have been a time when one
could bone up on Catholic-Jewish relations for a short time and claim
to have mastered the field. But that time is long past. Carroll simply
hasn’t done sufficient homework to sit in judgment on the dialogue as
he does. His propositions for “Vatican III” are not as advanced as
those put forward by my predecessor, the Rev. Edward Flannery, in 1967.
His agenda for the future is one that I have worked on, based on the
Second Vatican Council, for over a quarter of a century. It is nice
that he now wishes to join the club. But it is not at all proper that
he refuses to acknowledge the good work of so many people who have gone
is a self-centered character to this book. Carroll seems frozen in
time, believing that the Second Vatican Council accomplished nothing,
since he has not been involved in what has been done and is being done
to implement it. The book, therefore, is woefully out of date.
Eugene J. Fisher
Eugene J. Fisher
is associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and
Interreligious Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Books in Review
The Church and the Jews
Copyright (c) 2001 First Things
113 (May 2001): 59-63.
A Tendentious Telling
Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. By James Carroll. Houghton
Mifflin. 756 pp. $20.
Reviewed by Thomas F. X. Noble
Caveat Emptor! This book looks like a bargain, three books for the price of
one. It contains a history of Catholicism’s relationship with Judaism and the
Jews; a plea for a Christology that would, largely, remedy the most distasteful
aspects of that history; and an autobiography of the author, a successful novelist
and National Book Award winner. Alas, the history is always amateurish and often
wrong; the theology is an affront to any form of historic Christianity; and
the author comes off as smug, sanctimonious, and unctuous.
Start with the history that Carroll tells and with the way he tells it. Carroll
is an amateur historian. He has no degrees in the subject and, to judge from
this book, no expertise in either Jewish history or church history. Historians
normally work with primary sources—documents roughly contemporary with the events
to which they pertain—and with the best scholarship dealing with those documents
and with the history surrounding them. Carroll has read no cache of documents
for himself and, as far as I can tell, has never crossed the threshold of an
archive. Occasionally he cites a source, but a look at his endnotes will always
reveal that he has cribbed the reference and quotation from someone else. There
is no evidence that he reads Latin, Greek, or Hebrew, and yet he comments in
an authoritative tone on histories that demand a knowledge of those languages.
Where modern scholarship is concerned, Carroll’s amateurism is compounded by
his tendentiousness. That is, for the periods and problems he treats, he tends
to cite only one or two studies, saying portentously that a famous author or
book “informs” his current discussion. Yet Carroll seems to cite only the author
or authors who agree with his views. So, for instance, John Dominic Crossan
becomes the authority for the New Testament period and John Cornwell
serves as the biographer of Pius XII. One would not let a college freshman
get away with that. Finally, there are monuments of both Jewish and church history
produced by European scholars, but I see no titles in French, German, or Italian.
Judged on every possible scale, this is a lightweight book—despite its ample
Yes, an amateur can get it right. Did Carroll? I think not. He opens up a key
question—how did religious and cultural anti–Judaism turn into murderous anti–Semitism—but
fails to handle it adequately. Carroll’s central thesis is that a generation
or two after the life of Christ, a series of authors, the men we know as the
evangelists, decided that it was better to get along with the powerful Romans
than the despicable Jews and scripted the first version of the blood libel.
That is, they made the Jews the murderers of Christ. They pulled off this clever
feat by historicizing the prophecies of the Old Testament in such a way as to
make Jesus Christ appear to be the Messiah. Moreover, they recorded the “intuition”
of the apostles and disciples that Jesus rose from the dead. Jesus’ contemporaries
actually only believed that Jesus’ love survived him, but as they gradually
shifted from praying for him to praying to him they invented the
story of his resurrection. So, in Carroll’s telling, the evangelists not only
blamed the Jews for killing the man Jesus but for killing the Messiah. Carroll
assures us that this account must be true because Crossan and the Jesus Seminar
say so. Along the way Carroll cavalierly dismisses Raymond Brown, mentions a
few other scholars with whom he has had conversations, and cites as his authority
on Christology Rosemary Radford Ruether, with nods in the direction of Edward
Schillebeeckx and Hans Küng.
One hardly knows where to begin in responding to all this. Carroll desperately
wants to blame Jesus’ death on the Romans. He does say that we cannot quite
know what it was that got Jesus in trouble with the authorities but he decides
that it is enough to assert that the Romans were meddlesome and murderous. Then
he says that it is anachronistic to hold an ancient empire to modern standards
of universal human rights but goes on to conclude that Rome did not measure
up to minimum (whose?) standards. Carroll’s fuzzy and contradictory thinking
aside, he simply does not understand the Romans. And I do not think that he
understands much about how or why the New Testament books were written, and
I am certain that he will persuade few that the New Testament was “a tragic
But to return to Carroll’s thesis. The conversion of Constantine was “the second
greatest story ever told.” The emperor was an exclusionary universalist who
imposed his will on the Church. Before a battle Constantine saw a cross in the
sky with the words “In this sign you shall conquer.” What is more, his mother,
Helena, was a relic–monger who went in search of the True Cross and the Seamless
Robe. She found them. Accordingly, the Cross became the symbol of a militant
Christianity that would henceforth cut down its foes. This more or less explains
But Carroll is not quite through spelling out his thesis. The Nicene Creed,
he says, regrettably made Jesus divine but stressed his Incarnation and Resurrection.
Then, be cause of Constantine and Helena, the Council of Constantinople inserted
“He was crucified” into the primitive text of the Creed, and thereafter Christ’s
death, already attributed to the Jews by those inventive evangelists, now replaced
his life as the central fact of Christianity. Some Church Fathers, notably John
Chrysostom and Ambrose of Milan, were positively vicious in their denunciations
of the Jews, but Augustine of Hippo defined the basic Catholic position for
centuries when he said that Jews must be permitted to survive, though not to
thrive, as a reminder of Christianity’s truth.
All of this is, once again, bad history. Any interested reader can find several
expert books to correct Carroll’s simplifications concerning Constantine. His
misunderstanding of the development of the text of the Creed and of the attitude
of the Church Fathers toward the Jews is a more serious matter. The so–called
Nicene Creed was in a state of evolution for more than a century, but it never
at any stage omitted reference to or a grounding in the Crucifixion. The change
in terminology that Carroll believes he has discovered is neither significant
in itself nor attributable to Constantine and his mother. Sometimes the Fathers
of the Church said ugly things about Jews. But they did so not because Jews
were helpless victims and Judaism superseded. Quite the contrary. Judaism was
thriving in late antiquity and the Fathers were alarmed by what they took to
be a real and potent rival.
In any case, the implications of this early history for the future were momentous.
There is, Carroll suggests, an “arc” that runs from Golgotha to Auschwitz, and
this in two respects. Viewed in one way, it is a two–thousand–year–old narrative
of the centrality of the Cross to Western Civilization. Viewed in another way,
it means that because the first cross was falsely blamed on the Jews, a second
cross could be erected in a place of indescribable Jewish suffering to co–opt
and supersede that torment on behalf of the Christians, mainly Poles, who also
died at Auschwitz. Put in simplest terms, it is Carroll’s argument that Western
Civilization has been propelled primarily by Catholicism’s hatred for the Jews.
Having muddled his way through antiquity, Carroll turns to the Middle Ages.
Of course, he tells about the wanton massacres of Rhineland Jews on the eve
of the First Crusade (1096), the emergence and dissemination of the grotesque
stories according to which Jews captured and ritually crucified Christian boys,
the bizarre rumors about Jews poisoning wells, the Inquisition and its attempts
to force conversion on the Jews, and finally about the many times when Jews
were expelled from their homelands, most famously from Spain in 1492. Carroll
also mentions the many popes, bishops, and secular rulers who befriended and
protected Jews, albeit doing so within the Augustinian “survive but don’t thrive”
The story, of course, is a sad one, and the author thinks that the Church has
not fully confronted its implications. Carroll repeatedly turns to “We Remember”
(1998) and “Memory and Reconciliation” (1999) to insinuate that the Catholic
Church was wrong, in the face of the medieval evidence, to claim in those documents
that while Catholics did appalling things for which apologies are in order,
the Church “as such” did not.
It seems to me that on this subject there has been a dialogue of the deaf.
Church authorities have been less frank and forthcoming than they might have
been. Most people are not trained to read and understand the subtleties of ecclesiastical
pronouncements. It is all well and good for professionals to toss around those
“as suchs,” but ordinary laypeople need a little help with them. Critics of
the Church, for their part, unfailingly read the actions of Catholic individuals
or communities as the actions of the Church. Never mind that no medieval pope
or council authorized or incited the murder of Jews and that many clerics and
councils thundered against the preposterous blood libels. Perhaps someday the
passions will cool on both sides of this argument and good sense will prevail.
Back to the history. There are again interesting omissions and mistakes in
the book’s medieval sections. Carroll interprets the Crusades as the “necessary
outcome of an exclusionary and totalitarianizing culture.” Why, then, did the
crusading movement begin in the late eleventh century and why was it spent by
1300? How do Byzantine vulnerabilities to the Turks and economic rivalries in
the Mediterranean basin figure in Carroll’s scheme? Why were massacres of Jews
a particular feature of the First Crusade? Carroll’s only answers to questions
like these depend on the violence inherent in the Cross—the Crusaders were,
after all, crucesignati, signed by the Cross.
But Carroll’s obsession with the Cross causes him some other problems. One
of the most serious of these has to do with the way he mangles the theology
of Anselm of Canterbury, in particular his profound Cur Deus Homo (Why
God Became Man). Carroll says that Anselm, good Constantinian that he was, wrote
this book to prove that Jesus became man to die. This terrible doctrine of atonement,
Carroll insists, intensified Catholicism’s fixation on the Cross with inevitably
murderous results for the Jews, long identified as Christ–killers. To make this
point, Carroll cites Jaroslav Pelikan badly and out of context. He seems not
to notice that he has no company on the slender branch on which he is perched.
Carroll is not yet done confusing himself and his readers about medieval theology.
He likes Peter Abelard because he was a “liberal” and a “humanist.” (This from
an author who earlier solemnly warned us about anachronism.) Abelard used logic
and human reason to arrive at positions that anticipated those of the Jesus
Seminar. It was “conservative” monks who did him in. That Anselm was himself
an accomplished and innovative logician seems to have escaped Carroll’s notice.
It almost seems as if Carroll likes St. Thomas Aquinas only because some of
his propositions were condemned. But then, Thomas was a logician, so that makes
him, like Abelard, a good guy. But Thomas agrees with Anselm more than he does
with Abelard. So perhaps Thomas is a bad guy after all.
Carroll’s history marches along like this page after page. It is when he gets
to the twentieth century that he is at his worst. He concludes, predictably,
with Pius XII. He does not think Pius an evil man, just a misguided one whose
moral shortcomings caused unprecedented suffering. In Carroll’s telling Eugenio
Pacelli devoted his life to elevating the centralizing power of the papacy.
Thus when he concluded the Reichs konkordat with Hitler’s new government
on behalf of Pius XI in 1933, the point of the exercise was to bring the troublesomely
independent German episcopate to heel and, in the bargain, to destroy the German
Center Party. This is reductionism on a majestic scale.
The Konkordat, it is true, granted precious legitimacy to Hitler’s still
young government. In hindsight, it would have been better to postpone or retract
it. But it is worth remembering that we have hindsight; they didn’t.
It is also true that some German Catholics, including intellectuals and members
of the clergy, became Nazi party members and wrote disgusting things about Jews.
They may have been prompted to do so by their understanding of the Konkordat.
But larger currents were flowing in those difficult days.
Carroll correctly identifies but seems not to understand the issues that help
to explain papal conduct in the 1920s and ’30s. Garibaldi’s march on Rome, the
Paris Commune of 1871, and the Kulturkampf had called into question virtually
every aspect of the papacy’s historical relationship with rulers and governments.
Until the Lateran accords were signed with Mussolini, the popes had been virtual
prisoners inside the Vatican. Eugenio Pacelli was trying to reinvent the papacy
as an effective, influential institution in a world that seemed to have little
need, modest respect, and no fear of it. Moreover, as Carroll says, “the Church
had been thrown off balance by liberalism or modernism, that post–Enlightenment
confluence of political revolution, intellectual skepticism, and cultural secularism.”
In the circumstances, and well before the reality of Nazism was apparent to
all, it is not so difficult to see how many people, and not just Catholic leaders,
were tempted by Nazism’s stress on order and authority and by its staunch opposition
to Bolshevism and the many decadences of modern culture.
Carroll dismisses anyone who has spoken on behalf of Pius XII as a “defender”
or “advocate”; whereas he himself, and his primary source, John Cornwell, are
portrayed as disinterested and objective. At one point Carroll dismisses Hannah
Arendt be cause she argued that Catholic Jew–hatred was insufficient to explain
Hitler’s atrocities. But surely, pace Carroll, she was right. Why was
there no Holocaust before Hitler? Why Germany? How does one explain Stalin’s
fanatical anti–Semitism given that he was notoriously unsympathetic to Catholicism?
Arendt understated the point.
Carroll wishes for a different future so he imagines different pasts. He talks
repeatedly of history as a “drama” and says that the actions of the actors are
less interesting than their motivations. Fair enough, but he does a poor job
of identifying the motives of the historical actors whom he chooses to discuss.
And the historian, unlike the novelist, cannot artfully assign motives. Carroll
says that it takes “moral maturity” to recognize the connections between events
that others have overlooked or denied. This is fatuous. Page after page of this
book would serve admirably in a college history class as an object lesson in
false inferences and mistaken links of causation.
The book adopts several novelistic devices that are annoying and distracting.
Again and again Carroll takes the reader back to Trier, a small town in western
Germany. It was from Trier that Constantine launched his campaign to become
emperor, there that he built a palace, there that Helena installed relics, there
that Crusaders murdered Jews, there that Karl Marx was born, and there that
the Seamless Robe was displayed twice in the twentieth century, once in 1933
after the Reichskonkordat and once in 1959 in Carroll’s own presence.
Carroll has fixed tenaciously on a series of coincidences and seen in them a
pattern of deep meaning.
More annoying, however, is his strategy of telling the story of the Church’s
relationship with Jews and Judaism as his own personal story. Everything turns
on when he learned this, felt that, or was told something else. He has succumbed
to the postmodern temptation to assume that, finally, it is all about me.
Be that as it may, it is both towering arrogance and bad historical method to
insist that history depends on, and is precisely coincident with, one’s own
Carroll ends with a call for a Third Vatican Council, a call that is unlikely
to be answered. He wishes for a Council whose participants would be equally
drawn from all the branches of the family of man, even those who don’t believe
or are hostile to the Church. The Council would take as its key responsibility,
in so far as the Church itself is concerned, a liberal aggiornamento, a
completely undiscriminating pluralism, that would, almost certainly, bring the
Church to an end. But most implausibly, this Council would retell the gospel
story so that Jesus Christ is not uniquely the Son of God and not the Messiah.
He died because he was human, and humans die. He did not die for the sins of
others. This is a Jesus who would not threaten Jews. No sensible Christian,
of course, could embrace this caricature, but one wonders even if theologically
serious Jews, such as those who wrote the recent Dabru Emet (see “Dabru
Emet: A Jewish Statement on Christians and Christianity,” FT, November 2000),
would respect such a Christianity.
Thomas F. X. Noble is Robert M. Conway Director of the Medieval Institute and
Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.