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Spring Books

Centuries of ‘Jew hatred’ brought to light:
Priest: Flawed book tells story we must hear


By James Carroll
Houghton Mifflin, 756 pages, $28


James Carroll has given us a book that is both challenging and quite complex. His literary style is brilliant as he weaves a narrative about the history of the Catholic-Jewish relationship (which he regards as central to the history of the church) that is rooted in a wide reading of current scholarship in the context of personal experiences. This volume thoroughly exceeded my expectations.

Carroll spends the first part of the book (over 60 pages) laying out his basic paradigm and providing us with a variety of personal experiences going back to his youth in Germany as a “military brat,” which he feels have affected his perceptions of the Catholic-Jewish relationship today. Some of these -- such as the story of a clock his mother purchased at a sale in Europe, which in his mind may well have been stolen Jewish property -- are quite relevant. Others are marginally so -- the story of his uncle’s involvement in the British-Irish struggle. Others not at all. We don’t really need to know that he never turned in his ordination gift money to his religious order nor do we need the repetition of the story he told in An American Requiem about the struggle with his father’s top military position. Most of all we do not profit from his excursions into what appears as an erotic relationship with his mother. I fear the last of these personal details will turn certain readers away from a book that has much to contribute to the current Catholic-Jewish discussion. Telling the story of the Catholic-Jewish relationship against the background of his life journeys can be applauded. But some aspects simply distract from the central narrative.

The central framework of Carroll’s narrative is the theology of the cross. It is the pronounced emphasis on the cross that in Carroll’s mind set the church on a terrible course throughout history, not only in terms of its relationship to the Jews, but in terms of its basic self-understanding. I think there is a great deal to be said for his basic thesis. But he chooses to begin his narrative with his visit to the Auschwitz death camp in Poland at the time that the controversy was raging there about the large, so-called “papal cross” at Auschwitz I and the hundreds of crosses on the “field of ashes” at Birkenau (Auschwitz II). Carroll sees these crosses at Auschwitz as symptomatic of the dominance of cross theology in Catholicism generally.

In selecting the situation at Auschwitz as his fundamental paradigm, he has distorted the facts of the controversy and, intentionally or not, given support to those in the Jewish community who claim the Vatican is trying to “Christianize” the Holocaust generally and Auschwitz in particular. He is aware of some of the literature on the subject but not all the important studies. And he does not reliably use the sources that he has cited in this regard.

Carroll collapses the two controversies about crosses at Auschwitz-Birkenau into one. But the two controversies are in fact distinct, and Polish citizens and the church recognized the basic difference. There was strong internal support in Poland among Catholics for the removal of the small crosses at Birkenau that had been placed there, along with some Stars of David, rather naively but with good intentions, by Polish Scouts. The fact that they included Stars of David clearly shows they did not intend what Carroll purports to have been their motive.

The large cross at Auschwitz I is a more complex issue. But even here majority support for its retention is not due primarily to an effort to apply the traditional theology of the cross to Jewish victims buried there but to honor the Polish victims who died as part of the Nazi effort to annihilate Polish national consciousness. Auschwitz I was in fact originally built as an integral part of the attack on the Polish nation as nation. I dwell on this point only because Carroll does, returning to it any numbers of times throughout the volume. His argument about the negative impact of a cross theology on the Catholic-Jewish relationship generally is definitely arguable. But highlighting of the Auschwitz cross controversy as a prime exemplar of this is superficial and ultimately hurts his central thesis.

Once readers enter the principal part of the narrative, they are treated to an exposé of the history of the Catholic-Jewish relationship that deserves to be called a masterpiece in terms of a popular presentation of the story. Carroll combines a beautiful, engaging writing style with an excellent, comprehensive command of the literature covering two millennia of the relationship. No single volume at the popular level has done it quite as well. It is largely a negative story in terms of the Jews, as Carroll argues that at virtually every stage of Catholic history the Jews become in different guises the enemies par excellence of Catholicism.

He is not oblivious to the slightly better moments, but clearly for him this narrative is predominantly lachrymose. In this sense he follows very much in the vein of the late Edward Flannery’s now classic volume, The Anguish of the Jews. While it is difficult for Catholics to hear this story from Flannery or Carroll, our moral integrity as a church demands that we listen. Flannery, in a famous remark, said that the pages of Christian history that Jews know best have been torn out of Christian history books. This history needs to be restored to Catholic consciousness as challenging to faith as this can prove to be. We can hope Carroll’s book will reinforce Flannery’s original call.

In addition to demonstrating how Jews became the principal opponents of the Catholic church over the centuries, the other important strength of this volume lies in its challenge to Catholic theology. Carroll contends that Catholic theologians have failed to confront the patristic anti-Judaic legacy as well as the broader implications for Catholic self-understanding today of the Second Vatican Council’s document on other religions, Nostra Aetate. The Jewish-Catholic question has largely been a marginal issue for Catholic theology since the council, despite the emphasis that Pope John Paul II has given it. The conciliar and subsequent Vatican statements as well as the many speeches of the present pope are almost never referenced in discussions of Catholic self-identity. They remain largely documents for dialogue with Jews. Yet as Johann Baptist Metz has rightly emphasized, they are documents that profoundly affect Catholic theology. The patristic adversos Judaios tradition was central, not marginal, to Catholic theological self-understanding. So Gregory Baum was quite correct when he argued in a plenary address at the 1985 Catholic Theological Society meeting that Nostra Aetate represents the most profound change in the ordinary magisterium coming out of the council.

I have heard Catholic leaders assert that we have solved all the problems we had in the past with the Jews. Carroll insists, and I concur, that we have hardly begun to probe theologically the full implications of the process that began with Nostra Aetate and has continued throughout the pontificate of John Paul II.

Carroll’s volume has some similarities with recent books by Gary Wills and John Cornwell. All use the Catholic-Jewish relationship as an argument for a major reform of the Catholic church, particularly in terms of its approach to power and authority. Carroll clearly identifies himself as a Catholic dissenter who left the priesthood to save his faith. There will be those who will be turned off by this personal designation in terms of his fundamental argument. I hope people can see beyond this. His work is far more substantive than Wills and certainly far, far more than Cornwell. It is regrettable that Carroll repeats his praise for Hitler’s Pope, Cornwell’s flawed book on Pius XII, which Carroll reviewed for The Atlantic Monthly in 1999.

In reading the chapters at the end that move beyond the parameters of the Catholic-Jewish relationship to current situations in the church generally, there are many critical questions one can put to Carroll. His attempt at a new Christology takes some interesting directions but shows little contact with the body of literature on Christology in light of the new understanding of the Catholic-Jewish relationship that has surfaced in the last 20 years.

In many ways, Constantine’s Sword stands as a monumental achievement in terms of popular history. Whether its embrace of the growing trend to link this history with opposition to current Vatican policies helps or hurts the central thesis may be debated. I for one would prefer to keep the two issues distinct.

Servite Fr. John T. Pawlikowski is professor of social ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago and co-director of Catholic-Jewish Studies at the school’s Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Center. His e-mail address is jtmp@ctu.edu

National Catholic Reporter, February 2, 2001