The Sin of the Church: Constantine's Sword; the Church and the Jews; A History

By Green, Arthur | Tikkun, May/June 2001 | Go to article overview

The Sin of the Church: Constantine's Sword; the Church and the Jews; A History


Green, Arthur, Tikkun


The Sin of the Church: Constantine's Sword; The Church and the Jews; A History

Arthur Green is the Philip W. Lown Professor of Jewish Thought at Brandeis University and former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. His most recent book, These Are the Words, is published by Jewish Lights.

James Carroll's Constantine's Sword is a history of Christian, and specifically Roman Catholic, attitudes toward and treatment of Jews and Judaism over the course of nineteen centuries. Beginning with an extended meditation on the cross planted outside the Auschwitz barracks and the controversy that continues to surround it, Carroll unflinchingly traces the history of Christian anti- Judaism all the way back to the gospels themselves. Over the course of more than 600 pages of narrative, he takes the reader through the history of the Western world--touching on politics, philosophy, theology, and a host of other topics--all from the viewpoint of the Church's "Jewish Question."

But this book is also James Carroll's own story, and the weaving together of historical and personal narrative is masterfully done. A former Paulist priest and still a committed Catholic, Carroll gives an account of his own adolescent spiritual strivings. His mother was the dominant Catholic influence in his early life and the way in which spiritual quest is nurtured by a search for maternal love is a leitmotif that Carroll expresses in touching and personally revealing ways. His later questioning of his Catholic faith and his struggles with the institutional Church are also part of the story.

In the concluding chapters Carroll calls for the convening of a Third Vatican Council to complete the work of reconciliation that was so admirably begun by Vatican II under the leadership of Pope John XXIII. Carroll gives the present pope good grades for his devotion to continuing that work, culminating in his visit to Israel and his praying at the Western Wall in 1999. But he also decries the undercutting of Vatican II's intentions by the conservative forces represented in this same papacy. Coming in for special condemnation are the ongoing papal resistance to democratization and the re-introduction of exclusivist claims to salvation, particularly in the recent encyclical Dominus Jesus. That document, issued by the Vatican in early 2000, stands in direct contradiction to the spirit of all that has been accomplished over decades of what seemed like real progress in interfaith dialogue, reaching beyond calls for "tolerance" to a real mutuality of respect and understanding

I have tremendous respect for the daring, moral courage, and intellectual honesty of this book. I am also deeply moved by the personal character of Carroll's undertaking. It is always interesting to see in another's story close parallels to my own religious journey, despite the great differences due to the fact that we grew up and engaged in our seeking in the contexts of different--and in those days really opposing--religious traditions. I have lived wholly within Judaism as a seeker, a scholar, and a theologian over the course of forty years, and I like to think I learn from exposure to all the world's great traditions--but the most significant other for me has always been Roman Catholic. My own faith and questioning over the years have been nurtured both by reading and by personal contacts with individuals raised within, and usually struggling with, the Catholic Church and their Catholic Christian faith.

Let me begin there, with the struggle. If we Jews are the original dissenters of the Western world, as Carroll suggests somewhere early in the volume, I heartily welcome Carroll himself to the club. To stand up in sharp criticism of an institution and tradition you love is no easy matter. We in the Jewish community are new at that for different reasons than he is. Our historical role was as dissenters from truths the Catholic Church would have liked to believe were held universally. …

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