Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews
James Carroll, New York, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001.
Reviewed by Thomas Riggins
In this book James Carroll traces the history of Christian
anti-Semitism and the role of the Catholic Church, his Church, in its
development. Despite his goal of portraying the responsibility of the
Church in what became the holocaust, he ends up with a nuanced
apologetic for his religion and dilutes Catholic responsibility by
deflecting some of the blame to the Enlightenment, Luther and Marxism.
This apologetic begins early in the book when he mentions Nazi
anti-Semitism "with its tap root planted perhaps in a particularly
Lutheran hatred of Jews." Hitler, however, was a Catholic, evidently a
good one as the Church celebrated a mass for the repose of his soul
after he killed himself at the end of World War II, who learned his
anti-Semitic catechism in Catholic Austria. Luther's anti-Semitism was
a carry-over of the existing anti-Semitic tradition of classical and
Carroll writes "the hatred of Jews has been no incidental anomaly but
a central action of Christian history, reaching to the core of
Christian character." Nevertheless it "did not have to be" and his
book "opens to possibilities of a new future." Carroll wants to have
his cake and eat it too. He wants to condemn anti-Semitism as "no
anomaly," yet validate the religion responsible for it. He will have
an unhappy consciousness in the company he keeps as Hitler and the
Nazi's were never excommunicated by his Church – that ritual being
saved for the real bad guys – the Communists.
Carroll has no class understanding of fascism and blames the Holocaust
on the German people – it was "the work of an entire people." But he
seems confused on this issue as elsewhere he says it was the Nazis
"who murdered the Jews."
Carroll's remarks on Marx and the Soviet Union need to be scrutinized.
He says, Marx's Jewish descent was repressed. "In the Soviet Union
this family history was never referred to." And there was a "Soviet
policy of never referring to Marx's Jewish roots." But in the Soviet
biography of Marx, published in 1968, we read that Heinrich Marx,
Karl's father, "came from a rabbinical family." The family converted
to Christianity (before Marx was born) to escape persecution.
Carroll refers to Marx as "the ex-Christian Jew hater."
This intemperate ranting about Marx stems from an early essay (1843),
"On the Jewish Question," directed not against Jews but religion. This
was before Marx met Engels and before he developed a consistent
Two points should be noted. First, it was written to refute articles
by Bruno Bauer that denied Jews civil equality. Marx advocated civil
equality for Jews. Bauer argued Jews would have to abandon their
religion to obtain equality and Marx attacked that notion. Second,
when Marx's article was published it was reviewed favorably by a
Jewish newspaper that saw Marx as a supporter of Jewish rights. One
has to pervert the facts to claim Marx was a "Jew hater." Readers are
referred to Julius Carlebach's Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of
Judaism (missing from Carroll's bibliography) and "Judaism" in A
Dictionary of Marxist Thought.
When Carroll turns his attention from Marxism (as well as Voltaire and
the Enlightenment tradition – he is a non-officiating Roman Catholic
Priest and hostility to these targets were no doubt ingrained in his
education) and focuses on the role of the Church his indictment is
He writes "in the 1930s, there is reason to believe, vast
numbers of Catholic Germans, and perhaps other Catholic Europeans as
well... would have preferred Hitler to Pius XII" [and whose "moral"
teachings would be the cause of that?]. "Shall I bring them into
conflicts of conscience?" Pius asked, referring to Catholic Germans,
in explaining why he could not protest the extermination of Jews."
The Church did not protest the extermination of Jews because it did
not care about the Jews – unless they converted to Catholicism.
Carroll himself notes that "The Church laid a tentative claim to
authority regarding baptized Jews" but the Vatican "at its highest
level sent a signal both to Hitler and to the German Catholic Church
that the Jews 'facing a wretched fate' were on their own."
The logical conclusion from Carroll's evidence is that the leadership of the
Catholic Church, besides having lost all claims to any moral authority,
is both reactionary and a blight on progressive humanity.
One would think this book would be a call to abandon a belief system
implicated in the Holocaust and one that had preached the hatred of
Jews for over two thousand years. But no. Carroll concludes: "This
tragic story offers a confirmation of faith too. God sees us as we
are, and loves us nevertheless." Please! Some God, some love!