Constantine’s Sword: James Carroll’s flawed history comes to the screen (2007)

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As Holy Scripture testifies, Jerusalem did not recognize the time of her visitation, nor did the Jews in large number accept the Gospel; indeed, not a few opposed its spreading. Nevertheless, God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers; He does not repent of the gifts He makes or of the calls He issues …

True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ; still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews without distinction then alive, nor against the Jews of today. … in her rejection of every persecution against any man, the Church, mindful of the patrimony she shares with the Jews and moved not by political reasons but by the Gospel’s spiritual love, decries hatred, persecutions, displays of antisemitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.

Besides, as the Church has always held and holds now, Christ underwent His passion and death freely, because of the sins of men and out of infinite love, in order that all may reach salvation. It is, therefore, the burden of the Church’s preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love and as the fountain from which every grace flows. (Nostra Aetate, 4)

Although James P. Carroll approvingly cites the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate in Constantine’s Sword, lamenting that it is not better known in the Church today, the Council’s vision of the Church proclaiming “the cross of Christ as the sign of God’s all-embracing love” is not one shared by Carroll.

A documentary of sorts based on Carroll’s book of the same title, Constantine’s Sword doesn’t go quite as far as its source material in deconstructing the cross and the faith it represents. Subtitled The Church and the Jews – A History, Carroll’s book effectively contends that “proclaiming the cross of Christ” and “God’s all-embracing love” are mutually exclusive. The cross, Carroll writes, is “the symbol of all that Christians must repent in relation to the Jewish people” (p. 601–602).

In the last seven of his 60 chapters, Carroll, an ex-priest, offers a modest proposal for Christian “repentance”: The Catholic Church must (a) convene Vatican III, (b) flag and confess anti-Jewish distortions in the New Testament, (c) reject the Nicene Creed in favor of something more Unitarian, (d) dismantle the hierarchy and embrace “holy” democracy, and (e) to show that we really mean it and we’re really sorry for the last 2000 years, dismantle the cross at Auschwitz — a proposed act that, as vividly and ritualistically imagined by Carroll — “a removal of the horizontal beam, an uprooting of the vertical, a reversal of the instruction Constantine gave his soldiers” (p. 604) — suggests much more than removing a single controverted monument. Carroll imagines it as a veritable “sacrament” embodying the deconstruction of traditional Christian faith.

The film, directed by Oren Jacoby (Sister Rose’s Passion), is less explicit on these points than the book, notwithstanding shots of Carroll scowling darkly at the cross at Auschwitz. It also broadens its argument by throwing in Evangelical Protestantism, particularly in connection with the armed forces and the war in Iraq, with charges of institutional Evangelical proselytizing at the Colorado Springs Air Force Academy, interviews ranging from disgraced Evangelical leader Ted Haggard to Carroll’s fellow Catholic Church critic Gary Wills (Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit) and footage of Evangelical worship services.

Like the book, the film also focuses a good deal on Carroll’s life story: his Irish Catholic upbringing, his father’s work in military intelligence, his ordination to the priesthood in 1969 and his subsequent departure in 1975. (“I couldn’t be obedient after the war in Vietnam destroyed my faith in authority,” he reflects.) In both the film and the book Carroll notes that his parents’ names were Joseph and Mary, and his initials are J.C.; make of that what you will.

Despite lapses into introspective navel-gazing, the heart of the film, like the heart of the book, is concerned with the long and sordid history of Christian antisemitism. At this point I feel the need to attempt an important clarification. A few years ago, writing about The Magdalene Sisters, I tried to express two basic ideas:

  1. The film’s depiction of the abuse of women in the Irish Magdalene laundries is legitimate and valid. Such abuses really did occur, and it is appropriate and important to highlight such evils.
  2. The Magdalene Sisters is nevertheless a flawed and anti-Catholic film, not because it depicts nuns abusing women, but because of the failure of art in its relentlessly one-note depiction of every single nun and priest as morally capable only of unmitigated evil. Had the film nuanced its depiction by allowing even minor elements of conscience or compassion in even one or two nuns, it would have been both better art and more credible social commentary.

To these two points I added a third: The film’s anti-Catholic bias seems to reflect the anti-Catholicism of writer-director Peter Mullan, an ex-Catholic Marxist who regards Catholicism as perverse and nonsensical. (This is not to say that an ex-Catholic Marxist filmmaker couldn’t make a fair critique of the Church — only that Mullan didn’t do it.)

Although these points seemed to me, and seem, straightforward, I have long since lost count of the number of readers who have felt, as far as I can tell, that by saying “The Magdalene Sisters is a flawed and anti-Catholic film” I was really saying “The abuses didn’t really occur,” or at least “The abuses shouldn’t be depicted.” Perhaps I wasn’t as clear as I could have been.

In part because of this experience, it is not without apprehension that I approach the treatment of antisemitism in Constantine’s Sword. The facts here are both simpler and also more complex.

Once again, there is a matrix of truth in the charges. The history of Catholic antisemitism rehearsed in the film is long and sordid: the 1096 massacres of Rhineland Jews at the outset of the First Crusade, the fevered medieval fantasies of Jewish malfeasance (kidnapping and killing Christian children, poisoning wells and so forth), the expulsion of Sephardic Jews from Spain in 1492… the list goes on and on.

At the same time, as documentary rather than dramatic fiction, Constantine’s Sword is more accountable to the facts. Like its source material, the film is riddled with historical distortions, at least some of which seem agenda-driven, perhaps even more or less deliberate.

To begin with, although Carroll doesn’t entirely neglect brighter spots in the picture, he very nearly does. Of the condemnations of mistreatment of Jews by Church leaders including Pope Gregrory the Great at the turn of the seventh century and Pope Gregory IX in the thirteenth, there is no mention. We do hear of the “surprising” welcome given by Pope Alexander VI to Iberian refugees. But this is a prelude to the oppression of Roman Jews inaugurated under heavy-handed Paul IV, who created the Roman ghetto on the banks of the Tiber, forbade Jews to own real estate and required them to adopt distinctive dress.

Selectivity isn’t the film’s only problem. During an interview with scholar Jan Willem Drijvers discussing Constantine and Helen, the film cuts to voiceover narration from Carroll, purportedly paraphrasing Drijvers, to the effect that prior to Constantine “the cross had never been an important Christian symbol.” For “two and a half centuries,” Carroll continues, “Christians had used symbols of life: the fish, the lamb, the shepherd. Now this image of execution is brought in to justify the empire under a single orthodox doctrine.”

Did Drijvers really say that? It’s impossible to know (Carroll’s use, or misuse, of sources in his book has raised critical eyebrows). In any case, the implication that the “image of execution” represented by the cross was unimportant to pre-Constantinian Christianity, that Jesus’ death on the cross acquired a novel importance in the fourth century, is sheer nonsense.

Already in the second century Christians made frequent use of the sign of the cross; by the end of the second century Tertullian noted that “we Christians wear out our foreheads with the sign of the cross,” elsewhere adding, “In all our travels and movements, in all our coming in and going out, in putting on our shoes, at the bath, at the table, in lighting our candles, in lying down, in sitting down, whatever employment occupies us, we mark our foreheads with the sign of the cross.”

Since Carroll’s point is not just about symbolism but about the cross itself, it must also be said that this flies in the face of the whole New Testament, which contains scores of references to the cross, crucifixion and death of Jesus. (In just a few minutes on a Bible website I counted over 80 references to the cross and the crucifixion, not counting scores of references to Jesus’ death.) Such references include the earliest strata of pre-Pauline tradition, the hymn preserved in Philippians 2 and the confessional formula recorded in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff, as well as every strand of New Testament tradition: Synoptic (including Marcan and so-called “Q” material), Pauline and Johannine, as well as Hebrews and the catholic epistles.

So much, in fact, is the New Testament against Carroll’s thesis that Carroll himself bluntly admits that he sees the New Testament as part of the problem. In his mind, Christian antisemitism began with the depiction in the Gospels and other NT writings of Jesus being handed over to the Romans for execution by “the Jews” (i.e., Jewish authorities).

Did the NT writers fudge the facts to shift blame for Jesus’ death from the Romans to “the Jews”? For confirmation, Carroll turns to a single scholar, Elaine Pagels. Credited in a subtitle simply as “Bible scholar,” Pagels is in fact a professor of religion best known for her sympathetic scholarship on early Gnostic texts. (In his book Carroll relies heavily on radical-fringe scholar John Dominic Crossan, of Jesus Seminar notoriety. It is a mark of Carroll’s fringe leanings that he describes mainstream–liberal scripture scholar Raymond Brown as typical of “more traditional scholars” [p. 101], and mentions him only to dismiss him.)

Not surprisingly, Carroll’s chosen authority agrees that the Gospels are “completely at odds with history” on this point. Of course Pagels cites no historical evidence that Jewish leaders had no hand in Jesus’ death, for the obvious reason that no such evidence exists. All Pagels can say is that Jesus’ death by crucifixion represented a Roman, not Jewish, form of execution — a point abundantly clear from the New Testament accounts, so there’s hardly any opposition there.

Carroll’s book relied extensively on John Cornwell’s now–substantially discredited Hitler’s Pope, another anti-Catholic exposé–cum–critique of Church policy. For the film, now that Cornwell himself has conceded the unfairness of his title, Carroll tries to hedge his bets, arguing, “While it may be unfair to call him Hitler’s pope, it’s fair to call him Hitler’s cardinal.”

In fact, as cardinal the future Pius XII, then Eugenio Pacelli, strongly denounced and opposed Nazism. “Miserable plagiarists who dress up old errors with new tinsel” was his description of the Nazis in a 1935 speech to 250,000 pilgrims in Lourdes. “It does not make any difference whether they flock to the banners of social revolution, whether they are guided by a false concept of the world and of life, or whether they are possessed by the superstition of a race and blood cult.” Two years later, Pacelli drafted the anti-Nazi encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge, promulgated by Pope Pius XI and smuggled into Germany to be read in all Catholic churches on Palm Sunday. As Pope, Pius XII explicitly condemned antisemitism: “It is impossible for a Catholic to be an anti-Semite; spiritually all of us are Semites.” (See “How Pius XII Protected Jews” for more.)

None of this is mentioned by Carroll, who, astonishingly, uncritically claims that Pius XII could have halted the deportation of Jews essentially with a wave of his hand. Contrast Carroll’s much-quoted source, the equally unsympathetic Cornwell, who under cross-examination has acknowledged that “Pius XII had so little scope of action” under Fascist occupation that it is impossible to judge his actions.

Carroll doesn’t even engage the issue of the threat of consequences for ecclesiastical protests. In 1942, when the Dutch bishops strongly protested the deportation of Dutch Jews, the Nazis responded by rounding up and deporting 40,000 Christians of Jewish descent (including Edith Stein). This tragedy allegedly moved Pius XII to conclude, “If the protest of the Dutch Bishops has cost the lives of 40,000 people, my intervention would take at least 200,000 people to their deaths.” (I can’t verify this quotation, but in any case it’s entirely reasonable to suppose that such considerations would indeed have figured in Pius’s thinking.) Even if Carroll disagrees with such reasoning, how can he not even mention it?

A major part of Carroll’s thesis is that Christian antisemitism, while not the same as the secular antisemitism of Nazism and not a direct cause of the Holocaust, was nevertheless a historically contributing factor. Carroll thus takes Benedict XVI to task for mentioning only secular factors in his message at Auschwitz rather than acknowledging the Church’s responsibility. (At least Carroll does acknowledge the secular factors Benedict cites, and only claims that religious antisemitism was a contributing factor.)

Prescinding from the question of Benedict’s message, it does seem to me that there is a case to be made that antisemitism in Christian history was a contributing factor to the Nazi insanity. At the same time, Carroll effectively treats antisemitism in isolation, as if tribalism, xenophobia, bigotry and racism of various kinds weren’t common human phenomena. To be sure, the history of antisemitism is unique in a number of ways; but then the historical situation of the Jews has also been unique. (“If you want to understand antisemitism,” one interviewee wryly remarks, “don’t study Jews, study non-Jews.” It’s a partial truth.)

Carroll takes a parting shot at Pope Benedict in a penultimate closing title, claiming: “Months after associating Islam with ‘things only evil and inhuman,’ Benedict reversed reforms of Vatican II to authorize a Good Friday Mass that included a previously disavowed prayer for the conversion of Jews.”

Where does one begin to address all that is wrong with this statement?

  • The prayer in question, or rather the version of the prayer, was never “disavowed” (or not by the Church anyway). The 1962 missal, which contains the prayer, was allowed by Pope John Paul II in 1984, with additional guidelines issued in 1988. Benedict himself, in the very document Carroll refers to, notes that the 1962 missal was “never juridically abrogated” and was in principle “always permitted.”
  • Benedict “reversed” no “reforms.” The 1970 missal remains the ordinary form used in the liturgy. All Benedict did was liberalize existing permissions to use the 1962 missal. (Under John Paul II’s guidelines, bishops could allow priests to use the 1962 missal; under Benedict’s, no special permission is needed.)
  • The implication that the Church ceased praying for the conversion of Jews (much less “disavowed” such prayer) is false. The usual 1970 Good Friday liturgy still prays for this, though in more discreet language: “Let us pray for the Jewish people… Listen to your Church as we pray that the people you first made your own may arrive at the fullness of redemption. We ask this through Christ our Lord.” Asking for “the fullness of redemption … through Christ our Lord” is a thinly coded reference to redemption in Christ.
  • The bit about Benedict “associating” Islam with “things only evil and inhuman” is also wrong or misleading on a number of counts. First, by now it is well known that Benedict has explicitly and repeatedly clarified that the phrase in question, cited from Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus, was not quoted to express Benedict’s own views. Even in the context of the quotation, the reference is misleading on two counts. First, to confine the issue to what Benedict said rather than what Manuel II said, the translation “evil and inhuman” — although widely reported in the English media — appears to be too harsh a reading of Benedict’s German rendering; if Wikipedia is right, a better translation would be “bad and inhumane.” More importantly, what was so described is not Islam as such, but what is unique or distinct to Islam. This doesn’t deny that Islam may have much good in it, but contends that whatever is good in Islam is also common to other religions such as Judaism and Christianity.

It’s also worth noting that shortly after liberalizing use of the 1962 missal, Benedict personally undertook to rewrite the existing 1962 version of the Good Friday prayer for the Jews. Benedict’s new prayer eliminates insensitive language in the 1962 version (no longer asking God to “remove the veil” from Jewish hearts), but it’s still more direct than the standard 1970 version. (This revision occurred in early 2008; Constantine’s Sword is technically a 2007 film, having played at least one film festival in that year, though I suppose the filmmakers could have updated the closing title had they wanted to.)

I am not a historian… something Carroll and I have in common. He spent all of one year researching his book; I spent all of a few days researching this essay, including poking around Carroll’s book. Of course his book is 760 pages, and is called “A History,” while I only wrote an essay about 3000 words long. Still, I wouldn’t be surprised if in my limited knowledge I got something or other wrong in this essay. But I’d be even more surprised if in my limited knowledge I haven’t missed even more serious problems in Constantine’s Sword. (Any such errors, mine or Carroll’s, that more knowledgeable readers may bring to my attention, I will be happy to address as appropriate.)

The most serious problem with Constantine’s Sword, though, is not its historical distortions. The most serious problem is its out-and-out attack on Christianity as such. It is not merely antisemitism that troubles Carroll. It is not even only Jesus’ death and resurrection. Ultimately, it is the very belief that in Jesus God did something both unique and definitive, something with universal applicability for all mankind.

Carroll claims to love Jesus, but rejects the Jesus of the New Testament and of Christian tradition; he claims to love the Church, but repudiates the Gospel which is its heart and soul. As long as the Church confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior, as long as her children seek to take up their cross and follow Christ, Carroll will continue to scowl darkly toward Auschwitz and blame the Church from whose service he walked away.

Anti-Catholic, Documentary, Pope Fiction, Religious Themes