Given the very different directions we come from - James Carroll is an Irish-American baby boomer, a former priest and practicing Catholic; I'm a Jewish atheist from Israel, born after Carroll's departure from the clergy - it is hardly surprising that I disagree with him somewhat. More interesting is the nature of my disagreements with the arguments of "Constantine's Sword", Carroll's brilliant, personal, wide-scoped travelogue through 2 thousand years of Jewish-Christian relations: I find myself considerably less critical of the Catholic Church than Carroll is.
I think the difference is that Carroll, the Christian, sees the Church as the "mystical body of Christ", a religion whose purpose is to be true to the teaching of Love that he believes Jesus had preached. When the Church fails to reach Carroll's high standards, he condemns it. On the other hand, as a secularist, I see the Catholic Church as a thoroughly human institution, to be judged not against the absolute standard of the Prince of Peace, but against comparable, contemporary institutions. In perspective, throughout history, the Catholic Church had been a protector of Judaism and of Jewish people; its treatment of the Jews had been -relatively- benign. Only with the rise of the Enlightment, and with the widespread acceptance of the Rights of Man, can we see in the Church an oppressor of the Jews. Its failure to the Jews - so spectacularly presented in the Silence of Pius XII during the Holocaust - was caused not so much by anti-Semitism as by anti-Modernism. Until recently, the Church had been "on the wrong side of history" - together with the reactionary forces and against the Enlightment-era liberal ideas and groups it had denounced as "Americanism".
Carroll's history goes, from Jesus Christ to the Cross in Auschwitz. He focuses on places where "the past might have gone another way" (p. 63). The first of these is the split between Judaism and Christianity, symbolized by the sealing of the New Testament and of the Jewish Mishnah. "The siblings [Judaism and Christianity] moved from mere rivalry to open hostility - a fight over the vision that... could have united them" (p. 148). Thus Judaism and Jesus movement should never have parted ways.
I disagree. There is no, and never has been, place for Jesus within the confines of Judaism, no more than there was a place in Christianity for Joseph Smith. Any religion, after its foundation stage, is closed to further Revelation. Within Judaism, Jesus could never have been more than an obscure Rabbi. As a major prophet, let alone as God incarnated, Jesus had to be the center of a new religion.
The second "decisive turn" of the history is the Christianization of the Roman Empire by Constantine. With Christianity in power, its triumphant supersessionist instinct - seeing itself as the real Israel, and the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies - became dominant, and forever after governed the treatment of Jews in Christendom - they were allowed to live, but not to prosper. (pp. 217-219).
But as Carroll acknowledges, there is another side to this story. As the Augustinian approach to the Jews triumphed over extreme views promoted by the likes of John Chrysostom and Ambrose, the Jews received a part, though secondary, in the Christian scheme of things. Given the politics of the time, a more tolerant approach is unthinkable. The entire logic of the religious unification of the Roman Empire was to create a homogenous state. For that, religion pluralism would have been anathema. But it is not beyond the realms of possibility to imagine a unifier Emperor who was a follower of Mithra, rather then of Christ. Had Mithraism become the dominant religion of the Western World, Judaism would not have survived. Like the Pagans, Jews would have been persecuted and forced to convert. Only under Christianity, with its roots in Judaism, could Jews hope to find a niche for themselves.
Fast forward a thousand years or so, and we have the Crusades, Blood Libels, and the Inquisition. Carroll sees the Church's fault in all of these; particularly, he laments the acceptance of Anselm's theology of God-becoming-man, making a universal claim for Christianity and focusing on Jesus' death; here the untaken road is the one advocated by Peter Abelard, who preached a Gospel of Love and believed that Jews were also saved (p. 295).
We'll return to the question of exclusivity, but for now let us notice that although the Church had initiated the Crusades, it opposed the attacks on the Jews carried out by the Crusaders. The Catholic Church initiated neither the Inquisition, the Deportation of the Jews, nor rounding them up in Ghettos (It did use these methods at times, but only after other European Kingdoms). Christian Anti-Judaism probably had something to do with these prosecutions, but the dismal record of mankind suggests, alas, that even without religious motives, people are quite capable of atrocities.
I fully support Carroll's accusations of the Church during the Modern Era, though; The Catholic Church had never dismantled the Roman Ghetto, long after Ghettos were dismantled throughout Europe. In France, Catholics were a major force behind the attacks on Captain Dreyfus. And during the Second World War, Pius XII's silence simply cannot be excused.
Carroll ends with a further turning point: A future one. His "Call for a Vatican III", a Congress of all the Catholic Bishops, like the ones from the 1870s and the 1960s, to focus on Catholic-Jewish Relations. Carroll desires two major changes in the Church: the Renunciation of the dogma of Papal Infallibility, and the rejection of the Church's claims of exclusivity.
Carroll correctly notices that exclusivity is inherently intolerant. The Church's view of itself as the "Absolute religion" (p.591) is assuming its superiority over other points of view, whether Jewish, Protestant or Atheist. Carroll wants the Church to renounce these "Universalist" claims, and follow the pluralistic theology of the likes of Abelard and Nicholaus of Cusa (p. 593).
But there is a reason for the Church's rejection of Nicholaus and Abelard's teaching, and it involves a word that is hard to find in the 600 odd pages of Constantine's Sword: Mission. The Church's instinct, from the very moment Paul started preaching, are to tell the Gospel, literary the "Good News". If there is no advantage to Christianity over other religions, what possible justification can the Church have for its missionary effort? If Catholicism is not, in some sense, "better", "truer" or "more complete" then other religions, why would anyone seek to join it, and how can the Church be dedicated to the task of convincing others, in the Zero Sum game of religious identity, to join in? The Missionary instinct is at the very core of Christian values: The Church could not possibly deny it.
Carroll's treatment is also blind to the realpolitiks of the Church itself. The majority of its constitution is considerably less liberal then Carroll. Consider that a sizable group of Catholics left the Church following the mild reforms of Vatican II. Imagine the reaction to the Church's acceptance that it has a "flawed Gospel" (p. 567), that some of the sayings attributed to Jesus in the Gospels were actually put there by flawed, anti-Semitic first and second century Church fathers!
That is not to say that there is nothing the Church could do to ameliorate its relations to the Jews and to repent for its conduct. The Church could stop the Canonization process of Pius XII, who was not "Hitler's Pope", but was no saint, either. It could excommunicate Hitler, 60 odd years after the fact, but better late then never*. And it could, and should, dismantle the Cross in Auschwitz, where it is certainly inappropriate.
In writing these reviews, I often find myself frustrated at Amazon's rating system. Regularly, what I wish to communicate about a work is in the text of the review, not in the number of stars I give to it. This is an exception - what I'd like the reader to learn from this review is not my opinions on it, but that Carroll has written a thoughtful, compelling, fascinating, human book.
*22 June 2009 Update: One of the learned commentators has pointed out that, according to Catholic teachings, only the living can be excomunicated. He has also cited the Catholic Encyclopaedia to that effect.