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Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews : a History [Hardcover]

James Carroll
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 767 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin (Trade); First Printing edition (9 Mar 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0395779278
  • ISBN-13: 978-0395779279
  • Product Dimensions: 23.6 x 15.7 x 5.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,316,079 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Examines the two-thousand-year relationship between Christianity and Judaism, examining the long entrenched tradition of anti-Semitism that culminated in the Church's failure to protest the Holocaust during World War II.

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This is such a wonderful book, and I can only recommend that as many people read it as possible. As such it's as much a duty as it is a pleasure to write this review.
It's also a pleasure to give it 5 stars because it's an absolutely faultless documentation of the centuries of abuse Jews have had to face on the basis of religious hate and religiously inspired mistrust. We don't even stop to think these day about where Hitler's hatred of Jews came from, it seems so obvious and clear to simply blame it on the Depression and on the Reparations the defeated powers had to pay after WWI. But Jews had experienced hatred and discrimination, genocidal cleansing for centuries and the origins of this hatred have long since been left to dark corners of our psyche where taboos lurk. This is not going to be a comfortable read for many people (especially Christians) and further credit has to given to James Carrol who is himself a Catholic theologian and researcher.
As a long and detailed history of one of oddest hatreds that continues to endarken our lives I can only promote a thorough reading of this book - it's wonderfully written, gentle, always sympathetic to anyone who can be hurt, but nevertheless, always driven towards creating a realistic picture of the past and present based solely on evidence. There is no bending towards a pragmatic rearranging of facts to suit Christian sensibilities; Carrol is an excellent researcher.
In brief: eye opening, illuminating and a book that offers to take its readers to a newer, more refined understanding of our pasts. The book is about getting to honest grips with the past so that we can go forward, but I have to admit, I don't see that atonement happening yet.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Troubling history of the Catholic Church 7 April 2013
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Do you want an amazing moving understanding of the suffering of the jews. Be prepared to be shocked and grieved
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.4 out of 5 stars  342 reviews
406 of 432 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I hadn't planned a review 23 Jan 2001
By Thomas A. Davidson - Published on
I actually hadn't planned to review this book, but when I read some of the writings of those who had I thought I should.
First, let me say what I think the book isn't. It is not an anti-Catholic scree as some might have you believe. The fact that some have interpreted it thus tells you a whole lot more about them than it does about the book. So what is the book about? Briefly, its thesis is that Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular have adopted the theological position that faith in Jesus Christ represents the one and the only route to salvation. This thesis should not be controversial to anyone familiar with Christian doctrine. The implication of this thesis is that all other proposed routes, and especially the one proposed by the Jews, who should "know better" are false. The tradition of Judaism, as well as all other religious traditions, thus become not only mistaken, but wrong and even dangerous.
The book documents how this tension between Christianity/Catholicism and its self-defined rivals has played out in history, and how it created the moral and intellectual environment in which the Jews would be at best marginalized and despised. And how at worst, they would become victims of violence and murder.
It's worth the read. And I would say to its hostile reviewers that it's worth a re-read. The history of the holocaust has to be understood as a product of Western civilization, within which it happened. In this context, it is necessary to examine how the major institutions of the west, including the Church, created the environment in which the holocaust could occur.
No one should blame the messenger if the message is unwelcome.
294 of 320 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Jewish Image in the Christian Mind 23 Dec 2005
By Omer Belsky - Published on
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
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.
226 of 250 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A thoughtful account by a Catholic writer 18 Dec 2001
By D. Cloyce Smith - Published on
Overall, this is a highly readable and well-researched book, containing elements of history, journalism, and autobiography. The reviews posted so far to this site are clearly and evenly divided into two camps: those who found it enlightening and moving and those who regard it as anti-Catholic diatribe. While the book has some minor flaws, I direct most of my comments to statements made by the latter group.
First of all, Mr. Carroll, is still a devout Catholic: he was not "defrocked" (he left the priesthood on his own accord), and he was never "excommunicated" (this statement, repeated by many customers, is malicious--and sinful--slander). Second, many of the reviewers refer to "fabricated quotes" without ever citing any examples. In fact, the Church Fathers--John Chrysostom, Gregory of Nyssa, Ambrose of Milan, and others--and later Catholic leaders all said the horribly anti-Semitic things Carroll attributed to them and, furthermore, most of the Church Fathers did advocate the forcible conversion and/or slaughter of the Jews. (All of Carroll's quotes--most of them from primary sources--can be found in the standard Catholic reference works that he cites in the bibliography.) Third, like most historians, Carroll relies on a mixture of primary and secondary sources that shows a strong command not only of the history but also of the historiography of his subject. The statements by several commentators that Carroll does not use primary sources simply shows those readers did not bother to look at the notes. (His notes often present beliefs and arguments that run counter to his own.) And, fourth, while Carroll is often critical of the Church, its history, and its teachings, his criticism can hardly be called "anti-Catholic"--unless, of course, you believe, the Church is above any criticism whatsoever.
Finally, this book was clearly written by a man who loves his religion and his Church, but continues to believe that both can evolve into something better. Yes, it is true that Carroll emphasizes the horrible things that Christianity and its followers have historically done to Jews; it is also true that he tends to ignore the good. But his goal is an attempt to understand how the long and sordid history of Crusades and pogroms and the horror of the Holocaust could have happened in a Christian world. Carroll correctly focuses on the bad because, when all is said and done, all the good teaching disseminated by Catholic leaders did little or nothing to save the Jews from two millennia of persecution by Christians.
81 of 90 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant work 20 Jan 2001
By Michael R. Carey - Published on
I just finished reading James Carroll's book, and I found him to be a brilliant writer. Weaving together both two thousand years of Church history and his own personal spiritual journey, Carroll makes a strong case that the Catholic Church's anti-Judaism (starting with the Gospels) created a significant foundation for the anti-semitism of individual Catholics, and further that the history of the Church's approach to Jews bore fruit in the near genocide of the Jewish people in the 20th century. Some of the other reviewers of this book on this page seem to focus on character assults against Carroll, but I'm not sure how their hatred of him changes the history that he presents. I think it will become a classic work on the Church's relationship with the Jewish people, and hopefully it will lead to a reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the people who still live out the religious tradition of which Jesus was a part.
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars a ray of light 8 Mar 2001
By - Published on
Carrol writes an extraordinary book of incredible depth and substance. Carrol seems to understand that institutions are created by people and people have their own agendas both conscious and subconscious. Carrol has the courage to question what are often perceived as the basic tenets of the church, and does an excellent job showing that these man-made tenets often had an interesting an unique background. Although I teach history I was unaware that the apparitions at Lourdes only happened in the late 19th century. Additionally, many holocaust survivors make clear the efforts of individual catholics to help them, however the institution itself was largely dormant. While the Vatican may not acknowledge this, both the French and German bishops have come to terms with their malfeasance and nonfeasance. I think open-minded Christians and non-Christians will benefit greatly by this book.
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