The BEST: Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews, a History
Author: James Carroll
by Yitzchak Blau
Summary: In this impressively honest volume, a former Catholic priest surveys the historical role the Catholic Church has played in fostering anti-Semitism. Carroll highlights particular turning points where the Church could have gone in other directions but ultimately made choices that turned dangerous for Jewry. For example, Constantine made the cross the central symbol of Christianity rather than baptism. The Church discarded Abelard’s view that Jesus’ death was an example for others but did not actually expiate sins. In the fifteenth century, Nicholas of Cusa’s tolerance for other religions made little impact, while Torquemada killed thousands.
In addition, Carroll notes the moral failure of Pope Pius XII and the Church regarding the Holocaust. In 1933, the Church was the first foreign political body to make a pact with the Nazi government. The Pope publicly condemned Communism but not Nazism. When the Nazis rounded up and exterminated the Jews of the Italian ghetto, a short distance from the Vatican, the Church was silent.
Why this is The BEST: This solid historical study helps readers understand the culpability of the Catholic Church in the long history of anti-Semitism. More importantly, it forthrightly confronts the sins of the author’s own co-religionists, a powerful model. Religion can both profoundly enhance the world and severely damage it. This volume reminds us that religious leaders are not immune from the corrupting influence of power, and Jewish organizations must take this into account. Furthermore, it tracks how the various challenges which modernity presents to religion have often led to authoritarian responses. This extends beyond Catholicism. In the last century and a half, the rise of the doctrine of papal infallibility bears a certain resemblance to that of Da’as Torah. Similarly, fears of declining influence can lead religious leaders of all stripes to ignore moral problems in their communities.
In this regard, one quote cited by Carroll from an editorial in a Catholic newspaper powerfully affected me: “Rome’s desire to silence theological dissent contradicts the deeply felt commitment to the importance of freedom of speech and intellectual integrity that is characteristic of modern democracies. In the secular world, only dictators silence their opponents and demand unquestioning obedience” (p. 320).
Yitzchak Blau, an associate editor of Tradition, is Rosh Yeshiva of Orayta. Read his Tradition essays here.
This is the fifteenth installment in TraditionOnline’s “The BEST” column, exploring exemplars of the best culture has to offer thinking religious people – click here for the series introduction and links to all entries in the series.
[Published on November 21, 2019]