In his book, Constantine's Sword, author James P. Carroll approvingly cites the Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate, which states in part that Christ's death "cannot be charged against all the Jews without distinction then alive, nor against Jews of today," and that the Catholic Church "decries hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone." The declaration goes on to say that "Christ underwent His passion and death freely" and that it is "the burden of the Church's preaching to proclaim the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all embracing love."

James P. Carroll at the Vatican

James P. Carroll at the Vatican

Although Carroll laments that Nostra Aetate is not better known in the Church today, the notion of proclaiming "the cross of Christ as the sign of God's all-embracing love" is not one embraced by Carroll.

Constantine's Sword is also the title of a new documentary based on Carroll's book, and the film 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."

In his book, Carroll, an ex-priest, offers a modest proposal for Christian "repentance": The Catholic Church must (a)convene VaticanIII, (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 Carroll imagines in vivid, even ceremonial terms: "a removal of the horizontal beam, an uprooting of the vertical, a reversal of the instruction Constantine gave his soldiers." Such an act suggests much more than removing a single controverted monument; Carroll imagines it as a veritable "sacrament" embodying the deconstruction of traditional Christian faith.

Ted Haggard is among the interviewees

Ted Haggard is among the interviewees

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 Garry Wills (Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit) and footage of Evangelical worship services.

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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 anti-Semitism, and there's a matrix of truth in the charges leveled here. The history of Catholic anti-Semitism 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, 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.

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."

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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.

Director Oren Jacoby confers with Carroll in Rome

Director Oren Jacoby confers with Carroll in Rome

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 anti-Semitism 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.

A major part of Carroll's thesis is that Christian anti-Semitism, while not the same as the secular anti-Semitism of Nazism and not a direct cause of the Holocaust, was nevertheless a historically contributing factor. Carroll thus takes Pope 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 anti-Semitism was a contributing factor.)

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

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 commentary, including poking around Carroll's book.

Still, I can confidently state that the most serious problem with Constantine's Sword is not its historical distortions, but its out-and-out attack on Christianity as such. It is not merely anti-Semitism 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

A longer version of this commentary can be found at Greydanus' website, Decent Films. For a list of theaters playing Constantine's Sword, click here.