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Books The Worst Thing About My Church

A compelling new history of Catholic anti-Semitism

by Charles R. Morris

The Church and the Jews

by James Carroll.
Houghton Mifflin,
756 pages,

HANNAH Arendt famously argued in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) that "modern" anti-Semitism as seen in Germany during the Third Reich was fundamentally different from "the old religious Jew-hatred." The Holocaust, according to Arendt, was a peculiarly modern phenomenon, the horror-spawn of vast, colliding social forces: the rise of the nation-state, the collapse of old systems of class and rank, and the emergence of explosive new technologies of propaganda and mass destruction.

Constantine's Sword is a powerful and splendidly written rebuttal to Arendt's thesis. James Carroll is an award-winning novelist and journalist, a Catholic and a former priest who feels his religion deeply. He has set out to tell "the story of the worst thing about my Church." It is the story of how Christianity's early self-definition in opposition to Judaism matured into the simmering hatred that allowed believing German Catholics to participate prominently in Hitler's regime and caused the official Church to stand silently by -- despite all the assistance proferred by individual Catholics to hundreds of thousands of individual Jews -- as Nazi practice escalated from mere organized viciousness to the phantasmagoria of evil that was Auschwitz. It is a story that Carroll offers both as an act of penance and as a call to deal forthrightly with the surprisingly many vestiges of anti-Semitism to be found in the foundational texts and practices of Christianity.

Discuss this article in the Religion conference of Post & Riposte.

More on books and literature in The Atlantic Monthly and Atlantic Unbound.

From the archives:

"The Holocaust and the Catholic Church," by James Carroll (October 1999)
Some in the Vatican want to make Pius XII a saint. If they succeed, "the Church will have sealed its second millennium with a lie."

"An American Requiem," by James Carroll (April 1996)
God, my father, and the war that came between us.

"The Cardinal of Repression," by James Carroll (July 1992)
Lately, after the momentous acceptance of American Catholicism under Pope John XXIII and Vatican Council II, in the early 1960s, the cycle has turned again.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Interviews: "The Story of My Life," (April 24, 1997)
In an Atlantic Unbound interview, James Carroll talks about his memoir, An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us, winner of the 1996 National Book Award for nonfiction.

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Resources for the Study of Antisemitism and the Holocaust
A comprehensive index of links to documents on the Web pertaining to anti-Semitism and the Catholic Church. Includes links to research papers, official pronouncements by the Church, historical overviews, and more.

History of Roman Catholicism
A comprehensive overview of the history of the Catholic Church, posted by the Encylopedia Britannica.

Constantine the Great
A detailed biography posted by New Advent, a comprehensive Web site for American Catholics.

"Almost a Saint: Pope John XXIII," by Desmond O'Grady (American Catholic, November 1996)
"His embrace and smile reached around the world to believers and nonbelievers. Now his case for canonization is reaching a critical time. Will he be cannonized as a saint?"

Carroll, as he warns early in the book, is viewed as a papal critic by many Catholics, and he has clearly taken pains to present his case as evenhandedly as possible, especially with regard to the inflammatory topic of the Vatican's behavior during World War II. (I once had occasion to peruse many of Carroll's sources on this issue closely, and his reading of them seems quite fair.) Eugenio Pacelli -- Pius XII -- detested Hitler and was no coward. He warned the Low Countries of the coming Nazi invasion and played a significant role in an abortive conspiracy of German officers to overthrow Hitler. Individual bishops and priests -- in particular Angelo Roncalli, the apostolic nuncio to Turkey and the future Pope John XXIII -- went to extraordinary lengths to protect Jews, supplying large amounts of money and even forging baptismal certificates. Lutheran anti-Semitism was generally far more venomous than the Catholic variety, and the Lutheran clergy were typically much quicker to fall in line behind the Nazis.

But the indictment of the Church, and of the Pope, remains. Carroll is careful not to frame the question as whether Pacelli should have "spoken out" on this or that occasion. What is at issue is the Vatican's eyes-averted pattern of accommodating the Nazis. The only possible conclusion from the entire record is that Pacelli, in order to secure the Church's future in Germany and the papacy's institutional interests, was willing to remain largely silent while the Germans murdered millions of Jews.

The Church, after all, had a history of taking on powerful political leaders. In the nineteenth century Pius IX excommunicated virtually the entire royal house of Italy, and fought Bismarck to a standstill when he attempted to assert state control over the German Catholic Church. Invective against Stalin and the Bolsheviks poured from the Vatican almost daily. And the German episcopacy, in fact, had barred Nazis from the sacraments until 1933, when Pacelli, then the Cardinal Secretary of State, signed a concordat that seemed to legitimate the regime. At the peak of Hitler's power, in 1941, an outraged Bishop Clemens von Galen, of Münster, forced the government to drop a plan for mass euthanasia of the feeble-minded, the sick, and the old. But criticisms of the assault on the Jews were made only in the most veiled and muted of terms. Hitler and many of his senior henchmen were nominal Catholics, but they were never excommunicated; indeed, until the very end of the war the Vatican never once attacked the Nazis by name. In contrast, Pacelli organized worldwide protests and forcefully condemned collaborationist clergy when the Hungarian Communist regime tortured Cardinal József Mindszenty, in 1949.

Prominent practicing Catholics were salted throughout the Nazi regime, and they were courteously received at the Vatican by the Pope. Hitler's first Vice Chancellor, Franz von Papen, who played a key role in the Nazi subversion of Austria, even received papal honors after the war. Many bishops, notoriously those of Vichy France, were open Nazi sympathizers, and with varying degrees of passivity pastors cooperated in Nazi inspections of baptismal records to ferret out Jews. There is ample evidence that the murderous activities of the pro-Nazi Ustashe regime in Croatia were well known within the Church hierarchy, yet the Ustashe leader, Ante Pavelic, was sheltered at the Vatican when his rule crumbled, and the powerful head of the German College at Rome, Archbishop Alois Hudal, ran a virtual underground railroad for escaping Nazis. There is a distasteful edge even to many of the Catholic interventions in behalf of Jews (Roncalli's are a notable exception), because they were often to save only baptized Jews, as if the religion of the victim were what mattered.

Perhaps the most damning summary of the Vatican's wartime role came from the mouth of the Cardinal Secretary of State, Luigi Maglione, during the SS roundup of the Jews of Rome, in 1943. Maglione called in the German ambassador, Ernst von Weizsäcker, with whom he was on friendly terms, to make an appeal for charity in behalf of the Jews. According to his notes, Maglione summarized the Vatican's posture for Weizsäcker thus: "The Holy See ... has been so very prudent so as not to give to the German people the impression that it has done or wished to do the least thing against Germany during this terrible war." Indeed.

IT is one thing, of course, to lament the Vatican's moral indifference to the plight of the Jews during World War II. To tie that failure to a broader problem of ecclesiastical anti-Semitism is trickier. Allied governments also had pretty good information on what the Germans were up to and said little or nothing about it. The silence of Franklin Roosevelt, and of Walter Lippmann and other knowledgeable commentators, is striking, as is that of most of the American Jewish leadership, which was preoccupied with Zionism.

Carroll is fully aware of these complexities. As he puts it, he wants to challenge the comfortable assumption of "Hitler's moral isolation from the rest of humanity" -- the complacent trick of using "his abject evil as proof of our relative virtue" -- but without wrapping the rest of us "in a blurring guilt, as if the perpetrators of the anti-Jewish genocide are not uniquely to be condemned." This is a tricky path, and Carroll does not traverse it without missteps. Although Arendt is surely right that Nazi racial theories were uniquely evil, Carroll occasionally loses sight of the uniqueness. For example, he points out the similarities between Nazi and Fascist theories of totalitarianism but fails to observe that Mussolini's Italy was relatively free of racialism -- Jews were rounded up in Rome only after the Nazi occupation.

In marshaling evidence for the Church's special animus toward the Jews, Carroll details the anti-Jewish savageries of the Spanish Inquisition but omits the roughly contemporaneous, and more or less equally brutal, depredations against Calvinists in the Spanish Netherlands. And he stretches the evidence to show a direct relationship between the Church's concern with its own power and prerogatives and the intensity of Christian anti-Semitism -- arguing, in effect, that the Church's self-definition fed off its antagonism toward the Jews. Sometimes that's accurate, but there have been many exceptions. Carroll himself concedes that at the Council of Trent, the Church's most intense episode of institution-building, the subject of the Jews was "hardly discussed" -- this despite the fact that the Inquisition was at the peak of its fury.

But those are relatively rare slips in a long book. For the most part Carroll takes pains to underscore the subtleties of his argument, as if acutely aware that they could be lost in translation. The crudest forms of anti-Semitism and racialism typically didn't emanate from the Church. During the time of the Black Death, for instance, Clement IV issued a bull to squelch stories that it was a Jewish plot -- on the very rational grounds that Jews were dying at the same rate as Christians. And bishops were usually reliable protectors of Jews when the fervor of the Crusades degenerated into pogroms. The "purity of blood" theories that originated in Spain in the sixteenth century were at first condemned by the Pope and leading bishops as contrary to Christian doctrine -- as the Apostle Paul taught, it was one's religion that counted, not one's race. Shamefully, however, with a change in papal administration racial theories of Judaism gradually spread throughout the Church. The Jesuits, for example, expressly barred candidates of Jewish descent until 1946.

What Carroll wants the Church to acknowledge is that it bears the original responsibility for identifying the Jew as the "other," thus setting in train the processes that made the Jews ready scapegoats whenever a demagogue wanted to exploit the bloody-mindedness of the mob. The Fourth Lateran Council, in 1215, decreed that Jews should wear distinctive clothing -- a measure with ghastly echoes in the Nazi era. Bishops built the first Jewish ghettos, in the hope of converting Jews more quickly by making them more accessible to preachers. The Roman ghetto that made the Jews so vulnerable to the SS in 1943 had been constructed by popes.

BY far the greater part of Constantine's Sword is a veritable archaeological dig to unearth the roots of the "eternal antisemitism" of Christian Europe, which Carroll finds in the canonical texts of the New Testament, the Gospels, which were assembled toward the end of the first century of the Christian era. It was a time when the Romans were engaged in a virtual war of extermination against rebel Jews in Judea; in percentage terms the Jewish death toll may have approximated that of the Holocaust. Part of the Roman tactic was to foment sectarian strife among traditionalists, Diaspora Jews, and Jews who were followers of Jesus. Nero increased the pressure by singling out Christian Jews to blame for the burning of Rome.

Carroll makes a considerable argument (there is no possibility of "proof" with events as distant and as poorly documented as these) that the gospel stories must be understood in the context of the extreme social and political conditions of the time. Just as British pressure on Ireland increased the intensity of intra-Irish hatreds, Roman depredations intensified sectarian divisions among the Jews. Pontius Pilate -- an embodiment of such depredations -- was known as an especially brutal governor, one of a long chain of sadistic Roman administrators. Crucifying Jews was a Roman specialty. In reprisal for unrest after the death of Herod, for example, the Romans ordered a mass crucifixion of 2,000 Jews, and even refused to allow the bodies to be cut down for weeks.

Yet the gospel stories take special pains to exonerate the Romans from any but the most passive involvement in Jesus' death. When Pilate -- implausibly, given his record -- balks at sentencing an innocent man, Matthew has the Jews expressly call, "His blood be on us and our children!" In the Gospel of John, the last of the four, composed more than half a century after Jesus' death, when there were surely no living witnesses to Jesus' life, "the Jews" are mentioned far more frequently than in the previous Gospels, and always as Jesus' nemeses: "You are of your father the devil," Jesus tells them, "and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning." Jesus' diatribe against the Jews goes on for several pages, and the Jewish crowd that demands his death is rabid.

The curve of rising animosity against the Jews in the Gospels, Carroll suggests, reflects not anti-Semitism in the modern sense but extreme intra-Jewish sectarianism, plus the anxiety of the Christian Jewish faction to counter Nero's charge that it was insurrectionist. The Evangelists were not lying so much as filtering half-remembered events through present hopes and fears. But the fateful charge was written for the ages with a flaming pen -- one that, according to orthodox Christian doctrine, was directed by the very hand of God: Jews were the race of Christ-killers.

Once Constantine had effectively placed Christians at the center of the imperial power apparatus, the question of what to do with the Jews naturally arose. Not incidentally, the symbol of the cross, the most dramatic reminder of the Jews' historic crime, became central to Christian iconography. In the late fourth century, after Saint John Chrysostom delivered a series of fiery anti-Jewish sermons (the synagogue was "a whorehouse ... a den of thieves ... a haunt of wild animals"), there were violent outbursts against Jews in Antioch and a synagogue was destroyed. The first record of a large-scale pogrom, in Alexandria, dates from about thirty years later.

Augustine finally produced a quasi-tolerant theology of the Jews, in City of God (425). He argued that they were not to be mistreated but to be preserved as proof of the truth of the Gospels.

"Do not slay them.... Scatter them." For if they lived with that testimony of the Scriptures only in their own land, and not everywhere, the obvious result would be that the Church, which is everywhere, would not have them available among all nations as witnesses to the prophecies which were given beforehand concerning Christ.

Augustine's was the theology of the ghetto and of organized oppression -- the Jews were a cursed race, doomed to roam stateless to the end of time for their crimes, but at least it was wrong to kill them. It was the same theology I was taught as a parochial-school youngster in the 1950s. (I can remember my shock when I learned of the State of Israel. How could that be? God said Jews couldn't have a state. The nuns assured me that it was probably only temporary.) Though God loved everybody, it seemed, he had reserved particular punishments for the Jews.

CARROLL'S style and methods warrant special comment. He is primarily a novelist and freely uses novelistic techniques. He frequently jumps from era to era to shape and frame the story, for example, and he tells us a great deal about himself to establish his narrative voice and point of view. Filtering events through a writer's own sensibility is often a cheap trick to add emotional resonance to a flat tale, and Carroll's opening scene, a very personal account of a visit to Auschwitz, aroused my skepticism. But Carroll has control of his material, and he never slips over the line into mere artifice or self-indulgence. Glimpses of his life as a military brat in Germany, his complex love for his mother and her Irish Catholic pieties, and the mysterious, quasi-erotic aura of Roman Catholic symbolism all add depth and richness to the story. It is his sensibility, after all, that constantly dredges up the questions he forces himself, and us, to answer.

The city of Trier is used as a leitmotif to connect disparate strands of a far-flung story. A 1959 trip to Trier with his mother to witness a rare unveiling of the Seamless Robe of Christ -- the garment allegedly worn during the Passion, and the subject of the 1953 movie The Robe -- awakened Carroll's fascination with Catholic ritual. But the story of the robe also illustrates how the Gospel writers mined the scriptures ("They divide my garments among them") to construct the narrative of Jesus' life. The first Crusade-related killings of Jews took place in and around Trier. The unveiling that Carroll witnessed, moreover, was on the site of a palace built by Constantine just after he had unified his empire under the banner of Christianity. The only other twentieth-century unveiling of the robe was to celebrate the German-Vatican concordat of 1933, shortly after Hitler's accession as Chancellor of Germany. The local bishop, a strong Hitler supporter, was sorely disappointed when the Führer could not attend.

Carroll writes that Jews in ancient Trier used the name "dreifuss," a play on the city's Latin name, to distinguish themselves from native Germans, which leads neatly into a compact account of the Dreyfus affair. We then follow the career of Dreyfus's widow, Lucie, who played a major role in engineering his release and pardon, seeing her as an aged woman, tracking her grandchildren through Europe amid the fanged shadows of looming war, until it dawns on us that a favorite grandchild, the charming, politically aware Madeleine, is foreordained to die at Auschwitz.

All of this is brilliantly handled. Palaces and emperors, mythologies, ancient enmities, saints and fanatics, killers and plotters, come marvelously alive in Carroll's hands. At the same time, he takes pains to stay within his evidence, not resorting to the imagined scenes and fabricated conversations that mar so much contemporary journalism. Altogether, Constantine's Sword is a triumph, a tragic tale beautifully told, a welcome throwback to an age when history was a branch of literature rather than a narrow academic specialty.

THE book ends with a call for more inward-looking honesty on the part of the Church. Surely Carroll is right that recent official statements from the Church, supposedly repenting of the Holocaust, are self-exonerating and defensive: they point out that "many" Christians assisted Jews whereas "others" did not, and Pius XII is singled out for the wisdom of his policies. Much more than that is required, Carroll insists -- not to win forgiveness from the Jews but to preserve the Church's integrity. Carroll is also surely right to demand that anti-Semitic passages in sacred Christian texts, including the Gospels, at least be labeled as such. False and libelous gospel stories of the Jewish role at the Crucifixion should not be at the center of Christian liturgy, even if the Vatican swears that no one any longer takes them literally. In 1960 Pope John XXIII finally expunged references to "the perfidious Jews" from the Catholic Holy Week Liturgy, but there is much more cleanup to be done.

These are not the rants of an angry ex-Catholic; Carroll still feels his faith deeply. The peroration to his book is poignant.

This has been the story of the worst thing about my Church, which is the worst thing about myself. I offer it as my personal penance to God, to the Jewish dead, and to my children.... The Christian conscience -- mine -- can never be at peace. But that does not say it all. This tragic story offers a confirmation of faith, too. God sees us as we are, and loves us nevertheless. When the Lord now turns to me to ask, "Will you also go away?" I answer, this too with Simon Peter, "Lord, to whom shall I go?"

Charles R. Morris is the author of several books, including American Catholic (1997) and Money, Greed, and Risk (1999).

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 2001; "The Worst Thing About My Church" - 01.01; Volume 287, No. 1; page 80-84.