Two Millennia of Catholic-Jewish Relations

Constantine's Swordby By James CarrollHoughton Mifflin. 756p $28

At this writing, I have read five reviews of Carroll’s book and participated in a daylong conference at Brandeis occasioned by its publication. One review, by Rabbi James Rudin for Religious News Service, is generally laudatory; another, by Andrew Sullivan in The New York Times, more cautiously so. The three reviews in the Catholic press, on the other hand, are very strongly negative on the book, both as history and as theology.

The reviewers (Robert Wilken in Commonweal, Msgr. George G. Higgins in his column and Robert Lockwood for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights) cover the spectrum of Catholic life, so these responses cannot be put down to a particular ideological distaste for Carroll’s thought. Carroll is strongly in favor of improving Catholic-Jewish relations today and in the future, as are his reviewers. I, too, of course, share that goal. Yet you can put me down in the regretful no camp regarding the book. No, I cannot recommend it to anyone, Jewish or Christian. While it has some genuinely good writing that I would be tempted to run off and hand out in a course on Catholic-Jewish history, its flaws are deeper than its merits.

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The chief flaw, mentioned by all three reviewers for the Catholic press and hinted at by Sullivan, is that the book uses the tragedies of the Jews over the centuries in order to make the quite unrelated and entirely internal Christian point that the author thinks the church should be structured differently than it isi.e. as a democracyand that its Christology is too highi.e. that the church really believes that Jesus was and is God as well as a man. For Carroll, this leads to exclusivism at the heart of Christian theology, which means that all human beings in some way known only to God are saved in and through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, even those who are not baptized.

For my part, I do not think this is a flaw in Catholic theology. In fact, I would argue that in essence Christian teaching on the unicity and universality of the Christ event are in substance no more exclusivist than either of the other two monotheistic traditions, Judaism and Islam, both of which begin with the premise, as does Christianity, that no other God than ours is real. All other gods than the God of Abraham are, we three traditions agree, false gods, the worship of whom is idolatry. Other traditions contain spiritual riches from which we Christians can learn, and may well be a response to the Holy Spirit.

Whether one agrees with Carroll’s theology, however, the point remains that he has absolutely no right to use Jewish suffering over the centuries to push it forward. Ironically, Carroll’s failure here can best be paralleled by, and is a logical inversion of, that of the early church fathers, whom he rightly criticizes for having used the historical incident of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple as a proof of the divinity of Christ. Why else, they argued, would God have been so righteously angered at his own people, unless they had killed his Son? See how the Jews suffer and are dispersed? That is God’s punishment for deicide. So, too, I believe, does Carroll fall into the classic Christian temptation to use Jewish suffering as a proof text. This, history has shown (and Carroll himself writes a lot of that history extremely well), is a very dangerous course to take. Self-projection may make for good narrative in a novel, but it is not very good history.

Carroll is a novelist, and a good one. When he evokes the experience of being in the seminary in the late 1960’s, he portrays my generation of seminarians very well. One had to have been there. And he was. I related very closely to these segments of his book. But, again, why here? My own involvement with Catholic-Jewish relations, stemming from the same period but not, as was Carroll’s, characterized by a 30-year pause, came from my involvement in the civil rights movement, in which he seems uninterested, though he is only a couple of years older than I.

Another major flaw mentioned by his critics stems from what will be perceived as a strength by many casual readers of this popularized history. This is his projection onto the stage of two millennia of Jewish-Catholic relations his own, personal life-narrative. Carroll’s failed relationship with his pro-Vietnam war father is used as a paradigm for the parent-child relationship between Judaism and Christianity. There is some insight to be gained from this, of course, but it is overdone and strained.

Central to Carroll’s thesis is that the Second Vatican Council in effect blew it with regard to Catholic-Jewish relations. The Declaration on the Relatinship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions was watered down (a charge I would rigorously reject). Therefore, he argues, it needs to be done over again. He proposes five agenda items for his Vatican III. Two involve restructuring the church to make it more democratic. O.K. Good luck. Three, however, have to do with Catholic-Jewish relations. And here he is in over his head. He admits to having spent only a year researching this book. There may have been a time when one could bone up on Catholic-Jewish relations for a short time and claim to have mastered the field. But that time is long past. Carroll simply hasn’t done sufficient homework to sit in judgment on the dialogue as he does. His propositions for Vatican III are not as advanced as those put forward by my predecessor, the Rev. Edward Flannery, in 1967. His agenda for the future is one that I have worked on, based on the Second Vatican Council, for over a quarter of a century. It is nice that he now wishes to join the club. But it is not at all proper that he refuses to acknowledge the good work of so many people who have gone before him.

There is a self-centered character to this book. Carroll seems frozen in time, believing that the Second Vatican Council accomplished nothing, since he has not been involved in what has been done and is being done to implement it. The book, therefore, is woefully out of date.

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