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CONSTANTINE’S SWORD by James Carroll

CONSTANTINE’S SWORD

The Church and the Jews

By James Carroll

Pub Date: Jan. 10th, 2001
ISBN: 0-395-77927-8
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

A highly personalized history of the first 2,000 years of Catholic-Jewish relations retold as a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end—at Auschwitz.

A former Paulist who abandoned the priesthood to marry, Carroll (An American Requiem, 1996, etc.) sets out here to show that anti-Judaism has always been at the core of Christianity, and that it could have been otherwise if the Catholic Church, in particular, had opted for roads not taken. His instinct—to show this history from both Jewish and Christian perspectives—is a good one, and had he confined himself to his stated subject, he might have produced a reliable (as well as a strongly written) account of a tortured relationship. But this narrative is as much about Carroll as it is about anything else: it begins and ends in his own self-dramatizing meditation on the controversial cross erected several years ago at Auschwitz—the meaning of which he misconstrues—and not a single chapter is free of long recollections from the author’s past. These Zelig-like appearances give the text a confessional cast that distorts the very history he is trying to tell, allowing personal memoir to condition the reader’s response to the material and—at crucial points—to substitute for argument. His endnotes reveal an often-careless use of scholarship and a highly biased use of journalistic sources. Although he traveled to Rome in the course of his research, for example, Carroll did not bother to interview the scholars there who are most knowledgeable about the life of Pope Pius XII, and his handling of the Edith Stein canonization indicates a poor understanding of the saint-making process.

Because of its subject matter, this work will spark attention and debate. At bottom, however, Carroll remains an angry 1960s-era Catholic, and his ambitious effort to trace the course of Christian animosity toward the Jews might have been more balanced and convincing if he were less inclined to present himself as a paradigmatic man of our times.