Constantine's Sword

Week of Monday, October 22, 2001

The last few years have witnessed a spate of books that explore the complicity of the Christian church in the Holocaust.1 A significant part of this story (but not the only story), we Christians must admit, “forms a devastating pattern of compromise, prejudice, self-interest, silence, passivity, and even criminal behavior.” 2 James Carroll, a National Book Award winner for his American Requiem and a columnist for the Boston Globe, recently spoke at Stanford (September 17, 2001) about his own contribution to this genre, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001, 756 pages).

Carroll's book is as much personal memoir as it is history. As a social liberal who protested the Vietnam war, an ex-priest, the son of a pious Catholic mother and prominent general in the military, Carroll admits that the book is a personal exorcism of sorts or examination of his troubled Catholic conscience. Throughout the text he includes personal experiences about the subject, concluding with “the shock of my own complicity with evil.” This autobiographical element is in some ways the most interesting aspect of his book, for Carroll clearly is a man of faith who loves the church but who also struggles to reconcile his faith with the critical faults of the church. That is something all Christians should do. But his autobiographical method is also problematic and irritating, for despite his denials, he insinuates that the story of Christian anti-semitism he is retelling “depends upon, and is precisely coincident with, one's own dawning insights.” In the end, I found Carroll's well-intended mea culpa off-putting, “smug, sanctimonious, and unctuous.”3

The sweeping history Carroll narrates—beginning with the New Testament era and ending with World War II—is tragic, and we Christians would do well to take our bitter medicine of repentance. The rehearsals of the Crusades, the Inquisitions, Luther's diatribes, Jewish expulsions from Spain and ghettos in Rome, etc. all make for dispiriting reading. But Carroll does not tell us anything new here or anything that others have not already documented. His narrative depends upon secondary sources, selectively chosen to support his thesis that deeply embedded in the founding documents of Christianity, and then in its ensuing tradition and history, is a virulent anti-semitism that made the Holocaust possible. For example, in his treatment of Pius XII, who served as Pope from 1938–1945, he depends heavily upon Cornwell's work to the neglect of other, more charitable readings such as Rychlak. Carroll's only historical interest is to reveal the church's worst abuses; his singular focus on Christian anti-semitism ignores any multifaceted inquiry that would examine other contributing factors to the Holocaust (economics, politics, culture, etc.). In short, Carroll's attempt at doing a history of Christian anti-semitism comes off as deeply personal, reductionistic, and polemical.

Several times Carroll suggests that, had different paths been taken, this history could have been different and the Holocaust could have been averted; that is, he wants to avoid a deterministic view of history in which moral choices do not matter. But in fact, precisely here a contradiction arises, for he also insinuates that virulent anti-semitism necessarily inheres in and flows from the traditional Christian story. That is, he tries to identify a theological basis for the tragic history. Like his history, the theological sources he uses to make this point are selective, radically critical and polemical (eg, the Jesus Seminar, Rosemary Ruether). The Christian story as it is traditionally understood is hopelessly anti-semitic and therefore must be jettisoned in favor of a comprehensive revision of its core beliefs and practices.

Does violent anti-semitism inhere in traditional Christian theology? Others have made this point, and there are some critical issues to explore (eg, especially the Gospel of John). But suffice it to say that many other theologians come to conclusions different from Carroll's radical and self-serving sample. Related, and perhaps even more important, is his attempt to draw a straight line of inference from these theological beliefs to the historical events of the Holocaust. That, I think, is difficult if not impossible to do. One might embrace an inherently anti-semitic Gospel but still not share the degree of moral complicity in the Holocaust that Carroll tries to establish.

Further, crucial to his argument that traditional theology necessarily leads to tragic history is the matter of collective guilt. He admits a distinction between the unique responsibility of the Nazi perpetrators and the Christian attitudes that prepared and even fostered the genocide, but for Carroll this line is blurred. He insists that the collective, institutional “church as such,” and not merely errant individuals, are “co-responsible” for the Holocaust (and thus his call for a Vatican III to make radical ecclesiastical revisions). Is the collective church institution, Christianity as such (or for that matter collective Germany of that time), guilty of the Holocaust? Here I would make three observations.

First, this is precisely the argument that many intellectuals refuse to make right now about Islam. That is, we insist that it is not Islam per se, but a fringe minority of radical extremists who are guilty for the terrorist bombings. In the wake of the September 11 tragedies, we insist that genuine Islam is peaceful and loving, and that we must not and cannot draw a straight line from its fundamental theological story to the tragic historical events. If that logic is fair for the Muslim it is fair for the Christian, at least until a compelling argument is made to the contrary.

But in his remarks at Stanford, Carroll confused the matter at precisely this point. In fact, he said, we must not appeal to any notion of “Islam as such” to excuse the bombings, for to do so evades the necessity of individual responsibility and the possibility for religion to be self-critical. That is, in some sense we must understand those acts of Islamic violence as endemic and somehow a normal part of the religious tradition. I agree at this point with Carroll, but he can't play it both ways, that is, criticizing the collective church “as such” instead of individual acts of misguided people, and then rejecting that same appeal to ensure moral culpability. The larger question he raised here in his Stanford remarks (but not in his book), although he did not develop the point, is why violence does in fact seem to inhere in all religious traditions.

Thirdly, a personal anecdote. I used to teach a class on social ethics at a very conservative Christian college, and every semester I would have a Holocaust survivor come to the class to tell his story. A problem arose when a young student from Germany became visibly disturbed with the notion that somehow she, too, might be guilty along with the German collective. But my Jewish friend Nate responded by assuring Christine that he categorically rejected the idea of collective guilt. He then told this story from his days in the concentration camps.

While stacking boxes at a warehouse one day, a Nazi soldier motioned for Nate to take a small sandwich that had been hidden among the boxes. Nate refused, thinking it was a trap for which he would be punished or murdered. But the guard insistently nodded his head, so he finally took the sandwich. As Nate walked out the door with his next load of boxes, sandwich in pocket, he said that tears streamed down the cheeks of the young Nazi guard.

I want to believe that this young Nazi was not an exception, and that, conversely, the many egregious Christian examples Carroll cites are likewise exceptions (as were the Muslim terrorists), that neither collective Germany nor the church “as such” is solely responsible for the Holocaust. Individuals had choices to make, and their choices mattered. The problem with speculating about the complex personal choices forced upon a Nazi soldier or wartime priest is that we today have hindsight and they did not. The truly complex question is how to relate individual, free moral choice and institutional, collective identity without embracing either historical determinism or the denial of personal responsibility.

  1. See Victoria Barnett, trans., Wolfgang Gerlach, And the Witnesses Were Silent; The Confessing Church and the Jews (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000); and For the Soul of the People; Protestant Protest Against Hitler (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); John Cornwell, Hitler's Pope; The Secret History of Pius XII (New York, Viking, 1999); Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners; Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Knopf, 1996); Guenther Lewy, The Catholic Church and Nazi Germany (NY: McGraw-Hill, 1964); Michael Phayer, The Catholic Church and the Holocaust, 193l–1965 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000); Ronald Rychlak's sympathetic treatment of Pius XII that is a rebuttal of Cornwell, Hitler, The War and the Pope (Columbus, Miss.: Genesis Press, 2000); and Susan Zuccotti, Under His Very Windows; The Vatican and the Holocaust in Italy (New Haven; Yale University Press, 2001).
  2. Victoria Barnett, “Guilt and Complexity,” The Christian Century (October 10, 2001), pp. 26–27.
  3. Thomas Noble, “Constantine's Sword,” First Things (May 2001), pp. 59–63.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.