I recently finished reading the book Constantine’s Sword – The Church and the Jews, laying out the historical account of Christian antisemitism and how that seeded a ground of separation and hate that made the Holocaust possible, if not inevitable. The author, James Carroll, is a liberal Catholic theologian who feels that his Church has to fully acknowledge its culpability and atone for its sins for the institution to continue as a vibrant faith community into the 21st century. With a good narrative style that weaves together the key events in history along with his own life’s story visiting the sites of much of that history, Carroll makes a compelling case for his religion to transform itself, simply stated, from an authoritarian to a more egalitarian institution. Some scholarly critics ding his book for relying on mostly secondary sources, sources that perhaps spin the history which Carroll then spins ever further, but his interpretation of that history certainly feeds in with my own.
His book nicely ties in with my own study of history and human civilization’s gradual transition from hierarchies of control (empires, slavery, monarchies, feudalism, etc) toward circles of equals (republics, democracy, universal human rights, etc). But in particular, it reinforces my contention, laid out in a previous piece, that religious belief and practice is not the source of hatred, violence and war, but religion as an institution has been hijacked by an older more sinister dogma of patriarchy, that torques it into an instrument of domination and control, leading to that hatred, violence and war.
I am neither Jew nor Christian, nor believer in any deity. But as a student of history and the continuing story of human development, one cannot fully understand that history and that story without factoring in spiritual beliefs and practices, and the institutionalized religions that grow out of them. And particularly for those of us who champion the cause of progressivism, democracy, pluralism and the inherent worth and dignity of every individual, I think it is critical to realize what we are really fighting against. Not people’s attempts to find a deeper spiritual meaning in their lives through religious practice, but instead an ancient paternalistic order, perpetuated through the millennia, that promotes a world view of fear, scarcity and “us and them” thinking that invariably leads to hate, violence and coercive control.
Please note, that like the author Carroll, it is not my goal to dis the Catholic Church or its hierarchy as some sort of conspiracy theory bogeyman for all the ills of society, though I’m concerned some may take my piece that way. But the authority wielded by a Church hierarchy as witnessed and documented by Carroll that has maintained itself consistently over 1500 years is a notable instance of a “successful” patriarchal institution that continues to perpetuate itself from generation to generation. There are many other ways that the patriarchal “who’s your daddy?” world view propagates itself, but this perhaps is an instance that is most straightforward and easily recognized.
A Two-Millennium Totalitarian Empire
The story Carroll tells in his book is essentially a tale of how a militaristic elite led by Constantine I seized undisputed control of the Roman empire in the 4th century CE, adopted nascent Christianity as the state religion of that empire to craft a totalitarian regime backed by religious ideology to attempt to completely control its subjects’ hearts and minds. Writes Carroll…
If the history traced in this book shows anything, it is that the Church has never come fully to terms with the contradiction it embraced when the Roman imperium and Roman Catholicism became the same thing. That tremendous reversal, as we saw, occurred when Constantine accepted the Christian faith and used it as the unifying ideology underwriting the extension of his imperial sway from Trier to the Levant. (pg 570)
That empire and its ruling oligarchy and its hand-picked successors, in one form or another, has continued to exercise control politically and spiritually, to various degrees, over millions of people, particularly in Europe, for the next seventeen centuries and continues to do so (to a lesser degree) at least spiritually even today. An authoritarian empire with some sort of continuity from its first dictator (previous to Constantine), Julius Caesar, who led the coup d’etat that toppled the Roman republic, to Kaiser (German for “Caesar”) Wilhelm who led the German nation into World War I, setting the table for Hitler and Nazism to rise out of the devastation left in that war’s wake.
We read about this empire in history textbooks in its various political incarnations – Roman Empire, Holy Roman Empire, Hapsburg Empire, Germanic Empire – like reading about a successful sports franchise defeating its opponents and winning the championship in various years past. It can all seem so benignly “historical” and quaint, at times even heroic perhaps when we read about a leader of the Holy Roman empire like Charlemagne. But what Carroll reminds us of in his book is that this empire featured a clerical oligarchy, the hierarchy of the Roman (later splitting into Roman Catholic and Protestant) Church that practiced all the available techniques of coercive thought control to attempt to manage the population’s beliefs and behaviors in the name of the one God for the sake of that empire. Even most of the breakaway Protestant churches during and after the Reformation participated in similar thought control practices to a large degree, accusing and successfully prosecuting many who disagreed with them as witches or heretics.
Though soft-peddled in much of the sanitized history that we learn in school as kids (or even college general studies classes), Carroll reminds us that through the centuries this was in fact a totalitarian regime that practiced various forms of thought policing, persecutions, show trials, and sanctioned murders that we are more familiar with in 20th century regimes like Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia, Mao’s China and Paul Pot’s Cambodia. Sure we learn about crusades, pogroms, inquisitions, witch hunts, and sadistic public executions including burnings at the stake, but the full holistic negative impact of these terror tactics on human societal development, and what they say about the goals of the institutional instigators, is again minimized.
A fundamental technique of these authoritarian patriarchal regimes is to create a strong “us and them” duality between an in-group that the regime is committed to protecting and an out-group that is framed as a constant and profoundly hostile threat. Carroll points out that in the case of Constantine and the institutionalized and manipulated version of state-Christianity that he established, the Jews filled the role of the despised “them”. And over the next seventeen centuries that duality has been perpetuated and even ratcheted up to give each succeeding version of this regime a justification for its continued authoritarian practices. Even more so than continuing antagonism toward Muslims, pagans and atheists, antisemitism has been at the heart of its world view. It has been endemic to both Christian theology – Catholic and Protestant – and even more secular democratic regimes that operate within majority Christian populations.
Carroll’s book lays out that narrative of antisemitism, chapter and verse, and how through the evolving theology and practice of the Christian religion the various incarnations of the ancient paternalism upped the ante as their dogmatic beliefs were challenged by newly evolving ideas of individualism, scientism and secularism. And how seventeen centuries of increasing antipathy, hatred and violence towards Jews created fertile ground for Nazism and the Holocaust. And finally, how he believes his beloved Catholic Church must confess its own institutional sins in contributing in so many ways to that narrative and its cataclysmic climax.
Carroll’s Epiphany Regarding Christian Antisemitism
In the chapter titled “Sign of Folly”, Carroll notes that he was inspired to write his book by his visit to the Nazi death camp at Auschwitz and his encounter with the controversial twenty-foot wooden cross, erected by fellow Catholics in 1979 at the site. The huge cross was erected by Polish Catholics in advance of Pope John Paul II celebrating Mass at Auschwitz to honor the Catholics that died as martyrs in the Holocaust, a cross that remained in place after the Pope’s visit. Jewish groups around the world protested the continuing presence of the cross as an attempt to Christianize the Holocaust, but pressure from the country’s Catholic hierarchy convinced the Polish government to leave it in place. Carroll’s book is the documentation of his effort to fully understand why Jews would oppose that cross so vehemently while his fellow Catholics would as strongly defend its continuing presence there.
The cross of Auschwitz, transcending whatever benign intention attaches to it, embodies supersessionism, medieval absolutism, the cult of martyrdom, the violence of God, the ancient hatred of the Jews, and the Cristian betrayal of Jesus Christ. This is the cross that was stolen by the emperor Constantine, perverted by the crusaders, and blasphemed by the editors of La Croix… In the name of the cross, even in 1943, Jews were implicitly being accused of causing death, and not just Jesus’. And in recent years, by self-proclaimed Christian friends of Jews, the cross has been imposed on them, whether they wanted it or not… The cross has been twisted into an apologetic tool and a source of slander. It has consistently been made to serve the purpose of power. Auschwitz is the final disclosure of this truth. (pg 603)
You may have to read the book to understand the concept of “supersessionism” (that is, the belief that Christianity replaces or supersedes Judaism)and all his other references, but Carroll has a unique vantage point and background to do this investigation. He is a lifelong Catholic, even spending some years in the priesthood. His parents were both lay Catholic leaders, his dad as the highest ranking U.S. general in World War II of the faith, and his mom organizing religious tours of Europe for other American Catholic women. This gave him the occasion to visit many of the historical sites that play into his narrative, including Auschwitz, and the bonafides of someone born, raised and steeped in a religion he continues to profess and love.
From Faith of the Powerless to Tool of the Powerful
It seems clear to me from my study of Western history that religion (particularly Judaism, Christianity and Islam – the Abrahamic religions of the one God) and political power in a patriarchal culture (like ours historically) are an incendiary mix. My take is that the Abrahamic religion of the one God, before it was even codified as Judaism or was bifurcated into Christianity as well, arose in the Axial Age (~800 to 200 BCE) to rein in the worst aspects of patriarchal society at the time. Those aspects we read about in ancient history included the organized slaughter of human beings, destruction and looting of their property, subjugation and enslavement of people, and other brutal practices in an ethos where the militarily strongest could do whatever they wanted with no repercussions except possibly defeat and devastation by an even stronger and more brutal foe.
According to the historical theory, the Axial Age is when many of the world’s religions emerged, generally around the foundational principle of the Golden Rule and the brotherhood of man (if not woman). Given a world beset by the unrestrained power of patriarchal warlords, a new religion featuring a singular ultimate father figure deity, laying down the law of appropriate behavior to everyone, was a good fit.
Carroll writes that the Roman emperor Constantine adopted Christianity as the official religion of his empire and then modified and codified it to best serve his political purposes in conquering, consolidating and ruling that empire. So the story goes, Constantine converted to Christianity on the eve of the battle where his army defeated a rival and captured Rome, leading to within a year consolidating his control of the entire Roman empire. Most historical scholars today believe that his conversion was a shrewd calculation on his part to galvanize the Christian population of the empire, a minority but a passionate and well-organized one, as allies to his cause. Once he was firmly ensconced on his throne he brought all the key Christian clerics together, negotiated and forged an official version of their religion that henceforth all Christians within the empire would be required to follow and non-Christians would be pushed to convert to.
Judaism, on the other hand, as the religion of an oppressed community and not the servant of an entrenched totalitarian regime, had the flexibility to adapt its mythos to make lemonade out of lemons and reframe their oppression as part of humanity’s (and even God’s) spiritual development. Carroll writes about how they repeatedly adapted their world view to give meaning to their continuing oppression, including being cloistered in ghettos by the Pope and other Christian officials…
What Jews behind their ghetto walls were doing was nothing less than recasting, in a state of physical distress, the spiritual meaning of their situation. Jewish spirituality evolved on its own terms, of course, but in times of crisis, as now, dynamic interactions between the two communities were decisive. If the Christian world had cut them off, the Jews would turn their separation into a religious value. Christianity ceases to be mentioned now in Jewish texts. If, after the various expulsions and corrallings, they were once again a people in exile, they would define exile itself as holy, a kind of metaphysical truth of the human condition. If Jews seemed once again to have been abandoned by God, they re-envisioned creation as the work of God’s self-abandonment. If Jews were forbidden even the remotest suggestion of sexual liaison with Christians, they would turn intra-Jewish matrimony into a dynastic principle of social cohesion, even across national boundaries, as families from various ghettos arranged marriages. If Jews were forbidden to leave the ghetto at night, then night would become not only the time for study and prayer, but an image of God’s own darkness. (pg 387)
One of the key visionaries behind this reframing mythos was 16th century Jewish theologian Issac Luria, a key historical figure in the development of the Jewish mystical tradition know as Kabbalism. Not the topic for this piece, but some of his ideas about God and humanity’s role in God’s development are a fascinating re-envisioning of the God concept.
Perpetuating Patriarchy through a History of Church Policy
Patriarchy is all about the seizure, enhancement and perpetuation of power and control under the auspices of some sort of actual or conceptualized succession of father figures. This is clearly in evidence in the office of Pope (from the Greek word for father) at the top of the Catholic clerical hierarchy, and the 1500 year succession of over 100 men who held the position and attempted to maintain or even enhance the office’s power.
On page 573 of his book, Carroll calls out some key papal figures who contributed to the maintenance and increasing power of that office from antiquity to contemporary times. Here is Carroll’s paragraph with that chronology which I have taken the liberty to divide into bullet points…
If the long history we have seen demonstrates anything, it is that the “modern” pursuit of such power drives relentlessly along the unbroken shaft of apostolic [Papal] succession,
* from Leo I (440-461), with his initiating universal claims;
* to Gregory VII (1073-1085), who bested the emperor at Canossa and, against the Greeks, claimed sovereignty over the whole Church;
* to Urban II (1088-1099), who started a holy war, launching Europe’s first pogrom and sacralizing violence with the cry “God wills it!”;
* to Innocent III (1198-1216), who extended the claim of papal sovereignty to the whole wold (and imposed the yellow star on Jews);
* to Boniface VIII (1294-1303), who decreed that every king, indeed every creature, is a vassal of the Pope;
* to Paul IV (1555-1559), who, asserting authority over the human mind, established the Index [of Forbidden Books, particularly the Jewish Talmud] (and the Roman ghetto);
* to Pius IX (1846-1878), who claimed papal primacy over the council [of his bishops], and papal infallibility over “faith and morals” (while kidnapping a Jewish child);
* to Pius XII (1939-1958), who put papal power above the fate of the German Catholic Church, to say nothing of the fate of the Jews;
* to John Paul II (1978-2005), who, against the great exception John XXIII, and despite his own evident good will, devotes himself to the continuation of this tradition. (pg 573)
Carroll notes that the well-known quote about the corrupting influence of power came originally from a British Catholic opposed to Pope Pius IX’s claim of papal infallibility…
“Power corrupts”, Lord Acton is well know for saying, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. What is less well known, as Garry Willis points out, is that the British aristocrat was a Catholic opposed, in 1870, to the dogma of papal infallibility, and the power he was warning of was the pope’s. (pg 573)
Laying the Groundwork for Hitler and the Holocaust
Carroll makes a strong case that the centuries of antisemitic laws, persecutions, ghettoization, forced conversion, pogroms and crusades against the Jews, that were either initiated or sanctioned by the Church or abetted by its inaction, contributed more than any other factor in creating a climate for the Nazi’s manipulation of that antisemitism to their own ends including their “Final Solution” that unleashed the organized and cold-blooded murder of millions of Jews.
And after Hitler took power in Germany, before the War, Carroll recounts how Eugenio Pacelli, the Vatican’s ambassador to the newly empowered Nazi regime negotiated a 1933 treaty, known as the Reichskonkordat, which was the first official recognition of Hitler’s government by a foreign “power”. According to Carroll, the Catholic Church had a history of opposition to individualism and pluralism, and therefore a natural kinship with totalitarian regimes (unless, like the communist regime that grabbed power in Russia in 1917, they were militantly atheist). By that logic, it made sense that the Church would negotiate with the new dictator to ensure its continuing place and role in German society. Hitler’s key demand, which the Church agreed to, was to disband the Catholic supported Center Party and withdraw from German political life entirely. Writes Carroll…
The Reichskonkordat effectively removed the German Catholic Church from any continued role of opposition to Hitler. More than that, as Hitler told his cabinet on July 14, it established a context that would be “especially significant in the urgent struggle against international Jewry.” The deep well of Catholic antisemitism would be tapped, to run as freely as any stream of hate in Germany. The positive side of the long-standing ambivalence, which had again and again been the source of impulses to protect Jews, would now be eliminated, allowing the negative side to metastasize. (pg 499)
Though there are a number of documented instances of individual Catholic laity, priests and bishops resisting the Nazis and suffering the consequences, including prison and death, Carroll makes it clear that the Church hierarchy mostly looked the other way and did not take coordinated institutional action against Hitler. Coordinated action, Carroll points out, that they had taken in an earlier era against the 19th century German strongman Bismarck, who had also tried to muzzle the Church.
Moving the Church Away from Patriarchy
At the end of the book, Carroll calls for the leaders of his Church to convene a “Vatican III” council (as a follow-up to councils I and II in 1869 and 1962) to discuss and hopefully come to agreement on five profound changes in Church doctrine to finally admit to and atone for its institutional antisemitism and create a new more egalitarian governance structure to allow the Church in future to avoid embracing such dehumanizing ideologies. Carroll’s five “agenda items” are…
1. Anti-Judaism in the New Testament – Acknowledging that the Christian Bible (aka the “New Testament”), though inspired by God, represents humankind’s imperfect understanding and rendering into words of God’s wisdom, and in particular the biblical passages attributing guilt to all Jews for Jesus’ death.
2. The Church and Power – Coming to terms with the contradiction it embraced when it became the official religion of the Roman and ongoing European empire and justified and even initiated oppression, repression and war to grow and govern that empire.
3. A New Christology – Acknowledging and celebrating Jesus’ disclosure of the divine love available to all, enabling the Church at last to embrace a pluralism of belief and worship, of religion and no-religion, that honors God by defining God as beyond every human effort to express God.
4. The Holiness of Democracy – Restoring the broken authority of the Church by locating its authority democratically with all its believers and not autocratically within its hierarchy.
5. Repentance – Fully acknowledgment of the Church’s sin of antisemitism not by soothing words but by deeds, including dismantling the cross at Auschwitz and calling out the errors in its scripture, and embracing Judaism as a sister religion and a separate but equally valid path to God.
Would such a “Vatican III” council ever happen? Certainly I (ever the optimist) can imagine the Church submitting itself to a full dive into “truth and reconciliation” that seems to be the best practice for modern institutions to attempt to exorcise the demons in their past. Another progressive visionary like Pope John XXIII could somehow garner a majority of the college of Cardinals and have the authority as Pope to make it so. It would be one instance of a kind of greater systemic “truth and reconciliation” that needs to happen in a plethora of human institutions if we want to finally move beyond our 5000 year obsession with the paternalism of the angry father figure.