Anti-Semitism has a long history in Western Civilization, and is even a major problem today. Many claim that the roots of anti-Semitism are to be found in the development of early Christianity and its interactions with the Roman Empire. James Carroll, a Roman Catholic scholar, at the beginning of the present century set out to explain how this anti-Jewish mind set was developed in the Catholic Church at its beginning. He aimed to explain the role of the Church in the Holocaust. His book is entitled Constantine’s Sword (2001). Despite his stated purpose, he ends up with a nuanced apologetic for his religion and dilutes Catholic responsibility by deflecting some of the blame onto the Enlightenment, Luther, and Marxism.
This apologetic begins early in the book when he mentions Nazi anti-Semitism “with its tap root planted perhaps in a particularly Lutheran hatred of Jews.” Hitler, however, was a Catholic and evidently a good one as the Church celebrated a Mass for the repose of his soul after he killed himself at the end of World War II. He learned his anti-Semitic catechism in Catholic Austria. Luther’s anti-Semitism was a carry-over of the existing anti-Semitism of classical and medieval Catholicism.
Carroll does write, however, “the hatred of Jews has been no incidental anomaly but a central action of Christian history, reaching to the very core of Christian character.” Nevertheless, it “did not have to be” and his book “opens to possibilities of a new future.” Carroll wants to have his Eucharist and eat it too. He wants to condemn anti-Semitism as “no anomaly” yet validate the religion responsible for it. He will have an unhappy consciousness in the company he keeps as Hitler and the Nazis were never excommunicated by his church — that censure being saved for the real bad guys— the Communists.
Carroll has no class understanding of fascism and blames the Holocaust on the German people — it “was the work of an entire people.” But he seems confused on this issue as elsewhere he says it was the Nazis “who murdered the Jews.”
Carroll’s remarks on Marx and the Soviet Union need to be scrutinized. He says Marx's Jewish descent is repressed. “In the Soviet Union this family history was never referred to.” And there was a “Soviet policy of never referring to Marx’s Jewish roots.” But, in the Soviet biography of Marx, published in 1968, we read that Heinrich Marx, Marx’s father, “came from a rabbinical family.” The family converted to Christianity (before Marx was born) to escape persecution. Carroll refers to Marx as “the ex-Christian Jew hater.”
This intemperate ranting about Marx stems from an early essay (1843) “On the Jewish Question,” directed not against Jews but religion. This was before he and Engels began their life long collaboration and before he developed a consistent materialist philosophy.
Two points should be noted. First, it was written to refute articles written by Bruno Bauer that denied Jews civil equality. Bauer argued Jews would have to abandon their religion to obtain equality and Marx attacked that notion. Second, when Marx’s article was published it was viewed favorably by a Jewish newspaper that saw Marx as a supporter of Jewish rights. One has to pervert the facts to claim Marx was a “Jew hater.” Readers are referred to Julius Carlebach’s Karl Marx and the Radical Critique of Judaism (missing from Carroll’s bibliography) and “Judaism” in A Dictionary of Marxist Thought.
When Carroll turns his attention from Marxism (as well as Voltaire and the Enlightenment tradition — he is a non-officiating Roman Catholic priest and hostility to these targets were no doubt ingrained in his education) and focuses on the role of the Church his indictments are convincing. He writes “in the 1930s there is reason to believe, vast numbers of Catholic Germans, and perhaps other Catholic Europeans as well … would have preferred Hitler to Pius XII” [and whose “moral” teachings would be the cause of that?]. “Shall I bring them into conflicts of conscience?” Pius asked, referring to Catholic Germans, in explaining why he could not protest the extermination of Jews.
The Church did not protest the extermination of Jews because it did not care about the Jews — unless they converted to Catholicism. Carroll himself notes that “the Church laid a tentative claim to authority regarding baptized Jews” but the Vatican “at its highest level sent a signal both to Hitler and to the German Catholic Church that the Jews ‘facing a wretched fate’ were on their own.” The logical conclusion from Carroll’s evidence is that the leadership of the Catholic Church, besides having lost all claims to having any moral authority, is both reactionary and a blight on progressive humanity.
One would think this book would be a call to abandon a belief system implicated in the Holocaust and one that had preached the hatred of Jews for over two thousand years. But no. Carroll concludes: “This tragic story offers a confirmation of faith too. God sees us as we are and loves us nevertheless.” Please! Some God, some love!
- This article is a revised version of a January 2004 publication in Political Affairs.
Thomas Riggins is a retired philosophy teacher (NYU, The New School of Social Research, among others) who received a PhD from the CUNY Graduate Center (1983). He has been active in the civil rights and peace movements since the 1960s when he was chairman of the Young People's Socialist League at Florida State University and also worked for CORE in voter registration in north Florida (Leon County). He has written for many online publications such as People's World and Political Affairs where he was an associate editor. He also served on the board of the Bertrand Russell Society and was president of the Corliss Lamont chapter in New York City of the American Humanist Association.