The Roman Catholic Church and all of Christianity must put the Holocaust at the center of their examination of conscience, author James Carroll said in the keynote speech of the College’s annual Holocaust Education Project.
“The Jewish genocide was not an aberration but in large part the culmination of Christianity’s long-standing battle against Judaism,” he said, a battle that can be traced to the Gospel’s accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus, which deflected blame away from the Romans and onto the Jews.
This centuries-old grudge, combined with the neo-paganism of the Nazis that overtook Christianity during World War II, lies at the heart of the Holocaust. But the Catholic Church carries culpability in its acquiescence, Carroll argued. A critical turning point was the Vatican’s formal recognition of the Third Reich in 1933. The resulting treaty protected the Catholic Church in Germany but also rendered powerless the remaining political opposition to Hitler.
A novelist, journalist and former Catholic priest, Carroll spoke to an audience of more than 300 at the Frick Center on April 10. The keynote address marked the College’s 21st Annual Holocaust Education Project. This year’s project was part of the College’s yearlong focus on religion in public life, Still Speaking: Conversations on Faith.
Carroll’s talk was preceded by the College’s annual Service of Remembrance, including a welcome by President S. Alan Ray; a reading by Tamar Levinson, co-chaplain for Jewish students and staff psychologist and a candle lighting ceremony led by Rabbi Steven Bob of Congregation ETZ Chaim in Lombard and also a co-chaplain.
Carroll is best known for his comprehensive chronicle of centuries of anti-Semitism by the Catholic Church, Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews. Carroll traces anti-Semitism back to the Emperor Constantine, who shaped the Christian church 300 years after Christ. It was Constantine who unified the Roman Empire as a Christian state and embraced the symbol of the cross as a sword, a symbol of power that would be used to establish dominion over Jews, minorities and pagan groups. The book examines other Church-inspired controversies, including the Crusades, the Inquisition and, ultimately, the Church’s silence during the Nazi extermination of Jews and other minorities.
A repudiation of ancient charges
Carroll well knows the inner workings of the Catholic Church. Raised in an Irish Catholic family, he entered the seminary in the early 1960s, prepared to embrace what he calls “the culture of the old church with its hierarchy, absolutism, superiority and, yes, its anti-Semitism.”
The priesthood also appealed because it seemed to offer a path to peace during a tumultuous time. In those Cold War days, the threat of nuclear war hung over the country and crises such as the rise of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis provided plenty of reason for unease. He decided “to give himself to the things that last,” he said.
Carroll came of age when the Church was on the spot to explain its silence under the leadership of Pope Pius XII as it began to consider reforms under the Second Vatican Council, which Carroll called one of the greatest religious events of the 20th century. Among its encyclicals were repudiations of the ancient charges that the Jews murdered Christ and that as a result, God had rejected the Jews. In addition, Pope John XXIII visited the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, the holiest site in Judaism, and repented for the European hatred of the Jews that led to the Holocaust.
While Carroll acknowledged that strides have been made in closing the gap between Christianity and Judaism, he worries that the Church could backslide in efforts to confront its anti-Semitism and may in fact already be doing so. The current Pope, Benedict XVI, for example, has made a point of emphasizing the pagan roots of anti-Semitism, rather than its Christian origins. “There’s an ease with which Christians put Jews as the enemy, and why Jews will always be at risk from Christians,” he said.
Elmhurst Chaplain H. Scott Matheney agrees. I don’t believe Christianity has moved beyond a lot of the historical problems it has with the Jews and Judaism,” he said in an interview.
The popularity of Mel Gibson’s movie, The Passion of the Christ, points directly to the ongoing conflict between Christianity and Judaism, according to Carroll. The biggest grossing R-rated film in history and praised by the Vatican, that film, particularly popular during Easter season, depicts the Jews as active and willing participants in the death of Jesus. Carroll calls the movie “a celebration of religious-justified violence and reinforces the idea of apocalyptic suffering as a way to redemption.” He also views the rise of Evangelical and Fundamentalist Christianity with concern, seeing undercurrents of anti-Semitism in their dogma. “They represent a move away from historical-mindedness, rationality and enlightenment,” he said.
What the Catholic Church–indeed, Christianity–seems to have forgotten is the simple fact that Christ was Jewish. “Jesus was a Jew, and an observant one to the end. Christians have forgotten the permanent Jewishness of Jesus,” Carroll said. [A theology based on the teachings of Christ] that understands him as the enemy of his own people must end today.”