Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Cinematic Screed against Catholic Church timed with Benedict's Visit

Gary Stern reports that Pope Benedict XVI's visit to New York (and the eve of Passover) will be accompanied by a film based on James Carroll's controversial polemic Constantine's Sword:

Carroll is a former Catholic priest and sharp critic of the Catholic Church. His book is largely about the history of anti-Semitism in the church.

A release says that in the film “Carroll raises difficult questions about Pope Benedict’s leadership.”

The timing of the premiere will, one has to believe, strike some people as inappropriate.

Here is a synopsis of the film from its website:

Constantine’s Sword is the story of James Carroll; a former Catholic priest on a journey to confront his past and uncover the roots of religiously inspired violence and war. His search also reveals a growing scandal involving religious infiltration of the U.S. military and the terrible consequences of religion’s influence on America’s foreign policy.

Carroll focuses on Christian antisemitism as the model for all religious hatred, exposing the cross as a symbol of a long history of violence against Jews (and, most recently, Moslems). The film brings the history of religious intolerance to life, tracing it as a source of the fanaticism that threatens the world today. At its core, Constantine’s Sword is a compelling personal narrative — a kind of detective story — as one man uncovers the dark areas of his own past, searching for a better future.

Unlike other histories of anti-semitism (I would personally recommend Fr. Edward Flannery's The Anguish of the Jews: Twenty-Three Centuries of Antisemitism), Carroll in one who has, in his laudable zeal to "purify" the Church of latent anti-semitism, "thrown out the baby with the bathwater" -- identifying anti-semitism so closely with Christianity that the only real solution would culminate in the end of Christianity itself. His scholarly efforts are impeded by the fact that he brings to the table his own personal agenda and a desire to refashion the Church according to his whims.

Eugene J. Fisher, former associate director of the Secretariat for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs (and by virtue of his office, typically sympathetic to Jewish concerns over anti-semitism), reviewed the book and found it wanting ("Two Millennia of Catholic-Jewish Relations" America March 5, 2001):

The chief flaw [of Constantine's Sword] is that the book uses the tragedies of the Jews over the centuries in order to make the quite unrelated and entirely internal Christian point that the author thinks the church should be structured differently than it is—i.e. as a democracy—and that its Christology is too high—i.e. that the church really believes that Jesus was and is God as well as a man. For Carroll, this leads to “exclusivism” at the heart of Christian theology, which means that all human beings in some way known only to God are saved in and through the incarnation, death and resurrection of Christ, even those who are not baptized. [...]

Whether one agrees with Carroll’s theology, however, the point remains that he has absolutely no right to use Jewish suffering over the centuries to push it forward. Ironically, Carroll’s failure here can best be paralleled by, and is a logical inversion of, that of the early church fathers, whom he rightly criticizes for having used the historical incident of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple as a “proof” of the divinity of Christ. Why else, they argued, would God have been so righteously angered at his own people, unless they had killed his Son? See how the Jews suffer and are dispersed? That is God’s punishment for deicide. So, too, I believe, does Carroll fall into the classic Christian temptation to use Jewish suffering as a proof text. This, history has shown (and Carroll himself writes a lot of that history extremely well), is a very dangerous course to take. Self-projection may make for good narrative in a novel, but it is not very good history.

Two other reviews by "Dismantling the Cross", by Robert Louis Wilken (Commonweal January 26, 2001), Sins of the Fathers, by Daniel P. Moloney (National Review. March 5, 2001) arrive at similar disappointed assessments.

All the more reason, then, to treat with caution the book's cinematic adaptation.