Here's a historical puzzle, for those with the stomach for it. How is it that the Jews survived the first Christian millennium? The church, from the moment of its embrace by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, enjoyed immense power and employed it with ruthless efficiency to eliminate dozens of heresies and pagan creeds. Its relationship with Judaism, its spiritual predecessor and the first challenger to its claims for Christ, was especially poisonous. Why, then, were the Jews permitted to live--and be persecuted--another day?
The answer, provided in James Carroll's fascinating, brave and sometimes infuriating history, Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews (Houghton Mifflin; 616 pages), is St. Augustine. In the year 425, shortly after Christians slaughtered the Jews of Alexandria in the first recorded pogrom, the influential church father cautioned, "Do not slay them." He preferred that the Jews be preserved, close at hand, as unwilling witnesses to Old Testament prophecies regarding Jesus. Augustine's followers elaborated on the idea, writes Carroll: Jews "must be allowed to survive, but never to thrive," so their misery would be "proper punishments for their refusal to recognize the truth of the Church's claims." The 18th century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsohn noted that were it not for Augustine's "lovely brainwave, we would have been exterminated long ago." But it was a warped, creepy kind of sufferance, a little like keeping someone chained to the radiator instead of doing him in. And it set the stage for countless persecutions as the Christian-Jewish saga rolled on.
Carroll, a novelist (1978's Mortal Friends), newspaper columnist and 1997 National Book Award winner, says his book was inspired by the large cross erected by Poles outside Auschwitz. But his real target appears to be the Vatican's 1998 apology, "We Remember." That long-awaited document expressed regret at Christian mistreatment of Jews over the centuries but pinned the fault on some of the church's sinful "members" while holding blameless "the church as such."
The Vatican's champions say it had no choice: "the church as such" is ecclesiastical shorthand for the church as bride of Christ, which partakes of divinity and must thus be without blemish. Carroll, however, finds the apology's language "evasive and...immoral." Anti-Judaism, he writes, has been at the very center of Catholic theology at least since the Gospel of John, and the church has allowed, encouraged and--in the case of the Inquisition--chartered the foulest of abuses. "We Remember" further contended that the Holocaust was the product not of Christianity but of a "neo-pagan" regime that had renounced the faith, but Carroll portrays Hitler as the heir to such church-sanctioned haters as St. John Chrysostom and Torquemada. "By tapping into a deep, ever-fresh reservoir of Christian hatred of Jews," he writes, the German dictator made the Catholic Church "an accomplice in history's worst crime."