Book Review – Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll (2001)

In March 2000, Pope John Paul II visited Israel and made a public apology for the persecution of Jews by Catholics for centuries. The Pope visited the Western Wall and deposited a note in the crevice of the wall pleading for forgiveness. This is a fitting culmination to the events related in James Carroll’s study of a shameful chapter in the history of the Catholic Church.

As a Roman Catholic, I was stunned and surprised by Carroll’s narration of Catholic anti-Semitism throughout the ages. Looking back, however, it was indeed what we were taught in the Catholic elementary and high school which I attended, although the details were never filled in as they are in James Carroll’s treatment of the issue.

James Carroll was a Paulist priest for five years. He is now married and has two grown children. I could not help thinking that this background might have slanted his views of the Catholic Church as well as its behavior towards Jews. However, his scholarly coverage of the topic over 616 pages indicated an objective knowledge of his subject untainted by memories, bitter or otherwise, in his own personal journey.

Emperor Constantine was responsible for the Edict of Milan which stated that Christians as well as other religions should be allowed to follow the faith of their choosing. He himself converted to Christianity. On the other hand, he used the symbol of the cross on the swords of his armies as they fought in the Crusades across Europe.

James Carroll brings to light the teachings of several Popes, Pius IX, for example, who spoke vehemently against the Jews, approving the idea that they were responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. It was Pope Pius IX who convened the First Vatican Council in 1869 at which he decreed that the Pope is infallible when speaking on issues of faith and morals. James Carroll points out that Cardinal Newman, among others, opposed this declaration, and indeed many Cardinals walked out of the meeting in protest.

A Jewish ghetto has existed in Rome for centuries, almost under the window of the Pope’s quarters. The Jews were forced to live only there, in poverty, with prohibitions against their work, their faith practices, their dress and their rights to marriage. The walls of the ghetto have finally been torn down, but many still live in that area since it is the only place they have ever called home.

The rant against Jews has been practiced by almost every Pope. Pope John XXIII was the first to break this mold when he charged those who were preparing for the second Vatican Council to take up the church’s relations with Judaism as a matter of priority. He also greeted the first Jewish delegation to the Vatican by coming down from his throne to sit with them in a simple chair.

Pope John Paul II from his early days as a prelate in Poland had always sympathized with the Jewish people, and throughout his papacy pushed hard to reverse the anti-semitism with which he was surrounded. His visit to the Western Wall, referenced above, reveals the depth of his feeling concerning the wrongs perpetrated against the Jewish people.

James Carroll proposes a future Vatican III where these issues, such as anti-semitism, papal infallibility and women in the church can undergo proper scrutiny. He also states that it is time for the monarchy in the church to end and for democracy to reign in religion. I am happy to have read this treatise of James Carroll; it opened my eyes. I hope too that it falls into the hands of those who can bring about the positive changes which James Carroll has proposed.


Constantine’s Sword by James Carroll (2001)