Among the destructive myths of modernity is the idea that Christianity caused the Holocaust. Though refuted many times, it continues to circulate. Among its chief recent proponents is James Carroll, whose 2001 book, Constantine’s Sword, was a mammoth effort to breathe new life into the old claim. Now Carroll, with filmmaker Oren Jacoby, has decided to expand his book into a documentaryand the result is ninety-five minutes of unrestrained propaganda.
When the documentary premiered last year, it was praised by some criticsunfortunately, mostly the ones who had little knowledge about the subject, a pattern that has been repeated since the film’s national release. A puff piece in the Los Angeles referred to Carroll as a “devout Catholic”a curious designation given Carroll’s own well-documented rebellion against the Church.
The documentary wastes no time getting to its bottom line: Christianity is violent by nature and poses a threat to non-Christians, especially Jews. Focusing on anti-Semitism as Christianity’s original sin, Carroll speaks about his own upbringinglamenting the anti-Jewish stereotypes he was fedand accuses the Catholic liturgy of fostering anti-Semitism. The genesis of it all, we are told, is the New Testament, presented in the movie version of Constantine’s Sword as a poisonous document and a warrant for genocide.
Brought on to support Carroll’s apprehensions is Elaine Pagels, a highly controversial academic with no patience for orthodoxy. The camera shows her calling the Passion narrative “an extraordinary twist” on what actually happened, concluding: “It looks completely at odds with what we know about history.”
Along the way, Carroll conveniently skips over the persecutions of the early Christians; their sufferings do not interest him. What grips his imagination is the story of Constantine’s conversion, which he sees as catastrophic for the history of the Church. According to Carroll, Constantine took the image of the cross and elevated it to a place never previously held in Christianity; worse, the emperor used it as an instrument of war, turning a religion of peace into a religion of violence.
Of course, this requires Carroll to contradict himselfremember, he just finished claiming that hatred began with the New Testament. But even on its own terms, the historical claim is wrong. Surviving Christian art and symbols from A.D. 230well before Constantinereveal that the cross is a prominent symbol in the catacombs. The early Christians often made the sign of the cross just to sabotage pagan ceremonies; and in doing so they were following the teaching of St. Paul, who said, “We preach Christ crucified.”
On his march through history, Carroll adopts the persona of Voltaire when evaluating the Christian Middle Ages. He depicts the Crusades as wholly unprovoked, overlooking the Islamic aggression that preceded them. Criticism of Jihadism is dismissed with a throwaway line: “Islam is accused of violence, as if Christianity is innocent.” Though Christians are held to the highest standards, militant followers of Muhammad are given a free pass.
Carroll’s views on Christian history are relentlessly negative. One would never know, watching this film, of Christianity’s elevation of women, its care for the poor, challenge to slavery, advances in science and medicine, educational system, wondrous art, extraordinary religious orders. All one gets in the film are one-sided stories of horror and lament, intended to induce a feeling of revulsion in the viewer.
Carroll’s hostility is very much on display in the film’s treatment of the religious right. To caricature evangelicals, it highlights the rise and fall of Ted Haggard, who was forced to resign as pastor of New Life Church in Colorado after he confessed to a sex scandal. The most absurd and unfair generalizations are made about evangelicals: George Bush’s born-again Christianity is blamed for his military decisions; and in a special “Director’s Statement,” supplied to reviewers, Jacoby actually asks, “Is there something in the DNA of Christianitythe majority religion in our countrythat demonizes the other and is inclined toward violence?”
Meanwhile, the U.S. Air Force Academy is denounced for allegedly turning its campus into a hotbed of Christian evangelization, with pressure placed on non-Christians to convert. Of course, after such allegations surfaced in 2004, the Pentagon launched an investigation and found that the incidents were largely exaggerated. A federal judge subsequently agreed, throwing out a related lawsuit
Carroll’s treatment of the fascist-Nazi period is similarly skewed. He highlights Italy’s anti-Semitic decrees under Mussolini, without describing how the Church combated them: denouncing racialism, taking in Jews expelled from their jobs, and providing shelter. Commenting on the Vatican’s concordat with Germany, he asserts: “The Vatican became the first foreign power to enter into a bilateral treaty with Hitler.” This is devious. By using the word bilaterali.e., between two entitiesCarroll is able to avoid mentioning that the first international treaty with Hitler’s government was not the concordat, signed on July 20, 1933, but the Four-Power Pact (involving Germany, France, England, and Italy), which preceded it by a full month (June 7). Even before that, in May the Soviets and the British accepted friendship and trade agreements with Germany; Germany was recognized by the League of Nations; and in August 1933, one month before the concordat was ratified, Palestinian Jews signed the Haavara emigration agreement with Germany. Moreover, Hitler himself later railed against the concordat (Table Talk, July 4, 1942), realizing it had become a means of anti-Nazi subversion.
Carroll’s treatment of Pius XII is particularly atrocious: Every discredited allegation against the popefrom his alleged silence to his supposed failure to intervene against the Nazi roundup of Rome’s Jewsis repeated without qualification. Carroll and Jacoby seem unaware of the scholarship that has demolished these charges, proving that Pius rescued many Jews. At this late date, when many serious scholars have spoken out in favor of Pius XII, and when his cause is steadily advancing in Rome, Carroll’s views on Pius are not only outdated but reactionary.
Similarly, Carroll turns his sights on St. Teresa Benedicta of the CrossEdith Stein, the Jewish-born convert who became a nun and perished at Auschwitz in 1942. Carroll attacks her elevation, viewing it as a convenient way for the Church to salve its conscience and “Christianize the Holocaust.” The “real story,” Carroll assures us, has never been told.
And what, exactly, is that? In 1933, shortly after entering the Carmelite order, Stein wrote a letter to Pius XI, imploring him to take a stand against Nazi anti-Semitism. But Carroll claims nothing was done, citing an entry in Stein’s diary, from 1938, suggesting the saint never received a reply. Obtaining a copy of the 1933 letter from an elderly German nun, who knew Stein, Carroll asserts he is “the first person to ask to see it.” In a haunting voiceover, the actress Natasha Richardson reads the letterbut only a portion of it, conveniently omitting the part that speaks about Nazi persecution of Catholics. The film presents the letter as a dramatic revelation. The film’s director, Oren Jacoby, even told the Jewish Journal: “I got goosebumps when the nun shared the letter with us. It’s thrilling when you discover that the story you thought was there actually does exist.”
The letter is real, but the discovery is a hoax. Five years ago, I obtained a copy of Stein’s 1933 letter myself, shortly after the archives from Pius XI’s pontificate were released. Those archives revealed that Stein’s plea was answeredin a sympathetic reply by none other than Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII), then Pius XI’s secretary of state. Pacelli’s letter was sent to Stein’s abbot, Raphael Walzer of the Beuron Abbey, because it was he who had mailed Stein’s letter to the Vatican. The reply correspondence may have been blocked by Nazi surveillance (hence, the likely explanation for her diary entry wondering about the Vatican’s reaction).
Those archives also revealed that action was taken by the Holy See on behalf of Germany’s Jews, even before Stein sent her letter. My dossier explaining all these facts was published in 2003, in Inside the Vatican magazine, and has been available online for some time. Couldn’t Carroll and Jacoby have spent five minutes on Google finding this information out? That the documentary also fails to reveal the crucial reason Stein was sent to Auschwitzbecause the Dutch bishops, citing papal teaching, publicly condemned the deportations, triggering the Nazis to round up Catholics of Jewish descentonly adds to the deception.
But the film stoops to its lowest level by ending with a disingenuous attack on Benedict XVI: “Months after associating Islam with ‘things only evil and inhuman,’ Benedict XVI reversed reforms of Vatican II to authorize a Good Friday Mass that includes a previous disavowed prayerfor the conversion of Jews.”
What Benedict actually did, at his now famous Regensburg address, was quote (not endorse) a fourteenth-century emperor in order to highlight the relation between faith and reason. Moreover, there is no such thing as a “Good Friday Mass.” On Good Friday, the day Christ died, Catholics have a service, but they do not celebrate Masssomething everyone trained as a priest should know. The old rite’s Good Friday liturgy does indeed carry a prayer for Jews, but its language has been revised by Benedict precisely to avoid unnecessary offense; and were the Church to formally disavow evangelization, it would betray its very mission. As recently demonstrated by his visit to an America synagogue, Pope Benedict’s outreach to Jews is a central feature of his pontificate. He has written extensively on the subject and once published an essay, “The Heritage of Abraham,” that is among the most beautiful Catholic tributes ever penned to Judaism.
By producing this egregious film, Carroll and Jacoby missed a real opportunity to appreciate the events taking place in Catholic-Jewish relations today. Among them was Benedict’s visit to a Cologne synagogue shortly after he became pope. Carroll mentions the visit but severely distorts the moving speech Benedict delivered and fails to mention Jewish reaction. Paul Spiegel, the leader of Germany’s Jews, was so overwhelmed by the pope’s presence that he told reporters: “If someone told me 45 years ago, ‘You are going to be in Cologne, and the pope will visit you in a synagogue,’ I wouldn’t have believed it. We have come a long way in mutual support and understanding and, as the pope said, in mutual love.”
William Doino Jr. writes for Inside the Vatican. This essay has been adapted from a more exhaustive and carefully referenced analysis of Constantine's Sword, which can be accessed by clicking here.
“Editorial: Did Christianity Cause the Holocaust?” Christianity Today
“Milton Himmelfarb” by Joseph Bottum, Firstthings.com; see also Himmelfarb’s essay, “No Hitler, No Holocaust,” Commentary magazine (subscription required)
“L.A. Film Festival Features a History of Hate,” Jewish Journal; “Devout Catholic Answers a Call to Challenge Church” by Gina Piccalo, the Los Angeles Times (article is no longer available on the L.A. Times' website but can still be found in the Google-search cache); “The Pope, the Jews and Repentance” by Andrew O’Hehir, Salon.com
“The Death of Jesus and Anti-Semitism: Seeking Interfaith Understanding” by Raymond E. Brown, AmericanCatholic.org
“Christianity Case Against Air Force Dismissed” by Bill Vogrin, The Gazette (Colorado Springs, Colorado)
“Edith Stein’s Letter” by William Doino, Inside the Vatican
“Catholics Have a Right to Pray for Us” by Jacob Neusner, The Forward
“The Heritage of Abraham: The Gift of Christmas” by Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, L’Osservatore Romano
“Pope's Address in Synagogue of Cologne,” Zenit News Agency; “Pope Visits German Synagogue and Warns of Growing Anti-Semitism” by Ian Fisher, the New York Times