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, Constantines 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 documentary¯and the result is ninety-five minutes of unrestrained propaganda.
When the documentary premiered last year, it was praised by some critics¯unfortunately, mostly the ones who had little knowledge about the subject, a pattern that has been repeated since the films national release. A puff piece in the Los Angeles referred to Carroll as a devout Catholic¯a curious designation given Carrolls 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 Christianitys original sin, Carroll speaks about his own upbringing¯lamenting the anti-Jewish stereotypes he was fed¯and 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 Constantines Sword as a poisonous document and a warrant for genocide.
Brought on to support Carrolls 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 Constantines 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 himself¯remember, 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. 230¯well before Constantine¯reveal 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.
Carrolls views on Christian history are relentlessly negative. One would never know, watching this film, of Christianitys 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.
Carrolls hostility is very much on display in the films 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 Bushs born-again Christianity is blamed for his military decisions; and in a special Directors Statement, supplied to reviewers, Jacoby actually asks, Is there something in the DNA of Christianity¯the majority religion in our country¯that 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
Carrolls treatment of the fascist-Nazi period is similarly skewed. He highlights Italys 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 Vaticans 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 bilateral ¯i.e., between two entities¯Carroll is able to avoid mentioning that the first international treaty with Hitlers 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.
Carrolls treatment of Pius XII is particularly atrocious: Every discredited allegation against the pope¯from his alleged silence to his supposed failure to intervene against the Nazi roundup of Romes Jews¯is 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, Carrolls views on Pius are not only outdated but reactionary.
Similarly, Carroll turns his sights on St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross¯Edith 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 Steins 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 letter¯but 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 films director, Oren Jacoby, even told the Jewish Journal : I got goosebumps when the nun shared the letter with us. Its 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 Steins 1933 letter myself, shortly after the archives from Pius XIs pontificate were released. Those archives revealed that Steins plea was answered¯in a sympathetic reply by none other than Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli (the future Pius XII), then Pius XIs secretary of state. Pacellis letter was sent to Steins abbot, Raphael Walzer of the Beuron Abbey, because it was he who had mailed Steins 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 Vaticans reaction).
Those archives also revealed that action was taken by the Holy See on behalf of Germanys 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. Couldnt 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 Auschwitz¯because the Dutch bishops, citing papal teaching , publicly condemned the deportations, triggering the Nazis to round up Catholics of Jewish descent¯only 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 prayer¯for 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 Mass ¯something everyone trained as a priest should know. The old rites 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 Benedicts 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 Benedicts 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 Germanys Jews, was so overwhelmed by the popes 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 wouldnt have believed it. We have come a long way in mutual support and understanding and, as the pope said, in mutual love.
Editorial: Did Christianity Cause the Holocaust? Christianity Today
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 OHehir, 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 Steins 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, LOsservatore 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