“Constantine’s Sword”

“Constantine’s Sword,” the movie version of John Carroll’s book, is now available on DVD; it can also be watched on-line if you have Netflix. I watched it early this morning.

There’s a great deal of autobiography in the film. Carroll’s father, Joseph Carroll was an important Air Force general; an FBI agent, Joseph Carroll was then sent to the new Air Force, commissioned a colonel, and within two years was a major general. He was the founding director of the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations, and then the founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency; it was he who brought the photos of Russian missles in Cuba to Kennedy’s attention.

The younger Carroll grew up on military bases, met John XXIII with his family as a teenager, and in the wake of the nuclear uncertainty of the Cold War, opted to pursue those things that would last. His first mass was celebrated at a chapel on an Air Force base; growing disillusioned with the war in Vietnam, and feeling called to follow the Prince of Peace, he slipped in just a tiny allusion in that first homily. He preached on Ezekiel’s vision of the dry bones; he mentioned they had been burned by the sun. More than that, burned by napalm. Such a tiny rebellion–such a miniscule insult to the military–but enough to drive a wedge between James and Joseph.

Carroll was a priest from 1969-1974, increasingly active in opposing the war, which destroyed his faith in both governmental and churchly authority. In an interview from those days he notes the silence of the US Catholic hierarchy to the bombing of civilians in Vietnam and opines, “Were US bombers dropping contraceptives on the Vietnamese, the American Catholic hierarchy would have condemned it quickly; but we were dropping napalm, and they said nothing.”

These personal stories are sketched throughout the movie, which begins at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and the issue of aggressive evangelization of non-Christians, especially Jewish students, by evangelical churches in the area and by evangelical faculty, staff and students of the Academy. He interviews Academy graduate Mikey Weinstein, who was shocked when one of his two sons then at the Academy told him of anti-Jewish slurs he had been subjected to, and of the aggressive promotion of “The Passion of the Christ” by the Academy.

Carroll uses this incident to launch into a discussion of two issues: the history of Christian hostility to Jews, and of the linkage of Christianity with military power. He visits Milvian Bridge outside Rome, and Constantine’s vision of a cross with the motto, “In hoc signo vinces,” becomes the guiding metaphor for the book–“Cross and sword become one. Christianity turns violent.”

He surveys how this baptized violence spread across Europe, and became a means to unite feuding Christian kingdoms in a war against a common enemy, the Muslim “infidel”–and against closer enemies, against whom Christians had a long-standing grudge.

Carroll relates how he grew up in a typical Irish-Catholic family, trusting in a holy church with holy saints, priests and bishops. Now he saw those “holy” priests and bishops calling for bloody conquest, even leading pogroms against Jews in the name of Christ.

He travels to Spain, where Jews were first forced to convert to Christianity; then, when Christians became suspicious of the integrity of those they had forcibly converted, the Spanish Inquisition was created to investigate and to punish. When Jews were expelled from Spain, many were welcome in Rome, until 1555, when chief Roman inquisitor Giovanni Cardinal Caraffa became Pope Paul IV, who restricted Jewish intercourse with Christians and created a ghetto in which they must live.

Though recent popes, especially John Paul II, have taken great strides to repair relations with Jews, Carroll doesn’t think they’ve gone far enough. John Paul denounced Nazi antisemitism, but blamed it on neo-paganism, refusing to acknowledge that another part of its foundation was the legacy of Christian anti-Judaism, of accusations of “Christ-killer” and the blood libel. Only this can explain the collusion of many Catholic prelates with Nazism. He goes to Trier, where one of the supposed relics brought back from the Holy Land by Helena, the Robe of Christ, has been kept since the time of Constantine. The Bishop of Trier supported the National Socialists in the election of 1933, and to celebrate their victory, arranged for the Robe to be displayed. Vice Chancellor Franz von Papen represented Hitler, and, with the bishop, sent a telegram to Hitler pledging their mutual cooperation. While it was on display, Eugenio Pacelli (later Pope Pius XII) signed the concordat with Hitler–protecting the institutional church while accepting Nazi rule. Pacelli might not have been “Hitler’s Pope,” says Carroll, but he was certainly “Hitler’s Cardinal.”

That same year Edith Stein wrote to the pope to warn of Nazi antisemitism and of the dark future that would face Europe’s Jews; five years later, now known as Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, she lamented in her diary that the pope had never bothered to respond … and that all she had predicted had come true. This wasn’t mentioned in her canonization in 1998; she was canonized as a martyr, despite the fact that she went to Auschwitz not because of her Catholic faith, but for her Jewish blood.

In Rome, the anti-Jewish legislation of Paul IV was rescinded when Italy unified and the pope was banished to the Vatican; it was revived by Mussolini, however, and when in 1943 Mussolini rounded up the Jews of Rome to deport to Auschwitz, the pope said nothing. A survivor says in the film, “If the pope had only taken the trouble to go outside the gate–and not say anything, just do as he did when Rome was bombed–just go outside the gate and stand in silence, with his arms raised in the form of a cross, there might never have been a deportation. Italians and German Catholics would not have gone along with it.” But he never appeared.

Carroll affirms the strides taken forward by the Catholic Church in the latter part of the 20th century, especially the “change that mattered most” at Vatican 2, the decree, Nostra Aetate. But he wonders how much it has sunk in. He speaks with Fr. Stanislaw Obirek, a Polish Jesuit, suspended by his order because, Carroll says, he wanted a fuller accounting for the Catholic Church’s role in Polish antisemitism.

Returning to the US, Carroll listens to the rhetoric of George Bush’s “war on terror”–language of “crusade,” “good vs. evil,” “God is not neutral”–and hears echoes of past attempts to fuse cross and sword That’s what frightens him about what he saw happening at the Air Force Academy; it appears to be a case of religion and military power coming together, with young evangelicals in the military inspired by their religious zeal to fight Middle East enemies. This isn’t the spirit of Jesus, but the spirit of Constantine, which is still alive after 1700 years.

The movie can be faulted for its disparagement of Scripture (Carroll accepts uncritically whatever Elaine Pagels tells him), but it remains a powerful testimony to the experiences of those who have been cut by Constantine’s sword.