On Good Friday 1979 I attended the service of Tenebrae at an English Roman Catholic church that was and is renowned for the splendor of its ceremonial and its choral tradition. Tenebrae had been for almost a thousand years the main service on each morning of the Triduum, or the solemn days of Holy Week from Maundy Thursday to Holy Saturday. In it, an elaborate series of Scripture readings and psalms apply to the sufferings of Christ on the cross the ancient sorrows of Israel, in particular, the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile of its inhabitants to Babylon. The heart of the service is the singing of the Lamentations of Jeremiah, each strophe preceded by the proclamation of its initial letter in Hebrew, set to a heart-wrenching chant—”Is it nothing to you who pass by: is there any sorrow like unto my sorrow?” One by one, as the psalms are sung, the candles on a great triangular candlestick set in the middle of the sanctuary are extinguished, until only a solitary light is left at the top, symbolizing the abandonment of Christ by his disciples. At the end of the service this candle is hidden and revealed again, a foreshadowing of his death and resurrection.
Tenebrae was one of the most sublime products of the Christian liturgical imagination, and it drew out of Renaissance and Baroque composers some correspondingly wonderful music, polyphonic settings of the Lamentations exploring the tragic dimension of the Christian story. Inevitably, it was one of the casualties of the reforms that swept the Church in the 1960s and early 1970s, when it was abolished and replaced with something simpler and less demanding. The church I attended that day was unenthusiastic about these changes: as a concession to modernity, however, all the readings from the Bible and the Christian Fathers designed to be spoken rather than sung were read to the congregation in English rather than Latin.
So there we sat in our devout rows, drunk with the marvels of the music, and listened while a reader proclaimed in flat and uninflected tones the following passage from a commentary by Saint Augustine on a verse from Psalm 64, “They have sharpened their tongues like a sword,” prescribed centuries before for this most solemn day in the Christian calendar:
Let not the Jews say, “we did not kill the Christ”: for they delivered him up to Pilate the judge, that they might seem innocent of his death…hereby they pretended to throw the injustice of their crime upon a judge that was a man, but how could they deceive a judge that is God?
I was old enough to remember as a child praying at the afternoon liturgy of Good Friday for the conversion of “the perfidious Jew.” But Pope John XXIII had abolished this offensive prayer early in his pontificate, and replaced it with a more benign intercession for Israel’s faithfulness to her covenant with God. Later, the Second Vatican Council had solemnly decreed that the ancient charge of God-murder against the Jews, the claim that they were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus, was false, and not to be repeated. So anti-Semitism in the solemn worship of the Church had simply never impinged on me before that day in 1979. I wrote a letter of protest to the parish priest, urging him to drop the reading from any subsequent celebrations, or at any rate to leave it in the decent obscurity of Latin, where it was unlikely to inflame anti-Jewish feeling.
I have no idea whether my letter had any impact (it was long and probably pompous), but I do not imagine the priest or his choir were any more consciously anti-Semitic than I am myself. The incident has stayed with me, however, because it was the moment at which I became aware of the extent to which Christians have unreflectingly accepted cultural and religious forms encoding savage and ultimately murderous animosity toward the Jews. The tidal wave of recent writing about the Shoah and the attempted Nazi genocide against the Jews, to which Christian anti-Jewish attitudes certainly contributed, have since made that shameful legacy harder to ignore.
Studies of the Roman Catholic part in it have tended to focus on the figure of Eugenio Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, and his “strange silence,” the failure of this wartime pope to speak out clearly in denunciation of Nazi atrocities against the Jews. Pacelli did in fact condemn racially motivated imprisonment and executions of innocent people in a Christmas broadcast in 1942, and Catholic institutions and individuals did shelter hundreds of thousands of Jews during the war. Pacelli himself was convinced that he had done everything that could have been expected of him in the circumstances, and since the 1960s his record has been vigorously defended by the Vatican.
On the whole, however, the verdict of history seems to be against him. Pius XII’s timid, tortuous, and largely coded references to the Shoah, rarely mentioning the Jews by name and constantly hedged around by his declared preoccupation with the likely consequences of plainer speech for Catholics under Nazi rule, contrast starkly with his later fierce and unambiguous condemnations of communism in cold war Europe. His commitment to the diplomatic process (he had spent a lifetime as a papal administrator and ambassador) and the Vatican treaty, or concordat, which he himself had negotiated with the Nazi government, the first international recognition of Hitler’s regime, have combined to compromise Pacelli in the eyes of most people. They certainly robbed him of the morally prophetic stance he aspired to as pope, and which he adopted on other issues. There seems something fundamentally wrong about the spectacle of the priest who claims to be God’s spokesman on earth exchanging cautious diplomatic notes with the ambassadors of mass murder.
Moreover, the right of the Vatican to take credit for the often independent action by Catholic individuals and organizations on behalf of the Jews has recently been powerfully questioned in works like Susan Zuccotti’s Under His Very Windows, a study of Vatican policy toward the Jews in occupied Italy. Unsurprisingly, therefore, there was widespread Catholic unease, as well as Jewish outrage, at recent moves in Rome to beatify Pius XII, which would have been a decisive step toward declaring him a saint, and for the time being, at least, the cause of his canonization seems to have been stalled.
James Carroll’s huge book discusses the failings of Papa Pacelli, but it is vastly more ambitious than most recent treatments of Catholic antiSemitism. Carroll’s scope is the entire history of relations between Catholics and Jews, from the ministry of Jesus himself, and the account of that ministry contained in the New Testament (not at all, in Carroll’s view, the same thing), down to the words and actions of the present Pope, whom he rightly credits with having personally brought about a long-needed revolution in Catholic attitudes.
The story Carroll wants to tell here is of ingrained Christian misunderstanding not merely of the Jews, but of the meaning of Christianity itself. At the heart of Christian anti-Semitism, he thinks, is the “sacred mistake” of an “overemphasis on the passion.” Because Christians have made too much of the cross, they have harbored hatred for the people whom they mistakenly blame for putting Jesus on the cross. Carroll’s book starts and ends with the controversial cross erected by Polish nuns at Auschwitz to commemorate the Catholics who died there, but designed also, he argues, to stake an imperialistic claim to the total meaning of the death camps, as a sort of modern crucifixion. Unsurprisingly, both the object and the interpretation have caused deep offense to Jews. It is the central argument of Carroll’s book that Catholics must not only “reverently and silently” remove the cross from Auschwitz, but, far more fundamentally, must remove the cross from the center of Christianity. For him, Good Friday and anti-Semitism go together. “The Church’s fixation on the death of Jesus as the universal salvific act must end, and the place of the cross must be reimagined in Christian faith.”
Alongside this narrative and its accompanying agenda goes another, more personal, story. Carroll was brought up in postwar Germany, and he inherited his American identity and his Catholic piety from the same sources. In 1957 his father was appointed chief of the American air forces in Europe; his mother was a devout and old-fashioned Catholic activist, a devotee of that great American “Prince of the Church,” Cardinal Spellman. So Carroll was brought up familiar with many of the European centers of Christian anti-Semitism, from cities like Mainz, scene of some of Europe’s earliest medieval pogroms, to Rome itself, the heart of papal rule, where his father’s high position and his mother’s good works gained them the privilege of private audience with the Pope. He absorbed his mother’s intense piety, and became a priest. The Vietnam War, however, and the religious and political radicalization of American Catholicism in the 1960s disturbed his inherited certainties about both America and God: he became a guitar-playing Vietnam protester, alienated from his father’s patriotism and his mother’s piety, and he was eventually to abandon the priesthood.
Carroll’s search for the truth about Catholics and Jews, therefore, is presented as an aspect of autobiography, a “journey across the geography of conscience,” in which he revisits scenes of earlier experience, explored now for the light these places and events cast on the long evolution of Catholic anti-Semitism. This aspect of the book is on the whole skillfully presented: Carroll comes across as an attractive and decent man and an engagingly open writer. In the end, though, the constant grounding of great events in personal reminiscence tends to trivialize his larger purpose. In the midst of a discussion of the harrowing slaughter of the Jews of medieval Mainz, for example, we really do not want the cold bathos provided by Carroll’s reminiscence that just across the Rhine in Rudesheim, “sitting in the wine garden of a half-timbered inn nearly a millenium later, [I] would have my first legal drink.” At such authorial interjections, exasperated readers may find themselves murmuring, as the present reviewer did, “Frankly, my dear, we don’t give a damn.” We hear far too much, also, about pious Catholic mothers, and the sons who “follow” them “into piety.” There is an element of cliché—as well as a hint of grotesquery and some delusions of grandeur—in Carroll’s use of the Vatican Pietà of Michelangelo to explore the sexual ambivalences of his relationship with his mother, or his comparison of the links between his mother and Cardinal Spellman with the more famous admiration of Saint Augustine’s mother Monica for Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan.
In the end, therefore, the interest of Carroll’s book rests squarely on the account he offers of Christian antiSemitism, and the agenda for change he proposes as a means of evolving a Christianity emptied of animus against the Jews. He is not a historian; everything he has to say on the subject of anti-Semitism is borrowed from other writers, and much of what he offers as fact is in reality highly contentious. It is valuable all the same to have a Catholic writer trace, without hysteria or self-exculpation, the deep strain of anti-Jewish sentiment that has always infected Christianity, from the polemic against “the Jews” in Saint John’s Gospel down to some of the more unguarded recent utterances of the defenders of Papa Pacelli.
As that reference to Saint John’s Gospel suggests, Carroll thinks that the distorting effect of anti-Jewish sentiment is present in the very foundation documents of Christianity, and that the problem begins at the heart of the New Testament itself. Indeed, the very idea of a “New Testament,” a distinctive Christian canon of scripture, is, he thinks, a tragic mistake, formalizing a fundamental schism between the Christian movement and the religion of Israel out of which it sprang. The very phrase “New Covenant” suggests that the covenant of God with Israel had now been superseded and set aside; Christianity thereby becomes the cuckoo in the nest, murderously ousting its older sister.
Arguably the most fundamental outcome of late-twentieth-century biblical criticism has been the discovery that Jesus was not the honorary Gentile of all Christian art and most Christian theology, but a Jew. His own words and actions have to be reexamined with that perception in mind, and his movement takes its place and finds its meaning as part of the pluralism of first-century Judaism, a world illuminated for us above all by the discov-ery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. This explosive set of facts really does have profound implications for our entire understanding of who and what Jesus thought he was. From it, however, Carroll, following scholars like E.P. Sanders, deduces that the anti-Jewish sentiments in the Gospels—such as Jesus’ denunciation of the Pharisees as a brood of vipers—are sheer invention, the product of the animosity between Christians and Jews in the later first century, the period when the Gospels were being written. To place such sentiments in the mouth of Jesus represents, he claims, “a profound betrayal” of his life and message.
This claim is part of a deeper skepticism on his part about the historical value of the Gospels and indeed of all the New Testament, a skepticism that is in fact unwarranted. Jesus, as a Jew, can hardly have been anti-Jewish, but there is no reason to doubt that he conducted a polemic against the leaders of rival strands of Judaism. The Gospel evidence about his attitude toward the Pharisees is mixed, and not uniformly hostile—in Luke, for example, it is the Pharisees who warn Jesus against Herod—but there is nothing implausible in the suggestion that Jesus might have denounced them; the Dead Sea Scrolls also contain hostile remarks about the Pharisees as “talkers of smooth things.” The claim that all such sentiments in the Gospels must reflect not the real opinions of Jesus but later Christian attitudes after the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70 assumes a prominence for the Pharisees as the leading representatives of late-first-century Judaism which is very far from proven. The Gospel traditions on this matter have a good claim to represent real elements in Jesus’ teaching, even if later events influenced the way that teaching was remembered and understood.
But it is Carroll’s handling of the death and resurrection of Jesus which most clearly reveals the preconceptions he himself brings to his material. Carroll believes that the entire structure of the Gospel narrative can be criticized as being unworthy of the story it wants to tell, because of the distorted prominence the Gospels give to the Crucifixion. Carroll offers an alternative account, in which the Gospel narratives—and the theology which they have been made to support, of a death offered to the Father in obedient atonement for the sins of the world—are replaced by something more this-worldly and emptied of the supernatural and with it, he hopes, of the claims which have marginalized and victimized the Jews. So in his account the first disciples of Jesus were not visited by the risen Christ on Easter Sunday; there were no appearances at the tomb. Instead, a “healing circle” of Jesus’ friends, traumatized by his inexplicable arrest and death, began to meet together, “a bereft circle…built around lament, the reading of texts, silence, stories, food, songs, and more texts, poems.”
The psychologist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, Carroll tells us, calls this process “grief-work,” and he is certain that this was what happened to the first Christians, because he and his own circle of friends, whom he describes as “East-Coast Lefties more or less the same age,” have been through it themselves, mourning a friend’s death from cancer. The first Christian disciples articulated their hopes and emerged from their grief by “imagining” that Jesus was risen, a hope gradually given psychological confirmation by their growing sense that when they met, he was indeed there with them. In a revealing aside Carroll declares that “the theophany of Moses is less a matter of what happened to him on Sinai than it is of the story told by those who came after him.” The same goes, in his opinion, for the resurrection of Jesus.
All of this may well be perfectly true; it is an account that would be endorsed by many liberal Christians. The thing to note here, however, is that under the guise of commenting on the Christian story, it actually offers a counternarrative, rooted not in Jesus’ teaching or in biblical categories at all, but in the language of popular psychotherapy and in a post-Enlightenment conception of what is probable or possible in a world sealed against the supernatural. Carroll feels entirely at ease about proposing a drastic rewriting of the New Testament story. Catholics, after all, he says, reject the absolute authority of Scripture and believe that “the community has authority over its normative literature,” a formulation which on his account of things appears to mean that the foundation documents of Christianity are infinitely plastic, and ultimately can be dispensed with, whenever they cut across modern understanding of what is decent or likely.
Carroll, in any case, thinks far too much has been made of the death of Jesus. He considers the centrality of the cross in Christianity a political invention of the half-pagan emperor Constantine, looking for a convenient logo for his takeover of the world, and for a symbol of divine endorsement of the brute force that was his only warrant to rule. Constantine’s soldiers made these first crosses out of spears and swords, and it was from the beginning, Carroll believes, an inescapably compromised symbol of power. Before Constantine, he thinks “the cross lacked religious and symbolic significance”: thereafter it “replaced the face of Christ as the central Christian icon.”
The trouble with this formulation is that before Christianity emerged as an officially approved religion it had no single central symbol—a public Christian art had yet to evolve, and it is not in fact the case that the cross ever dominated Catholic symbolism in the way Carroll thinks it came to do. The centrality of the face of Christ is as much a later development as that of the cross itself; it was Byzantine iconoclasts and, later, reformed Protestants who banished all symbols other than the bare cross from Christian churches. Within mainstream Catholicism and Byzantine Orthodoxy the figure of the Virgin and Child has always been as important, and has exercised a fundamental modifying role on the dominance of the crucifix. Carroll’s account here is just too simplistic.
Carroll’s uneasiness with the cross, however, is not a matter of art history but of ideology. He considers it obscene that Christians have claimed that Christ’s death in any sense fulfilled God’s will. It is a “blasphemy,” he insists, to think that “anyone’s death can be the fulfillment of a plan of God’s.” This criterion becomes his test of good and bad theology. “Medieval” (except in the case of medieval Talmudic scholarship, which to him is good) is a favorite term of abuse for Carroll, and takes its place along with “rigid,” “absolutist,” “juridical,” and “feudal” as semantic undesirables. A pivotal figure for his account of the deepening Catholic misunderstanding of Jesus’ message is the medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury, whose immensely influential treatise Cur Deus Homo, “Why God Became Man,” he examines at length as a milestone in poisonous theology. Anselm, Carroll believes, froze Catholic thinking about God into a rationalist and anti-Jewish frame derived from a “rigid” feudal outlook. According to Carroll, Anselm’s God is an angry and outraged feudal lord, offended by sin, who, instead of forgiving the offenses of humankind by the same free “fiat” by which he made the world, demands a human sacrifice to appease his offended dignity. A guilty human being cannot satisfy this righteous anger, only an innocent victim will do: Jesus is that victim. So God on this account is an angry and capricious sadist “callously presiding over his son’s death.” Anselm’s influence, Carroll thinks, saddled Catholic Christendom with a fundamentally immoral explanation of the work of Jesus, rooted in a rigid and outmoded political understanding of honor, which incidentally gave a new and unwarranted centrality to the cross.
This is a breathtakingly crass version of one of the most profound and daring Christian thinkers of the Middle Ages, and highlights the limitations of Carroll’s entire argument. Cur Deus Homo was in fact addressed to specifically Jewish criticisms of Christianity, made by learned Jews from Mainz recently arrived in London (a fact which Carroll notes, but the significance of which he entirely fails to register). For these Jewish intellectuals, Christianity was repellent because it dishonored God, claiming that the impassible and eternal had descended into time in a woman’s womb, and had undergone the diminishment of hunger and thirst, suffering and death. Anselm’s purpose therefore was to show that the Incarnation, far from dishonoring God, revealed the depths of his loving will to save suffering humanity.
Anselm’s insistence on “honor,” therefore, is not the product of fixation with feudal hierarchy, but an argumentum ad hominem addressed to intelligent Jews who felt that the Christian story debased God. “Honor” in Anselm’s thought stands not for some imagined hypersensitivity by the Creator to his own dignity, but is a metaphor for the deep logic of reality, in which the balance of a universe is disrupted by the fact of death and by human alienation from others and from God, a situation which could only be rectified by divine action. Among other innovations, Anselm’s account rejected absolutely the idea that Christ’s death paid a ransom to the Devil: sin, he insisted, was a breach in the friendship between God and humanity, not slavery to a demon. And in Anselm’s account there is no question, as Carroll seems to think, of a sadist Father torturing an innocent Son, but the joyful cooperation of the whole Trinity to rectify human disaster.
Anselm considers and rejects the idea that sin—the technical Christian theological term for mankind’s misery and distance from God—was something which God could abolish simply by willing it, a matter like accepting an apology. Human beings suffer, hurt each other, and die, and words alone will not redeem or reconcile them to that reality, or wipe away its consequences. Anselm tells Boso, his interlocutor in the dialogue, “You have not considered the immensity of sin.” In other words, Anselm thought the world was mortally sick, the sort of place in which, we might now say, the Shoah could happen, and no amount of simple reassurance, by God or anyone else, could set that right. The cross is not some arbitrary demand of God imposed on a hapless victim, therefore, but a marker of where human beings find themselves, at the intersection of justice and mercy, time and eternity, death and life.
All of which, of course, is the language of myth: but myth is the coin of religion, which makes sense of our world by telling such stories. Some stories, however, have more depth and resonance than others. Carroll’s dismissal of Anselm’s craggy and difficult thought, and his preference for the cheery optimism of Peter Abelard, who thought that the essential thing about the Incarnation was that it gave men and women a good example to follow, reflect a particular form of Christian liberalism, repudiated in W.H. Auden’s lines
Nothing can save us that is possible:
We who must die demand a miracle.
In the end, Carroll, for all his intelligence and sensitivity, does not possess the learning or intuition to underpin the wholesale revision of Christian tradition advocated in his book. His view of the Christian past is too often journalistic and thin, based on the writings of other popularizers or derived from theological polemicists with axes to grind. It is significant, for example, that the work of the most learned and sympathetic modern interpreter of Anselm, the late Richard Southern, is not to be found in his bibliography.
Carroll is certainly right to insist that the perception that Jesus was a Jew must have an impact on, and change, Christian accounts of the meaning of his life and death. He is right to emphasize the urgency of the dialogue with Judaism. But he conceives that dialogue as beginning with a Christian dismantling of some of its own fundamentals. His book has no place for a discussion of the Christian understanding of the Incarnation, or the doctrine of the Trinity. Interfaith dialogue can only be fruitfully conducted by those engaged with and committed to the central affirmations of their respective traditions, for only such partners can offer real reconciliation or deliver the confidence of their coreligionists. Carroll’s suggestion that the way to reconcile Christians and Jews is for Christians to stop talking and thinking about the cross reminds one of nothing so much as recent suggestions that the road to reconciliation between the sexes is for as many women as possible to “surrender” to marriage—allowing their partners to determine both the agenda and the outcomes of their relationship.
July 5, 2001