Organized religion was not part of my upbringing. My father, a wit who rejected formal Irish Catholicism at an early age, wrote satirical light verse like “What a Friend We Have in Cheeses.” The closest Easter celebration we had was dad playfully saying “Have a good Friday!” to people on Good Friday and telling me that if I was ever in bed with a girl on Easter morning I should say, “He Has Risen!” More than anything else, we celebrated blasphemy. So, unlike many folks, including the protagonist of the documentary Constantine’s Sword ("Premiering April 18th at the Quad Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinema"), I never had to reckon with the contradictions of the Catholic Church—or how it has been complicit in numerous bad things throughout history while supposedly being at the helm of morality and ethics.
By contrast, James Carroll is a former Catholic priest whose father was an influential general in the U.S. military, meaning that he had “God in the family circle.” He explains that like most Catholics, he was born into a “pure church” with no clue about its failures and historic anti-Semitism. Directed by Oren Jacoby, the film is based on a nearly 800-page book by Carroll titled Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews—and that subtitle is the main focus of the film. Carroll takes us through a narrative that covers the dark history of the Catholic Church, weaving in both his autobiography and contemporary examples of how evangelicals have meshed with the military and government. The opening scenes take place at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, where Jewish recruits explain how they are harassed as “Christ killers,” and how posters and fliers for Mel Gibson’s anti-Semitic The Passion of the Christ were everywhere at one point. Recruits were often bussed to Ted Haggard’s New Life Church. A special treat in this film is to see an interview with an arrogant Haggard before it was revealed that he often did meth and paid for sex with male prostitutes. You can have any religion you want, Haggard says in the film, but ours is the only one that will guarantee eternal life. Oh well.
As the title suggests, Carroll takes us back to the reign of Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor who, according to Carroll, is the one largely responsible for starting religiously sponsored violence and war and for sparking the Biblical reinterpretations that would blame the Jews for the death of Christ. One of Carroll’s fascinating historical points reveals that the symbol of the cross really gained significance in Christianity as late as 326 AD with the discovery of the cross at Golgotha, resulting in the claim that the cross was the one from Calvary and the subsequent pumping up of the Passion story that derided the Jews. Carroll’s history lesson also takes us back to the 11th-century Crusades—not the better-known ones that went due east toward Islam, but rather those, goaded on by priests, that went up and down the Rhine wiping out Jewish settlements in the name of Christ.
Perhaps the most shameful part of the Church’s history occurred during the rise of Nazism, when the Vatican made the first bilateral agreement with the Nazis and Pope Pius XII never spoke clearly about the plight of the Jews—even as they were being rounded up by the Nazis in 1943 from an ancient Jewish settlement only blocks from the Vatican walls. The most powerful part of the film might be the story of Edith Stein, a Jew who converted to Catholicism and became a nun in the 1930s. During the rise of Nazism she wrote a letter to the Vatican warning of the fate of the Jews. Stein was later murdered at Auschwitz. She was made a Saint in 1998 but the letter wasn’t mentioned and one of the best scenes in Constantine’s Sword shows a nun getting the letter out to the archives, saying that it was the first time anyone had ever asked to see it. Ironically, a huge cross was erected at Auschwitz, the very symbol that, for Carroll, in many ways began the persecution of the Jews by Christians.
Constantine’s Sword does bring up important historical and contemporary questions about how religion is used for war and persecution—issues that are especially relevant given that the present “global war on terror” is sparked and fuelled largely by religion. Still, one wonders who Carroll’s intended audience is. It can’t really be meant only for atheists or agnostics, as that would be only preaching to the choir. The film’s criticism—which comes from the perspective of a man who one supposes still believes in formal religion to some degree—would be most effective if seen by those who were “born into a pure church” and who would thus benefit from this history-lesson perspective. I’m not sure how many people fit that description here in NYC, and those who do probably don’t go to art-house theaters.