focuses on best-selling account of Christian-Jewish history
the evening of April 27, a chatty, springtime crowd--about half
students--filled Devlin auditorium for what was billed as a "conversation"
with the author James Carroll. In 1996, Carroll's An American
Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came between Us, an
autobiographical account of the young priest's chilled relationship
with his father, an air force general, during the Vietnam War, won
a National Book Award. The subject this evening would be the now
ex-priest's recent and possibly even more controversial best-seller,
Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews; a History--Carroll's
account of the pained relationship between the Catholic Church and
the Jewish people. Like An American Requiem, it is history
leavened with memoir and accompanied by self-examination. Carroll's
visit was sponsored by the Theology Department and Boston College's
new Center for Christian-Jewish Learning. Three BC scholars had
been asked to give their views on Carroll's rendering of theology
Carroll began with a story that appears in his book. He described
how he first encountered anti-Semitism as a child, after suggesting
to his best friend, Peter, that they go for a swim at the local
country club. "We don't go there," said Peter simply, "because it's
a club, and we're Jews." Carroll proceeded to deliver a telescoped
history of Christian-Jewish relations in key times and places, from
the root of Christians' anti-Judaism--biblical accounts of the Crucifixion--through
the emergence of the term "anti-Semitism"in the late 19th century,
to the present time. The Inquisition, when even those Jews who had
converted to Christianity came in for suspicion and maltreatment,
was, he said, a pivotal point. The fear that Jews might corrupt
the Church from within spelled the beginning of "paranoid conspiracy
theories" aimed at all Jews.
Carroll acknowledged advances that the Catholic Church has made
in reconciling with Jews since Vatican II, including the Church's
rejection 36 years ago of the notion that Jews committed deicide,
but he went on to call for a Vatican III, challenging his Church
and coreligionists to redefine their theology in the direction of
a broad, deep inclusiveness. Returning to the story of his friend
Peter, he said, "Christians thought we could recruit God into our
club, but what if God is not recruitable?" God, he said,"is greater
than any religion."
The three BC professors responded to Carroll's book (although not
his remarks of the evening) with respect and some measure of admiration,
but with finely honed criticism as well. Professor of Judaic Studies
Rabbi Ruth Langer spoke first and the most favorably. Putting aside
what she said were "serious questions" that could be raised on a
scholarly level, she opted to discuss the book in a more personal
way. Carroll should have labeled the book a "confession," she said,
rather than a "history." Langer compared Carroll's soul-searching
to the Jewish idea of a moral reckoning that must precede any genuine
act of repentance. But she expressed concern that the Church's post-Vatican
II teachings have not yet penetrated the Catholic community at large.
"Engagement of the confessional process," she said, "is non-negotiable."
Philip A. Cunningham, an adjunct theology professor and the center's
executive director, took issue not only with certain specific historical
references of Carroll's but also with what he considered Carroll's
inadequate attention to the progressive reversals in Church doctrine
since Vatican II. The "revolution," he said, is still being implemented.
Attitudes that became entrenched over nearly 2,000 years take more
than 40 years to reverse.
Lastly, Associate Theology Professor Fr. Robert Imbelli concentrated
on Carroll's call for a revised Christology, the branch of theology
concerned with the nature and significance of Jesus. Imbelli took
several "soundings" from Carroll's book to demonstrate what he said
was the theological inadequacy of Carroll's understanding of Jesus.
He asserted that Carroll's Christology--which emphasizes Jesus as
teacher rather than savior--denies the centrality of Jesus's crucifixion
and death and does not reliably represent Catholic tradition.
Carroll responded graciously if forcefully to the professors' critiques.
"This book," he said, "is not a celebration of what we have done,
but a call for our Church to do much more."
Miriam Udel Lambert
Miriam Udel Lambert is a freelance writer based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Photo: Author James Carroll: recruiting God into the club. Lee Pellegrini