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Forum focuses on best-selling account of Christian-Jewish history

Photo of James CarrollOn 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 and fact.

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

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