Devout Catholic answers a call to challenge church

Times Staff Writer

Author James Carroll is an idiosyncratic Catholic, a former priest who still celebrates his faith yet rejects the very roots of its doctrine, viewing Christianity’s promise of eternal life as “destructive” and the cross as a symbol of Roman Emperor Constantine’s lust for power.

This unorthodox perspective drives “Constantine’s Sword,” a documentary premiering Sunday at the Los Angeles Film Festival about Carroll’s personal discovery of anti-Semitism in the Catholic church and its influence in today’s evangelical Christian movement.

The film, based on Carroll’s 2001 book, uses his spiritual journey as a guide and his naivete as a cautionary tale, detailing the violence committed by the church over the centuries in Christ’s name. In the end, Carroll warns ominously that the same brand of us-versus-them Christian dogma that dominates America today also led to the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust.

“If you think of religion as a great lake,” Carroll says in the film, “it’s a lake of gasoline and all it’s going to take is someone to drop a match into it for a terrible conflagration ... that’s what the world of weapons of mass destruction means. And when you put religion into that context, as a source of hatred and violence, the worst catastrophe of all is possible. Every religious person has to be responsible for every way their religion encourages intolerance, suspicion, hate and envy of each other. We have some very clear reckoning to do.”


Carroll’s interest in turning his book into a documentary came shortly after the 2004 release of Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ,” which was criticized for what some saw as its depiction of Jews as Christ killers. The film set box office records and demonstrated the enormous cultural influence of conservative Christians, convincing Carroll that he urgently needed to reach a broader audience with his research.

He sought out director Oren Jacoby just as Jacoby began filming “Sister Rose’s Passion,” a short documentary nominated last year for an Oscar, about a nun who helps remove anti-Semitism from Catholic teaching materials.

Jacoby said he was moved by Carroll’s “special kind of intelligence and sensitivity.”

“He was passionate,” Jacoby said. “ ‘Tortured’ is too strong a word, but it’s close. He was someone who was in a real crisis because of his concerns about this religion he cares so deeply about. But more importantly, he was concerned about America and the line that was being crossed between church and state.”

“Constantine’s Sword” tries to link the errors of the past with the religious movements of today, moving fluidly from stories of the Crusades and clips of Hitler Youth rallies to scenes of Catholic youth cheering Pope Benedict XVI and ecstatic kids at evangelical Christian revivals. President Bush is heard in news footage describing the war on terrorism as a “crusade,” a conflict of “good and evil,” and saying, “we have received our rights from God. And we know God is not neutral.”

In the film, Carroll demystifies the church without condescending to it, dispassionately recounting the terrible fate Jews have faced at the hands of Christians.

In person, however, Carroll is far more charged with activist spirit.

At a lecture last week at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, Carroll gripped the podium, blaming the “sadism of Christian piety” for glorifying violence and the doctrine of eternal life for keeping the poor and enslaved from resisting their situations.

“Even in its foundation,” he told a rapt crowd, “the church was getting it wrong. That’s why Christians go to church as much to be forgiven as to be fed.”

In “Constantine’s Sword,” Carroll visits the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo. There, he finds “The Passion of the Christ” movie posters in the cafeteria and students tell him that movie fliers featuring the blood-streaked face of Jesus lined the cafeteria trays of 4,000 cadets for several days.

A 2004 Yale University Divinity School study cited in the film found that academy chaplains urged nonevangelical Christians to convert or “burn in the fires of hell.”

Jewish Air Force cadet Casey Weinstein tells Carroll that he’s treated as an outsider, relentlessly hounded by peers to convert. In 2005, his father and academy alum, Mikey Weinstein, sued the Air Force for encouraging evangelical Christians to proselytize to cadets at the school. (The case never made it to trial.)

From there, Carroll revisits the origins of Christian anti-Semitism, traveling to Trier, Germany, Constantine’s birthplace, where in the 11th century, Crusader mobs wiped out Jewish communities. Back then, the film states, when Jews begged the pope to protect them, he refused to help those who didn’t convert.

In the 20th century, Carroll finds, Trier hosted a celebration of the agreement the pope signed with Adolf Hitler. In it, the pope promised to defend Jews who converted but to do nothing for those who didn’t.

In Rome, Carroll meets the Limentanis, descendants of the hundreds of Jews who -- by order of a 16th century pope -- were rounded up, forced to relinquish their property and their rights and ordered to live in a four-square-mile ghetto that was locked each night and maintained as such for 300 years.

There, Carroll learned that during World War II, Roman Jews were again stripped of their rights, rounded up and killed. The pope remained silent. The Limentanis survived because a priest claimed their young son as his student.

“I was totally blown away by these revelations in the last few years,” said Carroll a day after his Pasadena lecture. “I never saw it. I never heard about it.”

Carroll, 64, was born into a devout Irish Catholic family. His father was an FBI agent who helped establish the U.S. Air Force after World War II and as a three-star general in 1962 warned the Kennedy administration of Cuba’s missiles.

Carroll and his family were often treated as dignitaries during their travels and once were granted a private audience with the pope. That meeting helped lead Carroll to the priesthood.

“The seminary gave me the ability to challenge some of the things I’d never questioned about my church and about America,” Carroll said in the film.

As a priest from 1969 to 1974, Carroll protested the Vietnam War at the same time his father was defending it. He left the priesthood to write and over the years has published nearly two dozen books, novels and nonfiction. He’s become a well-regarded op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe and his 1996 book about the rift with his father, “An American Requiem: God, My Father and the War That Came Between Us,” won the National Book Award.

Last week, Carroll stopped in L.A. as part of a tour for the paperback edition of his 2006 book “House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power,” which traces the history of the Pentagon and his own experience with it.

“I love my country,” he said. “But I’m fully attuned to the ways in which America is a danger to the world today. I’m a firm critic of a whole aspect of American life. [But] I think someone’s love for an institution is directly proportioned to their readiness to criticism of it.”

Carroll hopes that by sharing his troubling discoveries, he’ll motivate Americans and Christians to think more critically of the institutions that dominate their lives and help generate reform. In “Constantine’s Sword,” as in much of his writing, Carroll struggles to understand the root of the world’s violence in the hope that he might find the answer to peace.

“Human beings can never kill each other,” he wrote in his June 18 column for the Boston Globe, “without killing God.”