James Carroll is a former Catholic priest, a novelist and the author of “Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History,” an extensive account of the culpability of Christianity in centuries of anti-Semitism.
The new documentary “Constantine’s Sword” weaves together some of that history with Carroll’s own life story. It’s a personal approach that teeters on the edge of self-indulgence at times, like a Michael Moore movie with a much smarter, less obnoxious host.
But the case Carroll lays out is dispiriting and urgent, and the look at current events makes the movie even more pointed. Carroll serves as the on-camera guide, and wrote the script with director Oren Jacoby.
The movie is bookended by Carroll’s concern over a Jewish friend whose sons were the brunt of anti-Semitic slurs while attending the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He wondered why flyers were left at every dining-hall seat advertising a sanctioned screening of “The Passion of the Christ.”
Colorado Springs is also home to busy evangelical fervor, partly led by Pastor Ted Haggard, who is interviewed in the film and proudly notes his weekly advice sessions with the White House. With his phony-baloney grin and smarmy manner, Haggard might be a too-easy target as a representative of the religious right, but the filmmakers couldn’t have known that after interviewing him he’d confess to “sexual immorality” after being implicated in a sex and drugs scandal with a male escort.
Soon, the film shifts to Carroll’s own life, including a teenage meeting with Pope John XXIII, when Carroll sensed his destiny as a priest. His career as a clergyman ended in the midst of his opposition to the Vietnam War, but his disenchantment with the Church also came from looking at past history.
The movie lays out of a few of the instances of anti-Semitism in world history, presumably streamlined from Carroll’s book. His reach is wide, telling not only the story of the Rome ghetto, which was made official by papal decree in 1555, but also interviewing Jewish people who still live in the neighborhood today.
The bellicose evangelical Christianity in today’s America also disturbs Carroll. The movie includes footage of a young preacher telling his youthful audience, “The kingdom of God is not a matter of talk, but of power,” words that have undoubtedly been spoken before many a fruitless crusade over the last couple of thousand years.
“Constantine’s Sword” ranges far, perhaps too widely. But Carroll’s voice is as clear as a church bell, and he’s got the credibility to back up his arguments.