In all the bloodstained and ghastly rampages of messianic religion, you've got to say this for the Catholics: Eventually, they feel terrible about their crimes - even if it takes several centuries (finally exonerating Galileo, for example). I can't imagine most Protestants and Muslims doing that (sorry), especially the current holy-roller breed. In the transfixing new documentary Constantine's Sword, writer James Carroll, a former Roman Catholic priest, dons the proverbial hair shirt regarding the roots of anti-Semitism. He investigates sacred sites around Europe, "trying to find out where it all went wrong between Christians and Jews" in the Holy Church in which he was raised.
Carroll's jumping-off point is The Passion of the Christ and the ascendancy of Ted Haggard's megachurch and the National Association of Evangelicals, in bed with the Bush administration and the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. Carroll finds a Jewish Air Force cadet fed up with anti-Semitic slurs among the military men and base pressure to see the Mel Gibson bloodbath. These days, with Gibson and Haggard both stained by scandal, and the Republic Party temporarily having lost its zeal for presidents who claim a direct line to Jesus, this detail seems slightly dated - more so than the medieval Crusades and massacres that take up much of the rest of Carroll's pilgrimage.
Carroll probes legends of the first Christian Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, of the Third Century A.D. - a convert who ordained the crucifix the official Christian symbol (sweeping aside the fish, the lamb and the leopard; maybe a new marketing survey is called for). Constantine - who had some pretty Caligula-like aspects - might have been sincerely devout or might have been a ruthless despot who used Christianity as a weapon to consolidate his power. He sure wasn't the last in that respect. Constantine (and his mother St. Helena) can be credited with a number of Catholic myths and relics - including the alleged robe worn by Christ, for which the Roman soldiers cast lots; almost certainly a fiction, but one which was (surprise, surprise) cemented as Cinemascope fact in the Hollywood Bible epic The Robe.
Also at the feet of Constantine can be laid Christianity's militant warrior face, which came out in the Crusades, for which the Arab world has yet to forgive the West (as everyone learned after 9/11). Carroll reveals that, as a warm-up on their way to fight Muslims for Jerusalem, Crusaders massacred villages of Jews along the Rhine River. The Church only gave sanctuary to the Jews who converted. Carroll's narrative (based on his own book), in the manner of a literary essay, hops across the time lines, making profound connections (the Crusaders with the megachurch evangelicals, the Spanish Inquisition with the Final Solution) and skillfully weaving in his own story of growing up steeped in Catholicism.
His initials were J.C.; his mother was named Mary; his father Joseph, with whom Carroll had a painful break over Vietnam - another failed crusade there - was a Pentagon strategist in the "nuclear priesthood" of the Kennedy administration (the first and only Catholic president). By the time Carroll brings things back to Colorado Springs and Bush, you've had a Da Vinci Code-load of troubling revelations and striking epiphanies. Is Carroll overstating his case against the Air Force Academy, mixing in his own guilt and daddy issues? Perhaps, but if he's correct, you're really going to be left behind when the religious wars heat up.
Constantine's Sword: 8:50 p.m. Friday, July 25, and at 7:25 p.m. Saturday, July 26 at
Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque, 11141 East Blvd., 216-421-7450.