A novel about centuries of Jewish-Christian relations

James Carroll tells a story of faith, reason, and freedom.

In 2001, James Carroll wrote Con­stantine’s Sword, an unrelenting, un­forgiving 756-page history of Chris­tianity’s sin of anti-Semitism. Hatred of Jews, he argued, was embedded in the Gospels from the beginning and was formalized when Constantine, in an effort to restore the Roman Empire under his rule, seized the cross as a symbol of military power at the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312 and then summoned the bishops to Nicaea in 325 to formulate a creed. Now the church could determine who was in and who was out—and enforce it with a sacred sword. Hating Jews became doctrine.

In an earnest lament that some scholars regard as overly simplistic, Carroll claims that if only the church had followed Abelard’s lead in the 12th century toward a humane and faithful reconciliation between Christian and Jews—if only the church hierarchy had paid more attention to his theology and less to his love for his brilliant student, Heloise—history would have been different. “After a thousand years of misbegotten Jew hatred . . . this profoundly Catholic thinker lifted the pike on a road toward Jewish-Christian mutuality, a road leading to an end to hatred and the beginning of real respect. Alas for the Church, and more so for the Jews, it was a road not taken.”

In The Cloister, Carroll takes us down that road, using elements of his own biography to create a story of faith, reason, forgiveness, and freedom. His father was in the air force and stationed at the Pentagon, so Carroll learned his first lessons of prejudice in the “old South” of suburban Virginia. When the family was transferred to Germany in the early 1950s, he began to learn about the Holocaust and see its continuing destructive power. He be­came a Catholic priest but eventually left the priesthood, shifted his focus to writing, and got married.