James Carroll’s book describes the difficult relationship with the Catholic Church
Catholics of a certain age and of certain outlook, like many readers of NCR, will find in James Carroll’s latest book, Truth at the Heart of Lies: How the Catholic Church Lost Her Soul – A Memory of Faith, a useful framework for our relationship with the church.
I am thinking in particular of Catholics encouraged by the inclusiveness and compassion shown by Pope Francis but baffled by a Church that remains mired in clericalism and resistant to reforms already too long delayed.
Put aside, for now, the heated criticisms and defenses inflamed by Carroll’s 2019 article, âAbolish the Priesthood,â which preceded the book.
Consider the book’s most interesting argument instead:
The paradox of the pontificate of Francis lies in the fact that it opposes the ânot yetâ to the âmore tolerableâ, and it presents to Catholics who yearn for the recovery of their church a heart-wrenching dilemma.
As he does throughout the book, Carroll makes it personal:
It is my dilemma that pushed me to undertake this long journey in memory, which is also an examination of conscience, a preparation for choice.
It’s a choice centered on this question, “How could we move forward with this church?”
Carroll arrives at his own answer through a mixture of memory and history, an approach some critics dismiss as overly self-referential. I find it engaging, especially in light of Carroll’s extraordinary personal history.
Carroll follows his relationship with the church over nearly eight decades. He offers convincing and not always flattering self-portraits of the curious altar boy who has found a friend in Jesus; the dazzled youngster whose personal meeting with Pope John Paul XXIII continues to mark âthe beginning of pure joy for the rest of my lifeâ; the anti-war son of a brigadier general; the rebellious priest who has moved away; the struggling Catholic who, until recently, remained a fighter in the fold.
Carroll includes himself among Catholics he accuses of not having fought hard enough for change, especially in light of clergy sexual abuse, concluding that “this refusal of the inner circle of so-called devotees to do more that squirming as scandals proliferate amounts to a grave breach of Christian responsibility. “
Instead of continuing to squirm, Carroll opts for a path he calls resistance. For him, it is a position which, in addition to being expressed, means no longer attending Mass or participating in the activities of an ecclesial structure that he considers almost irrecoverable.
I say “almost” because Carroll leaves the door slightly ajar.
âReplacing the sick model of the church with something healthy may mean, for a time, keeping one’s distance from officially authorized masses,â he writes. “It can mean life on the fringes – less in the benches than in the farthest shadows, or even outside. That remains my position for now.”
The author proposes to restore the health of a sick church with âlegions of sane believers – from grassroots community organizers to deacons in parishes without priests, to parents who band together for the religious instruction of young people, to social activists. who tackle injustice in the name of Jesus. Christ – all insisting on the Catholic nature of what they do. “
Arguing that “the spirit of resistance is what must energize reformist Catholics now”, he describes a kind of “inner exile” which he says is different from total departure.
Carroll seems determined to create a new category of former Catholics. He doesn’t seem so much a fallen Catholic as a partial estrangement – a Catholic who doesn’t just walk away quietly is rather making a commotion.
âSee us as the conscientious objectors of the Church,â he urges. âWe are not deserters.
Carroll’s church diagnosis and prescription have arrived near us. Carroll is a past communicant of the Paulist Center, the spiritual home of my wife, Carol, and myself since we moved to Boston eight years ago.
In 2018, in part in response to the latest clergy sexual abuse revelations, Carol and I helped bring together a church group aimed at shifting the issue of âleavingâ or âstayingâ to how we would live our lives as than Catholics.
Some of the original members of this group have since moved on, arguing, as Carroll does, that a fairly large part of the official church has abandoned evangelical values ââthat they feel compelled to disassociate themselves from the institution.
In the book, Carroll predicts, âThe exiles themselves will become the nucleus, as the exiles were the nucleus in Jesus’ day. the earthly institution to its transcendent significance.
Carroll argues that change has already begun, reflected in the “tens of millions of moral decisions and personal actions … informed by choosing to be Catholic on our own terms, detached from an old rotten scaffolding.”
For Carroll, exile is nothing new. In a reflection on the advent published in NCR nearly 50 years ago, he described an exile that began, for him, with the failure of the Church to keep the promise of Vatican II.
As a young Paulista priest serving as a Boston University campus chaplain, he wrote in our December 3, 1971 issue: âI am in exile in my own country, and so may you.
Even in exile, he closes his reflection with hope: âThere are sounds of men and women moving about, standing … There is the sound of day breaking.
At the Paulist Center these days we listen to those same sounds. We are exploring how we might infuse the post-pandemic liturgies in our downtown chapel with part of the âdayâ we experienced during the Zoom family liturgies that we enjoyed during COVID-19.
We hope the lessons learned from our pandemic exile will help us move from what Carroll describes as the ânot yetâ to some of the âpresentâ that the church desperately needs.
And as Carroll points out in the conclusion of his book, âHope is a choice.