An Offer You Can Refuse

James Carroll is nothing if not ambitious as a writer, and in Practicing Catholic he has given us at least three books for the price of one. That is an attractive offer during a miserable recession. But it is not the bargain it seems.

If the three books in question were available separately, one of them would definitely be worth the effort. A good part of Practicing Catholic is a memoir of Carroll’s own Irish-Catholic upbringing, his formation and five years as a Paulist priest starting in the late 1960s, and the aftermath of his decision to leave the priesthood in 1974. Carroll has written about his life in the Vietnam era before (in the National Book Award-winning An American Requiem), and he has great material to work with. A seminarian in the immediate wake of Vatican II, a peace activist, and a campus minister involved in war resistance, Carroll experienced the turmoil in the church and in the country from the front row. These remain his formative years, and even his passionate, over-the-top pages about reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl” are a reminder of the liberating, highly emotional excitement that still shapes Carroll’s identity and expectations.

Carroll writes best when he brings alive something of the words and powerfully appealing personalities of his 1960s heroes: Thomas Merton, preacher and activist William Sloane Coffin, theologian and council peritus Hans Küng. He reserves special affection for Cardinal Richard Cushing, whose common touch and refreshing interventions at Vatican II remained an inspiration for Carroll during his first priestly assignment in Boston. Cushing, in fact, becomes one of the book’s leitmotifs thanks to his conflicts in the 1940s with Jesuit Leonard Feeney, whose aggressive preaching of “no salvation outside the church” ultimately drove Cushing to silence him. Carroll’s claim is that Cushing realized Feeney’s message couldn’t possibly mean damnation for Cushing’s own good and decent Jewish brother-in-law. It was a sin against charity, and therefore clearly wrong, whatever its theological merits.

That image—the crumbling of church teaching under the force of enlightened awareness—underlies the second of the books Practicing Catholic wants to be: a history of the evolution of the church’s thought, not just in Carroll’s lifetime, but all time. That history, selectively retold, is almost entirely an oppressive one. Its overarching theme is the betrayal of the original Christian insights through centuries of ecclesiastical power grabs: the suppression of scriptures, fear of scientific thinking, myths made up to keep women and the rest of us in our place. Much of what the church has based its teaching and traditions on just doesn’t hold water and never did, and Carroll is confident that historical-critical insight will help us separate the wheat from the chaff.

Humanae vitae, priestly celibacy, and papal infallibility are, unsurprisingly, front and center as contemporary emblems of primitive thinking and the church’s love of control. Yet even readers who find all three deserving of serious criticism may feel exhausted by the one-sidedness of the condemnations. Carroll reserves special wrath for the current pope; under Ratzinger’s influence, “the main fact of Catholic life...has been cruelty.” As for John Paul II, even his harshest critics will feel like defending him after hearing Carroll claim that the ultimate impact of his years in the papacy may have a parallel in the forces that led to the 9/11 attacks, since his reign planted “seeds of a related zealotry.”

Carroll the polemical historian can be undisciplined in organization and argument. A long chapter starting with Vatican II’s approval of Mass in the vernacular takes us into not just the evils of Latin (just a power trip for those who understand it), but Copernicus, Galileo, Darwin, the destructive force of biblical literalism, the unjust suppression of gospels, and more than fifteen pages on the misinterpretation of Mary Magdalene. It’s clearly meant to make its case through sheer historical sweep, and of course a few of the shots fired do hit their target. But given its relentlessly accusatory tone, I felt not the weighty judgment of history but the presence of that finger-jabbing stranger who corners you in a bar with an explanation of how everything bad all fits together. (“Don’t you see? It all goes back to Constantine.”)

When our past needs to be cleaned out so thoroughly, what are we left with? It is sometimes hard to tell. “Ideological violence begins in intolerance,” Carroll writes, “which begins in dogma.” So much for dogma, then! (Even the dogma of tolerance?) Jesus is God, he professes, but claims for the primacy or necessity of Jesus are mostly impossible by definition. Our canon of Scripture is manipulated and incomplete. Our survival as individuals after death is iffy. Favorite traditions also have to go: Lourdes miracles are “hysterias,” the Confiteor’s stylized breast-beating is “an act of self-hating violence.” As educated, modern Catholics, we need to see through all this by coming to our own insights through—what exactly?

That is where Practicing Catholic’s third book comes in: Our road to enlightenment, it turns out, is writing. The final chapter, “A Writer’s Faith,” suggests that Carroll’s own evolution from priest to writer can illuminate a path we all need to follow. “A basic understanding of the faith as imagination and expression can brace every Catholic’s identity.” Who could argue with that? Yet Carroll goes further, and his love of the writer’s “thirst for meaning” and the creative process lead him to some lofty theologizing that seems to divinize words themselves. Vaulting well beyond the image of God as the Word in John’s Gospel, Carroll tells us that “language is God,” and later, “God is language.” I finished the book impressed with Carroll’s burning passion for his writerly vocation, but also, unusual for me, with a nagging appetite for some dogma.

In a book in which language is exalted to this extent, it’s also jarring that many passages of the actual writing are, well, cringe-inducing. A prolific novelist, New Yorker contributor, and National Book Award winner, Carroll has serious authorial credentials. But judge for yourself: “In the writing of poetry, I discovered a way to navigate the oceanic vastness of my feelings...” “Beginning six years before, I had crossed the threshold into my own manhood...” “We, writer and reader, are meeting at a rare depth of meaning.” In an age of irony, it’s rare to see someone write this way without a wink; rare also to find a writer who footnotes a mention of his own poetry with a favorable blurb from the cover.

Carroll’s rhetoric can fall flat when he has a chance to define a vision of what our poetic, liberated church could look like. “What Jesus offers is not salvation, which is only a negative rescue from damnation. Instead Jesus offers a positive completion of life.” (I think I’ll take the salvation.) Later, we read: “But I am a Catholic, and not another kind of Christian, because Catholicism is a necessary realm of community responsibility and historical consciousness.” Even Vatican documents can summon a little more color than that.

It’s really too bad. As John Wilkins wrote in these pages just a few issues ago, many of us liberal-ish Catholics can feel lost these days, coping with everything from a revised sacramentary no one wants to our new best friends in the Society of St. Pius X. We could use books that give us inspiration and companionship, and perhaps even a way forward. Instead, Practicing Catholic is yet another example of the unpleasant side effects of outrage and certainty. Carroll argues forcefully, and at times convincingly, for a church that is more responsive and less fearful. Yet his fury is itself oppressive. It has striking parallels in the literature of the angry Catholic Right, with its ignorant enemies everywhere opposing the triumph of Truth. Let’s have some critical and even edgy manifestoes, by all means, but I hope there are more appealing and coherent paths for us to follow than this one.


Related: Robert Louis Wilken's review of 'Constantine's Sword'
John D. Spalding's 1997 interview with James Carroll
Paul Baumann, "Re: James Carroll"

Published in the 2009-05-08 issue: 

Thomas Baker is the publisher of Commonweal

Also by this author
Princeton Junction, New Jersey

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads