If, sometime in the next few decades, humanity kicks the religion habit once and for all, the current crop of atheist agitators (Hitchens, Dawkins, etc.) will deserve plenty of credit. But they'll need to share that credit with the faithful who helped make faith absurd — and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church should get the first thank-you note.
Just last month, for example, Pope Benedict XVI kicked off a trip to Africa by announcing that condoms make the problem of AIDS worse — a statement that would be comical if its implications weren't so lethal. Earlier this year, the Pope rescinded the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, the Holocaust-denying Catholic schismatic, and then seemed genuinely baffled at the ensuing furor. And let's not forget the priest sex-abuse scandal that began here in Boston, spread throughout the world, and revealed the mortifying extent to which the Catholic higher-ups had privileged a desire to keep up appearances over the safety of children.
And yet — despite deep dissatisfaction with much of Catholicism's status quo — a remarkable number of thoughtful, progressive men and women choose to remain in the Church. From the outside, this is a perplexing choice: if you're a frustrated Catholic liberal, why not cut your losses and go Episcopal? Or Unitarian? Or just bag religion altogether?
Enter James Carroll, the author and Boston Globe columnist, whose new book — Practicing Catholic (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28) — could become, for Catholics of a certain stripe, what Bertrand Russell's essay "Why I am not a Christian" has long been for atheists.
Along with polymathic ex-Jesuit Garry Wills, Carroll is possibly the best-known contemporary example of a Catholic dissenter who remains deeply committed to the Church. But even if you're familiar with Carroll's oeuvre — or, given his scathing assessment of the Catholic past and present, especially if you know his work — you'd be hard pressed to say why he does so. (I worked for Carroll as a research assistant when he was writing Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, which argued that Christian and Catholic anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism helped pave the way for the Holocaust, and never quite figured it out.)
Practicing Catholic is Carroll's attempt to explain his stubborn faith, both to his readers and to himself. Constantine's Sword was "a sad, tragic story," Carroll says today. "And one of the great questions I faced everywhere I went, and still face, was, 'Knowing this history, and being so clearly affected by it, how can you still be a Catholic?'
"I go to mass regularly because I need to and want to; it's a source of consolation and support and strength in my life," he adds. "But I'm not the kind of Catholic I was as a child, or a young man, or even a middle-aged man. I'm 66 years old — I'm able to imagine the end of my life in a way that I didn't used to be able to, so the meaning of the tradition is different now. And I knew that I would only be able to actually understand that meaning if I wrote this book."
The method Carroll employs to tease out this meaning — a combination of personal memoir and relatively dispassionate history — will be familiar to anyone who's read Constantine's Sword, or his 2006 Pentagon history House of War, or American Requiem, his National Book Award–winning memoir. But compared with much of Carroll's previous work, Practicing Catholic's overall tone is resolutely empathic and optimistic.
Take, for example, the issue of papal infallibility, an assertion that many liberal Catholics consider a grave impediment to internal church reform, particularly on matters involving sex and gender. Yes, Carroll reminds readers that the doctrine in question isn't an eternal verity — it was actually formulated in 1870 — but he makes the point sympathetically. Infallibility came into being, he writes, at a moment when Italian nationalist Giuseppe Garibaldi's Red Shirt fighters had surrounded Rome, preparing to destroy the papacy's temporal power. So the anxious bishops assembled at the first Vatican Council "responded . . . by defining [the Pope's] spiritual power as more total than had ever been the case before." The subsequent embrace of this dubious doctrine by the Catholic laity, meanwhile, is framed as a response to genuinely anti-Catholic discrimination (in, among other places, "No Irish Need Apply" Boston).
Coupled with Carroll's deep Catholic roots, this conviction that Catholicism's flaws are historical and mutable rather than inherent could be enough to explain his continued devotion. (He grew up within an intensely Catholic family, and spent several years as a Paulist priest.) But in Practicing Catholic, Carroll pushes the pro-reform argument even further. Reform, he says, is not just possible, but inevitable — and momentum has already shifted to Catholicism's liberal contingent.