James Carroll’s Broad Critique of Catholic Culture

Author James CarrollJames Carroll published Toward a New Catholic Church in 2002, close on the heels of Constantine’s Sword, his bestselling historical essay about the deep strains of anti-Judaism in the Catholic Church. The scandal over the sexual abuse of children by priests was unfolding even as Carroll was writing, and the Church’s institutional complicity with the abusers was becoming more and more apparent with every fresh revelation. In Toward a New Catholic Church, Carroll adds his voice to a growing chorus of Catholics calling for reform—specifically, for a new Church council (Vatican III) that will end the Church’s moral paralysis and restore its damaged credibility regarding not only its historical anti-Judaism and the priest child abuse scandal but a host of other issues including birth control, homosexuality, the status of women, celibacy in an all-male priesthood, and the Church’s exclusionary stance toward other religions. There can be little doubt that Carroll and others calling for such reforms have embraced “modernist” values of democracy, reason, and pluralism, and for this they are ignored or denounced by more conservative and orthodox Catholics bent on preserving the status quo.

As a secular humanist who was never a Catholic, I am both handicapped and privileged in approaching Carroll’s work. I am handicapped because I have no deep understanding of Catholicism, and I am privileged because my perspective has not been shaped in any significant way by that faith. But the real question is, Why is this debate any of my business?

My answer is that I must speak because many of the Church’s teachings are causing both physical and psychological suffering to millions of human beings throughout the world—Catholics and non-Catholics alike. Take, for example, the Church’s teaching against contraception. The current pope (Benedict), in complete disregard of scientific findings on the matter, said during a trip to Cameroon in March 2009 that condom distribution “increases the problem” of HIV infection. This was a highly irresponsible statement. Sub-Saharan Africa has approximately 22 million people infected with HIV, and evidence-based health programs there strongly recommend condoms as among the least expensive and most effective ways to curb the spread of the virus. The Pope’s declaration has thus spread lethal misinformation that will almost certainly cause incalculable suffering and perhaps millions of deaths.

Another example: The Church’s public teaching that homosexual acts are “intrinsically disordered” has inflicted enormous pain and rests on a profound hypocrisy, considering the unusually high percentage of gay men in the Catholic clergy. The teaching is also empirically untrue. Every mental health and medical association in the U.S. has stated unequivocally that there is no evidence that homosexuality is a disorder. Meanwhile, the suicide rate among same-sex-oriented teens in the U.S. continues to be more than three times that of heterosexual teens. There is a clear and well-established connection between these suicides and the extremely toxic religious teachings about homosexuality that the Catholic Church and other Christian churches are propagating. These teachings inculcate sexual self-hatred among Christian homosexuals and create a culture of denigration toward homosexuals in general.

As I write, the African nation of Uganda is considering legislation that would impose the death penalty for homosexual acts (which are already illegal) and imprisonment for anyone—even an expatriate—who defends a gay man or lesbian. In spite of worldwide outrage about this, Pope Benedict has been silent (Uganda’s population is 35% Roman Catholic), and in late December 2009, he wrote to thank the Ugandan government for providing a hospitable environment for Catholics there. In his letter, there was no mention of these human rights violations against homosexuals. This could not have been an oversight. It may well have been regarded by Ugandan officials as a tacit acceptance of their policies.

These are only a few examples of ways in which certain deeply flawed teachings of the Church cause suffering and injustice among Catholics and non-Catholics alike. And they are only the tip of the iceberg. The problems go deep into the history and theology of the Church since its beginnings, and I would refer the reader to Carroll’s book for an in-depth treatment of them. My examples were of teachings about sexuality, but Carroll is also concerned about the structure and governance of the Church, the status of women, and the Church’s “supercessionist” stance toward Judaism. He calls for a much more democratic governance (“Bishops should be chosen by the people they serve.”), equal rights for women in every sphere, freedom of expression and of conscience, and an end to “exceptionalism”—the notion that the Church “as such” is exempt from moral reckoning.

One of the major reforms Carroll proposes has to do with the Church’s foundational texts—the New Testament canon itself, which contains the seeds of the Church’s anti-Judaism, its deep suspicion of sexuality, and its condescension toward women. To follow Carroll’s argument, we must first grasp a fundamental Catholic teaching about the authority of the Church over scripture.

Martin Luther believed that Christians should be guided by Scripture alone (sola scriptura) and that no mediation through a priestly caste was necessary. He saw the Catholic Church’s deference to the authority of priests and prelates as a form of idolatry. By contrast, the Catholic Church has always claimed primacy over the Word. This is because the Church remembers its own early role in deciding which Christian writings were to be included in the canon.

To this day, the Catholic faith is more sacrament-centered, as opposed to the various strains of Protestantism, which are more Bible-centered. Therefore, as Carroll points out, the Catholic Church is uniquely positioned to confront the “problem of the foundational texts,” as he puts it. In my own view, this advantage may be offset by the hierarchical and anti-democratic nature of the Church since its wedding to empire in the era of Constantine. The Church’s authority over Scripture is vested mainly in its senior clergy, which is broadly resistant to change.

On the subject of anti-Judaism, Carroll recapitulates many of the points he made in his bestselling 2001 book, “Constantine’s Sword.” He reminds us that Jesus was a Jew—as were nearly all of the earliest Christians, including Paul and the authors of the Gospels—and that the Romans—not other Jews—were responsible for Jesus’ death. Why, then, did the New Testament writers—all Jews—blame the Jews for his death?

As Jews, Jesus’ friends and followers sought to understand his death in Jewish apocalyptic terms. They needed to see him as the Messiah and to somehow re-tell and interpret his story so that it conformed to scriptural prophecy and confirmed Jesus’ messianic role. Such an interpretation would impart meaning to his death and confer legitimacy on the Christian movement. Thus, certain details such as the seamless robe and the pierced side were woven into the narrative to make Jesus’ death appear as a “fulfillment” of Psalm 22. But also integral to this narrative template was the idea that Jesus, like Job and the “Suffering Servant” of Isaiah, was a victim of his own people. Such an idea would certainly have found legs in a Jewish society riven by discord and factionalism under the Roman rule—especially around 70 C.E., when the Romans brutally suppressed the Jews and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple. Wars, Carroll reminds us, often set victims against each other. And thus the revisionist narrative available from Biblical literature neither included nor needed foreign oppressors and was in fact more meaningful—and useful—if kept within a purely Jewish frame of reference. Those “other” Jews—the ones who did not accept Jesus’ messianic role—were ultimately to be slandered (scapegoated) for having crucified (scapegoated) the Messiah, when in fact the crucifixion was the work of the Romans.

The Romans would certainly not have allowed the circulation of cult writings that threatened their hegemony in the region, and a Passion story inculpating them might have had just that effect. So their interests and those of early Christian writers dovetailed nicely. These writers folded the entire narrative back into Jewish history and tradition. Thus, the story of Jesus as we know it was largely invented during that first century, and the truth of his life and ministry was gradually obscured by mythical elements that served evolving political agendas.

The problem was that Christian teachings soon spread among the Gentiles, who read the Passion story as a story of Jesus “against” the Jews—all the Jews, not just those “others.” Carroll writes, “The seed of Christian Jew-hatred was planted here, with the old set against the new, with Jews defined as the enemy not only of Jesus but of God, and with Judaism defined as the religion that had outlived God’s covenant.”

Carroll believes that the Gospel narrative is unworthy of the story it should be telling because it slanders the Jews and plants the seeds of an entire “replacement” or “supersessionist” theology concerning them. This theology has resulted in the Jews being cast as Christianity’s negative “other” over nearly 20 centuries, with the deplorable results that history records.

What is to be done? The Church cannot very well “undo” what it did in formalizing the New Testament canon. Rather, Carroll claims, the Church must now preach against those texts and against its own use of them over the centuries. The Gospels must be proclaimed as “a revelation of the flawed nature of those who created them.”

“That proclamation of a flawed Gospel, created by flawed believers, leads to what is, after all, good news—that the one whom the Gospel proclaims is the one who will return again to bring this flawed beginning to its completion. …Vatican III…must renew the Christian expectation that there is more to come, exactly because the Kingdom of God is unfinished.”

I wandered into a Catholic Church the other day at the end of a long walk in the mist and rain. A New Years Day service was just starting, and I felt drawn by the music to sit on the back row and listen. There was so much beauty all around me, especially in the stained glass and the architecture of the building itself, and so I immediately felt peaceful and composed. Sitting still and quiet while listening to lovely music and focusing one’s gaze on a stained glass mandala has to be calming. I didn’t find the homily very inspiring, and so my thoughts turned to James Carroll and his book. And I wondered, “What would all this look like and be like if Carroll’s Vatican III were to happen? Would the reformed church have any resemblance to what I am seeing now? Would a Catholic church begin to appear more like an Anglican one, or even a Unitarian one?”

And would it matter, if one were focusing more on the substance than the form of Catholic culture?

A wrenching historical process seems to be under way, and Catholics like Carroll are hoping that the Church will embrace that process and allow reform to happen, even with all the pain and the risks that are involved. But the Church is old and entrenched, like people themselves sometimes become, and it seems not to have the courage or the taste for change. The Church looks back to its own long history of travail in the face of reform efforts and asks, “Do we have the strength for this again?” and “Can the Church survive one more assault on its very reason for existence?”

My guess is that the Church is nowhere near reform yet.

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