A Conversation with James Carroll
James Carroll joined the Catholic priesthood in 1969, but left five years later, dismayed by clericalism and corruption. Since then, he has authored 20 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including several volumes advancing church reform, as well as the award-winning Constantine’s Sword. His memoir, An American Requiem, received the National Book Award. His most recent work is the critically acclaimed novel, The Cloister, which follows a young priest as he considers the life he might have had outside the priesthood. Earlier this year, The Atlantic published his controversial article, “The Catholic Church Should Abolish the Priesthood.” Here, he talks to Conscience about politics (within and outside the church), interfaith dialogue, religious liberty and his vision of a church beyond hierarchy.
Conscience: Did your father’s career in the FBI and, later, as special investigator at the Pentagon influence your assessment/perception of the church hierarchy as corrupt?
James Carroll: My father, Lt. Gen. Joseph Carroll, the founding director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, was the North Star of my religious conviction and patriotic awareness. That he and I had a painful falling out during the Vietnam War—a conflict of mutually affirmed conscience—only reinforced his central place in my life and thought. As a military man, authority formed the structure of his personality, which became my legacy, too. I grew up saying, “Sir!” But then I learned that my father, inside the war rooms of the Pentagon, had stood against his fellow generals’ commitments to the air war in Vietnam, and even to the possible use of nuclear weapons, and that he had effectively sacrificed his career to oppose the Nixon administration’s politicization of intelligence. My father, for all his patriotic devotion to authority, chose conscience over obedience. I lay no claim to such integrity for myself, but I do recognize in my lifetime of questioning Catholic authority a legacy that my devout Catholic father might claim as his own.
Like almost all Catholics, I have, in fact, been quite slow in responding to the grievous moral failures of the church hierarchy. The simple fact is that the Roman Catholic priesthood—the central pillar of Catholic life—is a male supremacist institution. How have we Catholics made our peace with that? If the priesthood excluded African Americans, the world—including Catholics—would not tolerate such injustice. Male supremacy and white supremacy are equivalent sins. Yet, regarding this issue, a vast complacency has settled on the church, making its members, including most women, as well as “liberals,” complicit. Almost all of the Catholic church’s contemporary dysfunctions, such as skewed theology of reproduction, neurotic sexual morality, clergy abuse and clericalism, are tied to a profound theological denigration of women. The lynchpin of what must be reformed is the inequality of women, symbolized by the church’s prohibition of women as priests. How is it that we Catholics still live with this injustice so blithely?
Almost all of the Catholic church’s contemporary dysfunctions, such as skewed theology of reproduction, neurotic sexual morality, clergy abuse and clericalism, are tied to a profound theological denigration of women. The lynchpin of what must be reformed is the inequality of women, symbolized by the church’s prohibition of women as priests.
Conscience: What are your thoughts on the new Commission on Unalienable Rights and the remarks of Trump appointees like Mike Pompeo (at the Vatican) and Bill Barr (at Notre Dame) on, for example, rising “anti-Catholic sentiment” and the perceived threat that secularization poses to religious freedom?
James Carroll: Of course, the very notion of “religious freedom” began (with, for example, Roger Williams’s objection to the Massachusetts settler establishment) as freedom of individuals oppressed by theocratic structures of authority. Today, right-wing Americans—Catholics and Evangelicals, especially—want to restore a theocratic imposition on the consciences of citizens—homosexuals and women, especially. Conservatives, including figures in the Catholic hierarchy, cynically exploit “culture war” issues as a means of reclaiming the lost sources of political and cultural power that have marginalized them in recent years.
Conscience: What do you make of the strident criticism of Pope Francis by conservative voices, from Pope Benedict to Archbishop Viganò to Steve Bannon?
James Carroll: The conservatives who rail against Pope Francis are right to see in him as a threat to the structures of power they are determined to defend. His emphases on mercy over dogma, on the poor over the rich, on human solidarity over nationalist tribalism, on reason over superstition undercut the chauvinist assumptions of the reactionary movement that seeks to undo the Enlightenment. Pope Francis may himself be stuck in certain errors of the mind, his instinctive defense of patriarchy, for example, but he may represent the beginning of the church’s overdue correction of its rejection of modernity, including settled values like pluralism, freedom of expression, universal human rights and the primacy of conscience. Francis’s right-wing enemies see that, and they are naturally ferocious in their opposition.
Conscience: You wrote recently about abolishing the priesthood in its current form (i.e., a hierarchy of elite, celibate men). What do you envision in its place? What would a church free from clericalism look like?
James Carroll: All we know for certain today is that the present structure of Catholic clerical power is collapsing. A hundred years from now, the church will not look like today’s Catholicism. But there are some assumptions we can make. Here are just some of the things I foresee. The church’s monarchical model of institutional governance, rooted in the feudal Middle Ages, will have yielded to something more in keeping with the democratic values that mark modernity. The sacramental ministry of the church will have been separated from the structure of institutional power. Power is the issue. The clergy as a caste set apart from, and over, the laity will have been replaced by leaders at the altar who are drawn from the community, and responsible to it— looking more like today’s engaged laity than like clerics. Instead of being a professional class of “clergy” supported by the institution, these figures—women as well as men, of course; married as well as single—may well support themselves. And so on. Once monarchy, male supremacy and extreme sexual repression are left behind, new forms of church life, including “priesthood,” will flourish. I said “a hundred years from now,” but these forms of a new church are already coming into being, a quiet grassroots revolution of Catholic practice and identity unfolding everywhere.
Conscience: Were you surprised by the pushback from progressive Catholics against the idea?
James Carroll: Liberal Catholics are as much at the mercy of a business-as-usual approach to church dysfunction as more traditionally minded folks are. Why have no serious efforts of political pressure been brought to bear against the grievously failed hierarchy? In the 20 years since the Boston Globe shined its spotlight on priestly abuse, no real change has occurred. (Bishops are still adjudicating fellow bishops, instead of their undergoing a mandated submission to civil authority, for example.). Lay resistance, such as the exemplary Voice of the Faithful, has been marginalized by recalcitrant bishops. Organizations of priests, at the diocesan level as well as internationally, have been shamefully passive.
Liberal voices have caviled, but little else. And, of course, when a voice is raised with a drastic proposal for (long overdue) change, critics (liberal and conservative both) would rather attack that voice to defend the all-too-broken priesthood.
Once monarchy, male supremacy and extreme sexual repression are left behind, new forms of church life, including “priesthood,” will flourish.
Conscience: You were intensely critical of the Bush administration and the Iraq war, seeing it as a continuation of the anti-Muslim Crusade mentality. Do you view the actions of the current administration as a further manifestation of this? Or is there something fundamentally different at work?
James Carroll: Deep history is at issue in the current conflicts with Islam. When, shortly after 9/11, George W Bush called the War on Terror a “crusade,” he was inadvertently lifting up the fact that European civilization came into its core identity (“Christendom”) during the Crusades, which were a two-century-long holy war against Islam. Muslims were the negative other against whom the Christian West measured itself positively. That bipolarity undergirds the Western imagination to this day, subtly fueling Mideast wars and popular resentment against the waves of migrants those wars have sparked. A half million civilians have been killed in America’s post-9/11 Middle East wars. The Trump administration (like the neo-fascist populists in Europe) continues this demonizing dynamic, makes it worse—but it did not invent it.
Conscience: You’ve written extensively on the unfortunate history of Jewish- Christian relations. We have seen a rise in anti-Semitic violence in the US— at the same time, we have witnessed the strong ties between Trump and Netanyahu, the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem and controversies over when, whether and how to criticize the actions of the State of Israel. In light of all this, what do you believe the future of Jewish- Christian relations will look like? What do you hope that future looks like?
James Carroll: In reviewing the origins of Western Islamophobia, it is important to see its connection to anti-Semitism. When medieval Europe set itself against Islam as “the enemy outside,” it also loosed a religion-based hostility to “the enemy inside”—Jews, who were “the infidel near at hand.” Crusaders launched Europe’s first anti-Jewish pogroms in 1096. That twin dynamic has been reignited today.
There is no understanding the Israel- Palestine conflict without seeing how those two warring parties are locked in a corner, the walls of which they did not create. Those walls are anti-Semitism and the legacy of white colonialism— both of which originate in Christian Europe. An appreciation of that history animates what must be the position of those outside the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is a simultaneous and firm commitment to both truths: The security of Israel as a Jewish democracy must be protected, and the rights of the Palestinian people to political autonomy must be advanced. Certain things follow: an Israeli government that denies justice to the Palestinians (the Netanyahu government, obviously) must be firmly criticized. The prospects for a resolution achieved by the two parties themselves must be protected, and not short- circuited, by outsiders (the Trump embassy move, also obviously). Resistance by pro-Palestinian movements that falls into old tropes of anti-Semitism must be rejected; for example, the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions campaign that targets the existence of the Jewish state as such. A more proper form of resistance is embodied in the more limited strategy, for example, of boycotting goods made by illegal settler enterprises in the occupied territories. That targets the unjust occupation, not Israel as such. Jewish-Christian relations are profoundly affected by the Israel-Palestine question, but serious religious questions remain. For example, Christian churches have not completed the task of purging anti-Jewish readings of the New Testament from preaching and catechesis. The ancient Christian insistence on Jewish exile as a proof of Christian claims must be more fully understood as a source of Christian unease with the existence of the Jewish state of Israel. And uncritical Evangelical Christian support of Israel— anticipating an Endtime “ingathering” of Jews to the Holy Land—must be seen in its deeper meaning as a new form of the old effort to bring about the conversion of Jews. And so on.