Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Rescue the Boston Globe

Today's shining example of media idiocy in the face of the Scandal comes from op-ed columnist and aging ex-priest James Carroll, whose proposal is a simple one: Catholicism, Carroll opines, needs to be rescued from the Vatican:

Fundamentalism is the raising of religious barricades against tides of change. Protestant fundamentalists use the Bible (quoting verses of scripture) as both sword and shield. Catholic fundamentalists use the papacy that way (quoting encyclicals). Today’s Vatican presides as center of a command society with global reach, attempting to exert absolute control over all aspects of Catholic life, from the major (doctrine) to the minor (altar boys). Despite the impression that even many Catholics have, such papal dominance is a modern phenomenon. The Vatican was not always a corporate headquarters, with the world’s bishops as menial regional office managers, priests as messengers, the laity as mere customers. [...]

In subsequent decades, the Vatican solidified this unprecedented centralization (which was enabled by new technologies like telegraph, railroads, and ocean liners) with a new version of canon law, Rome-based institutions like the North American College that made a symbolic drinking from the Tiber a pre-requisite for promotion to bishop, and “concordat’’ treaties with states that emphasized Vatican prerogatives over the local church (including the notorious Reichskonkordat that undercut German Catholics and their resistance to Hitler). But Catholics everywhere found cohesion in their identification with the Holy Father, an especially vital advantage in places where they faced political oppression, as in Ireland, or discrimination, as in America. In effect, the pope replaced Jesus Christ as the face of the church, and the more the pontiff was attacked, the more papal loyalty defined the core Catholic value. These developments occurred for understandable human reasons, but they resulted in a grave distortion of the Gospel, which lifts up the face of Jesus as central and defines church authority by service, not power.

Surprisingly, no one saw this distortion more clearly than a pope — John XXIII, who called, yes, a council to correct it. His Vatican II (1962-65) aimed to restore the “collegiality’’ of bishops (the pope only as “first among equals’’); to reinvigorate local expressions of belief (hence worship in the vernacular); and to retrieve the “priesthood of all believers’’ as a check on clericalism. Vatican II was a step toward the democratizing of the Catholic Church, which is why Catholic fundamentalists have been seeking to undo it ever since. Fundamentalist-in-chief has been Joseph Ratzinger.

If you want to read more of this drivel, including Carroll's laughable view of Church history and his solemn congratulations for American nuns for stupidly shilling for abortion, well, I'm not stopping you. I'm not recommending it, either, and I think that you may need digestive aids to read the whole thing.

I could go point-by-point through the piece, but honestly, it's not worth it. This tangled mess boils down to the same sort of thing that the products of writers of Carroll's age usually boil down to: once upon a time there was a golden vision of Freedom from all sorts of authority, especially religious, governmental, military, sexual, and, well, the people who make laws against recreational drugs. It was a grand and glorious time of experimentation, and some of them were quite sure they were on the verge of Heaven, or Nirvanna, or Something Really Deep involving the merging (at last!) of philosophy, art, music, and, well, recreational drugs.

But then the meanies who like rules managed to stay in charge, after all the demonstrations and love-ins and peace, brother moments, and all that Freedom led to lots of unintended consequences like having to spend weekends with your son and your ex-daughter-in-law and your ex-daughter-in-law's new girlfriend and your son's child and your daughter-in-law's new girlfriend's children from her previous marriages, while your son complains about how his mother and her fourth husband who is two years older than your son is won't let the lot of them come for Thanksgiving because she claims her new condo is too small...but of course, it's much, much healthier than in the old repressed days. And the government is becoming more to your liking all the time, and the military will damned well have to accept open homosexuals, and some places are finally starting to legalize marijuana, and if it weren't for the Church you could sit back smugly and contemplate the much better world you're leaving your children.

But the Church didn't play along. Somewhere between Vatican II and the present day the vision of Kumbaya and womynpriests and the Rite of Blessing for Contraceptive Unmarried Fornication with the companion Rite of Blessing for Aborting the Unwanted Fetus dissipated along with the smoke of one too many recreational drugs. People of Carroll's generation have awakened to the reality that the Church is still the Church, and that all that business about being preserved by God from lurching into the many farcial blessings for evil acts that other branches of Christianity have created (we won't actually name the Episcopalians, here, but only because we don't actually have to) is, in fact, true; that the Pope simply can't make a mistake on matters of faith or morals, and isn't about to redesign Catholicism to look like a cross between a trendy eco-aware coffee-shop and a TV-studio therapy session (even if, regrettably, some church architecture reflects either or both of those themes better than they do anything about worship, and so forth).

But James Carroll, and people who think like he does, aren't ready to accept that reality. The Scandal thus becomes, for them, a convenient opportunity to point the finger of blame at "the rules" and "the fundamentalism" and "the notion that some things are actually not just impolite or insensitive but sinful, such as abortion, various kinds of sex between people who aren't married to each other, and, well, the use of recreational drugs," as causes for the Scandal itself. In their viewpoint, if the Church would just quit being hierarchical and rules-oriented and concerned about sin and faithful to the mission that God has entrusted to her, and instead become trendy and relaxed and inclusive and celebratory about sin and faithless to Jesus Christ and His Gospel, then no child abuser would ever manage to be ordained, and no bishop would ever be silly or negligent or wicked enough to move such an abuser around the diocese instead of calling the police.

James Carroll thinks Catholicism should be rescued from the Vatican. I think the Boston Globe should be rescued from columnists like James Carroll--except that, after all, they really do deserve each other.


chimakuni said...

James Carroll and others like him will see God in the not too distant future, just like we all will. Won't he be just a tad bit surprised to find out that he was w-r-o-n-g?

Sadly, though, there are those who wish to believe that James Carroll is correct and will be taken down the wrong path.

Thank you LORD, for the new orthodox priests that You have called to Holy Mother Church.

Be not afraid . . .

Anonymous said...

"to the minor (altar boys)"

If the Vatican is do conservative, how'd we wind up with altar girls?

Carmela James said...

Anonymous, altar girls are technically not permitted. It's a rule that most churches ignore.

Anonymous said...

Really? I was told JPII caved on it, but the question stands in a different form: If the Vatican is so powerful, how'd we wind up with altar girls?

Carmela James said...

Hmmm...well, I'm willing to admit that I may have been misinformed. But a church I used to go to got its priests switched, and the new priest tried to reinforce the "no female extraordinary ministers" thing. Unfortunately, he didn't explain WHY he was suddenly barring women from being extraordinary ministers, so he came off as a chauvinist and upset a lot of people in the parish.

I do think that the Church needs to crack down on the little details like this one that slip through the cracks. Though, at the moment, there do seem to be bigger problems that need to be taken care of first. I would argue that enforcing all the little rules and traditions might help with some of the other rule-breaking.

And that would really upset people like Carroll.

Anonymous said...

I could very well be wrong.

I think a better obvious solution would be to do away with EMsHC altogether.

I think you're right about little things -- it's like the broken-window theory. Fix windows, crime goes down. Fix the little things in church, liturgical crime goes down.

Lauretta said...

Red Cardigan,
You were really inspired on this piece! I could barely read it to my husband, I was laughing so hard. A little humor makes seeing reality so much easier and more palatable. You should send this off to the Boston Globe and see if they will print it. It is wonderful!

Geoff G. said...

Won't he be just a tad bit surprised to find out that he was w-r-o-n-g?

Sigh. Is there a bigger turn-off than the self-satisfied smugness of the religious who have no doubt at all about their ability to read the mind of God?

And yes, there are at least as many on the left with the same attitude.

What is it about personal religion that inspires such hubris?

Anonymous said...

There is a misalignment between the time periods discussed in the article and in Red Cardigan's screed against the 60s.

Vatican II happened before most of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. The changing church dynamics to which Carroll referred was prior to Vatican II.

How do the subsequent events of the 60s bear on the changes in the Church that Pope John championed in the early 60?

Anonymous said...

There is a misalignment between the time periods discussed in the article and in Red Cardigan's screed against the 60s.

Vatican II happened before most of the cultural upheaval of the 1960s. The changing church dynamics to which Carroll referred was prior to Vatican II.

How do the subsequent events of the 60s bear on the changes in the Church that Pope John championed in the early 60?

Anonymous said...

How do the mid-to-late 60s and the 70s have a bearing on the church history to which Carroll refers?

Vatican II was not a response to the cultural upheaval of the 60s.

I don't see how the article and Erin's response line up.

John Thayer Jensen said...


Vatican II was not a response to the cultural upheaval of the 60s.

Quite right. The cultural upheaval of the 60s was a response to the cultural rot of the 40s and 50s - really of the post WW1 era - and Vatican 2 was the Church's response to the same rot.

The popular culture went one way; the Church went the correct way. James Carroll's wish is that the Church had gone the way of the popular culture. It didn't.


Amy said...

I LOVE this post. Bravo.

Ron said...

You have nailed not only James Carroll but a whole generation of Catholics Lite perfectly here. I love those "unintended consequences"! And I think Carroll's memoir, An American Requiem, explains exactly what happened to the Baby Boomers: No matter how old they get, they cannot stop rebelling against their fathers.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I suspect that when we all get to heaven (there is a hymn by that name, which Calvinists object to on principle) we will ALL be surprised to find out what is REALLY important to God, even though Jesus tried to explain it to us.

I try to be a bit detached and dispassionate about some of this. I can see why Roman Catholics respect the history and continuity of the church, even the authority of the Vatican. I can see how some people might appreciate the liturgy but feel comfortable chucking the hierarchy. I really appreciate John Thayer Jensen's perceptive observation that both the popular culture of the 60s (which wasn't as universally popular as its adherents like to think), AND Vatican II, were significantly different responses to very real rot which set in during the 40s and 50s.

But ultimately, I do not find in the passage quoted here from Carroll an endorsement of all the misbegotten cultural experimentation and mish-mash recited in Erin's post. Carroll is forthrightly saying that hierarchical church governance has built up a worldly institution which is antithetical to the Gospel. I agree. I also sympathize with those who have found their path to God through that same hierarchical church, because there is a word for people who deny the authority of the Bishop of Rome: Protestant. Why pretend otherwise? I only have a problem with Papal authority when someone tries to claim is applies to me. I have neither reason nor right to object to those who freely choose to give their allegiance to the Roman Catholic church continuing to do so, or expecting that it will remain exactly what it is.