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.