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Practicing Catholic

Journalist and former priest James Carroll uses his own life as a lens through which to explore contemporary American Catholicism.

By Sarah More McCann / April 21, 2009



“Where are you from?” A Roman Catholic in 1940s Chicago might have answered, “St. Rita’s,” “St. Bernard’s,” or “St. Columbanus,” – identification by parish, not by neighborhood.

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It was boom time for the Catholic Church in the United States: Between birth and conversion rates, the ranks of US Catholics were swelling. Men were joining the priesthood in record numbers and Catholic schools becoming an institution in their own right. “Catholic ghettos” provided religious, social, and educational outlets so encompassing that a Catholic could go days without substantial interaction with someone of another faith.

In some ways, however, American Catholicism became a victim of its own success. That self-contained life that some Catholics enjoyed would be fundamentally altered within 20 years, when World War II and postwar educational initiatives assimilated the nation’s 50 million Catholics to such a degree that the Catholic John F. Kennedy was elected president in 1960.

From that point on, US Catholics began to wrestle with how to be “Catholic” in a changing world, a project that continues today.

That’s what being a “practicing” Catholic means, writes James Carroll, a writer, Boston Globe columnist, former Paulist priest, and dedicated Catholic born in Chicago in 1943.

Carroll’s memoir Practicing Catholic uses his own life as a lens through which he explores the development of American Catholicism from the time of his birth – when the challenges of individualism and ecumenism grew – through today’s hurdles: a continuing battle over birth control, fallout from clergy sex-abuse scandals, and the marginalization of women.

These challenges persist due to hierarchical attempts to quash to church reforms of the 1960s, Carroll says, stressing that change must come from those who sit in the pews.

“For us, the primary meaning of ‘practicing’ is that, through these disciplines, rituals, and searches, we have some prospect of getting better,” he writes, challenging the church to share power, while acknowledging how far Americans have come in asserting their independence.

The declaration of papal infallibility came relatively late from Rome (1870) but by Carroll’s youth, American Catholics “had forgotten that the Pope-centeredness of our faith was a modern phenomenon.”

Power was further centralized shortly after Carroll’s birth, when Pope Pius XII issued Mystici Corporis (The Mystical Body), an encyclical codifying that, “Just as Jesus had all the attributes of a human yet was divine, so with the institution of which he was a founder.”

While belonging to a “divine institution” may have soothed some of the pain of American Catholics encountering pervasive anti-Catholic attitudes, the encyclical nevertheless reflected Catholics’ feelings of inferiority inside church walls, writes Carroll, whose most powerful childhood memory is of parishioners kneeling in church, repeating, “Lord, I am not worthy ... Lord, I am not worthy ... Lord, I am not worthy.”

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