Practicing Catholic

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

Practicing Catholic By James Carroll Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 385 pp., $28

“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.

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.”

But as Catholics grew in number and stature – by the early 1950s there were some 50,000 priests, 400 seminaries, and almost 1 million infant baptisms – American Catholics focused more on individual choice and interreligious dialogue.

American Jesuit John Courtney Murray, for example, stressed that natural law enabled Catholics to make moral decisions, and that the separation of church and state best ensures religious freedom. After his sister married a Jew, Boston Archbishop Richard Cushing campaigned against the doctrine of “no salvation outside the church.”

“At age ten, I felt an intense relief to be able to assure my chums and fellow Boy Scouts – Protestant Dickie Boris, Jewish Peter Seligman – that as far as I was concerned they were fine with God,” Carroll writes.

Carroll later joined the Paulist Fathers, a US-founded order whose members made “promises” rather than vows. Instead of a “rule,” the Paulists adopted a constitution, “an implicit attack on the very structure of hierarchy.”

The movement for a more inclusive church hit a high point in the 1960s, when the Vatican II council approved celebrating mass in the vernacular, and defined the church as a “pilgrim people ... always in need of purification,” Carroll writes.

But while Vatican II ushered in reforms, it also incited “Catholic fundamentalists” – Carroll includes current Pope Benedict XVI among that group – to attempt to retain centralized church control via actions in three key areas.

Birth control is one. A 1964 encyclical ruled that the pope alone handles teaching on birth control, even though there was no history of church teaching on it, Carroll writes.

And refusing to acquiesce on birth control, “There was no way the Church could ease up on the sexual demand it imposed on clergy.” One result of imposed celibacy, Carroll writes, was that some priests became cold, others secretive – a “petrified clerical culture,” that was somehow complicit with the many archbishops who simply moved abusive priests, rather than handing them over to authorities.

Third, Carroll claims a manipulation of Scripture was used to justify “clergy-sponsored discrimination by gender.” Mary Magdalen was transformed from an “important disciple” into a repentant prostitute, disempowering her “so that her succeeding sisters in the Church would not compete with men for power.”

These challenges remain for today’s Catholics to address.

Writing a memoir is one way, of course, to raise public consciousness. But memoirs like “Practicing Catholic” provide only a slice of the picture, colored by the writer’s experiences and priorities, which may or may not reflect universal challenges. Does Catholic teaching on birth control, for example, really hinder today’s American Catholics, when surveys regularly show some 75 percent of Catholics disagree with the ban?

A bigger problem with “Practicing Catholic,” however, is the book’s lack of female voices, despite a lengthy discussion on the church’s oppression of women. Former Boston College professor Mary Daly gets a mention, but Carroll’s contemporaries – women like activist Dorothy Day, Mother Theresa, anti-death-penalty leader Sr. Helen Prejean, and Catholic scholar and theologian Rosemary Radford Ruether – are all left out.

Similarly, only passing note is made of the Catholic church’s advocacy work on human rights, including women’s rights – even within some of the encyclicals Carroll cites as using the birth control position to legitimize church control.

Carroll never claims to provide the entire picture, and his memories aren’t all dark. He passionately describes working with conscientious objectors at Boston University during the Vietnam War and helping other students create a democratic, welcoming chapel – all while preaching a Gospel he believed in and by which he was invigorated.

He vividly links his own civil rights work on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to the church’s gradual turn towards accepting common ground with Jews. And he uses lyrical prose to describe Catholic personalities with wit and compassion: Readers will close Carroll’s book feeling they know the gregarious Archbishop Cushing, for example, a South Boston everyman who, in lighter moments wore outrageous hats and visited nuns with bags full of Hershey’s kisses announcing, “These are the only kisses you and me will ever get!”

Nevertheless, Carroll admits he felt “anguish” when joining the order he ultimately left more than 35 years ago (he always had uncertainty, he admits – uncertainty that ebbed but never went away) and it’s impossible to read the memoir without wondering how that colored some of his stronger condemnations of clerical culture and Catholic feelings of subservience.

Or the idea that values must change – understandable perhaps regarding teaching on birth control, but should the church really compromise on core concepts like its preferential treatment of the poor?

Changing doctrine can be murky. But perhaps that’s why Carroll remains in the mix: his faith combines both ritual and reform.

Sarah More McCann is an intern at the Monitor.

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