1 March, 2003Issue 2.2North AmericaReligionSocial Policy

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Present and Past

Brian Mullin

James Carroll
Toward a New Catholic Church: The Promise of Reform
Mariner Books, 2003
130 pages

Any recent book about the Catholic Church by a Boston Globe columnist might be expected to address the sexual abuse scandal that has shaken the Church. But James Carroll’s Toward a New Catholic Church: The Promise of Reform devotes little attention to that crisis per se. This slim volume has a much wider scope. Carroll places the current situation in the context of ‘the historic challenge facing all religions after September 11’:

    Will the Church sustain its traditional role as a defender of the poor and its more contemporary function as a rare critic of free-market capitalism? … Its image as a bulwark of social conservation, in other words, is only partially accurate. The Church has also been a force for progressive social change. Will it continue to be?

Carroll rallies socially progressive Catholics, disheartened and ashamed by the behaviour of their leaders, with the imperative of reforming their Church.

Carroll, a former priest and author of last year’s Constantine’s Sword, a history of Jews and the Church, places Catholic anti-Semitism at the centre of his analysis. He considers the early Church’s demonisation of Jews as ‘the other’ the first of many disastrous decisions to pervert Christian principles in advancing what amount to worldly interests. The average Catholic reader may initially wonder what all of this history has to do with the current scandal. According to Carroll, that response is the root of the problem.

He characterises contemporary American Catholics as ‘religiously immature’. Though often highly educated and professionally accomplished, Catholic adults still tend to relate to the Church hierarchy, he writes, ‘in the manner of adolescents’. Even those Catholics who can quote their catechism remain uninformed about the history and development of Church doctrine, a code often accepted as eternal and unchanging. Carroll quotes Joyce Carol Oates: ‘Homo sapiens is the species that invents symbols in which to invest passion and authority, then forgets that symbols are inventions’.

Towards a New Catholic Church is a Nietzschean genealogy of several of the Church’s most influential and, to Carroll, most misguided ‘inventions’. Carroll tries to stir up the great majority of lay Catholics who have only a vague sense of how and when their Church became what it is. His examples include the second century formalization of the New Testament canon, which recast the Jews as antagonists in the Gospel narrative; the acceptance in 312 of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine, which resulted in an imperial Church, rather than a Christian empire; and the establishment of ‘papal infallibility’, which dates back only to 1870. Carroll’s call is for increased ‘literacy’ among the laity, meaning not merely the study of scripture itself but of its development and interpretation over the centuries.

Sadly, Carroll’s short book is an insufficient primer. Even socially progressive Catholics may find his reading of the Gospels from a secularized literary-historical perspective jarring. Conservative theologians will fault his narrow selection of historical events and his tendency towards casual generalization. As he delves into more complicated theological developments, such as the history of Christology, Carroll increasingly resorts to arguments based on the movement of de-personalised concepts like ‘Neo-Platonism’ and ‘Enlightenment thought’. At times this short book seems like a hasty summary of more rigorous scholarship. At other times, the unwieldy employment of big, abstract nouns like ‘atonement soteriology’ prevents Toward a New Catholic Church from truly speaking to the laity.

Without guiding moderates through these arguments more surely, the book cannot serve as the blueprint for reform. Yet Carroll succeeds in one major way: he reclaims the powerful tradition of the ecumenical council. One of Carroll’s literacy lessons reminds us that Vatican II was one of twenty-one councils the Church has convened to discuss its own teachings, but only one of two called since 1545. The vigorous council tradition, though diminished in recent centuries by the consolidation of papal authority, ‘was a proclamation of the Church’s ongoing fallibility, its permanent need for reformation’. The tradition of change already exists within the Church and needs only to be resurrected.

Brian Mullin studies English at Wadham College, Oxford, and is a practising Catholic.