James Carroll was a Catholic priest before leaving ordained life to become a writer and historian. His books include Constantine’s Sword, An American Requiem, and most recently, Jerusalem, Jerusalem. He is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a scholar-in-residence at Suffolk University.
Michael O’Loughlin: You entered the Catholic priesthood during the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), a tumultuous and yet hopeful time for many Catholics around the world. Describe the atmosphere of Catholic life back then.
James Carroll: The church changed more in those three years than it had in the previous 2,000 years, in large ways and small ways. It was an effervescent time, a profoundly hopeful and shocking experience. In the 1960s, the world was being swept by revolutions that were driven by the young, the youth movement, the peace movement, the civil rights movement, but in the Catholic Church, the revolution came from the top. That was what was so surprising about it. The most conservative collection of figures on the planet, a couple of thousand Catholic bishops, gathered in Rome, and they launched a revolution. It was an astonishment, really. It was the most important religious event in the century, as has been often remarked. And it didn’t stop. A lot of people freaked out after the council, a lot of people in authority in the church began to try to underestimate it, to roll it back, to say it didn’t mean much.
MO: Many have observed that the progressivism and openness to the world following Vatican II was short-lived. What happened?
JC: The truth is that [Popes] John Paul II and Benedict XVI put in place a whole generation of mediocre figures as the bishops of the Catholic Church. These are men whose promotion was based on their readiness to please the men in authority above them. They’re not known as a group for creative thought, innovation, theological sophistication. They’re timid.
MO: Do you see a change with Pope Francis?
JC: Pope Francis is properly taken as a major figure of transition for the church, and it’s not just a matter of tone, in my opinion. There’s something very profound in the very first thing he did, which is the name he chose. It’s astonishing, when you think about it, that no pope has ever honored St. Francis of Assisi by taking his name. And yet it seems like a no brainer that this great figure of peace and the poor should be lifted up in such a way. And when Pope Francis did it, there was this kind of “aha!” expression that you could feel around the planet. Of course, Francis, what the perfect name, and what a name we need. And I think he has already shown in a few months that he’s been pope that his deep, deep feeling for the values of Jesus Christ have begun to weigh more than the protection of the institutional prerogatives of the church. That’s what I see. We don’t see a man so obsessed with shoring up the walls of the church. We see a man really emphasizing the values for which Jesus is beloved. That’s what’s so moving about it.
MO: Could the church be on the verge of another Vatican II moment?
JC: I’d say that Pope Francis is on the way to initiating the next phase of profound changes that the church needs. Of course, no one’s talking about changing the core values or core beliefs of the church. What we’re trying to do is recover from the tragedy of the detour the church took after the Reformation, and especially in the nineteenth-century, in its rejection of the values of the modern world, especially democracy, pluralism, respect for the other. Vatican II was the beginning of that recovery. It needs to be continued. Pope Francis shows significant signs of being ready to do that.
MO: You write movingly of your relationship with Jesus, and at the same time quite critically of the institutional church. Why do you remain Catholic?
JC: When I go to Mass on Sunday, as I do every week, I find myself in the company of people like me, and we’re all gathered for the same purpose, which is to remember Jesus and to experience his presence in the breaking of the bread. It’s a simple act. It’s a profoundly hopeful signal of this basic faith we have that life is meaningful, that at the bottom of existence, there is a purpose. It was put there by our creator who cares for us, the way a parent cares for a child, and that the commitment God has made to those God creates is unbreakable, and it’s even unbreakable by death. There are many ways to live out such a faith, and you don’t even have to be religious, certainly you don’t have to be Christian, but that basic faith in the goodness of God, the hopefulness of human existence, the possibility of meaning in the face of death. All of that is at the core of membership in the community of people who have been unable to let go of their affection for Jesus.
MO: Catholics in the Western world are leaving the church in record numbers. How will it survive?
JC: The question now isn’t the survival of the church, it’s the survival of the human family. Is the human species going to commit suicide, either through weapons of mass destruction or through environmental degradation? That’s the question before the future, and the church has to be part of the answer to that, to be roundly on the side of human choices that enable the human family to thrive and not die. Questions of justice, environmental rescue, the rights of women, the rights of the poor—those questions are the defining religious questions ahead of us now. These things are so much more than who’s liberal and who’s conservative, who wears what at Mass, what language the Mass is said in, what club one belongs to, which side of the argument over liturgy are you on. All of these minor matters weigh nothing compared to the great question of whether human history is going to end tragically or is going to continue to the next unknown, mysterious, but we hope glorious, phase.
MO: In An American Requiem, you wrote about your role in the anti-Vietnam War peace movement and your eventual falling out with your father, an Air Force general, because of your activity. In recent weeks, Pope Francis was one of the strongest voices against American military intervention in Syria. What do you make of the Catholic Church’s stance against war?
JC: Pope Francis has embraced the symbolic association with this witness for peace as we remember St. Francis. And that’s hugely important. We see in Barack Obama how powerful the impulses toward war are, when even a man like him—truly a man with the instincts of skepticism toward war and the value of peace—when even a man like him can be drawn into the culture of war so fully. That’s why it’s so important the Catholic Church resist it, having spent much of 2,000 years as one of the sources of war. Pope Francis represents a very different thing. But the truth is, so have [Popes] Benedict and John Paul II. It’s one of the changes in the Vatican Council that really took, and the Vatican has been opposed to war making for the last 40 years, resoundingly rejecting especially wars that came from Washington. So that’s a tremendously important and positive thing.