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Faith & Spirituality

What Does It Mean to be Catholic?

This is an encore presentation that originally aired on April 15, 2009.

What Does It Mean to be Catholic?
What does it mean to be a Catholic today? And what role has America played in shaping the Church and world religion? We'll talk with author and Boston Globe columnist James Carroll about his new book Practicing Catholic.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days in San Diego. Many people who leave the Roman Catholic Church say they have serious disagreements with church policies. Their reasons could be one of many unpopular doctrines or scandalous admissions by the leaders of the church. These doctrines and scandals have tested and sometimes overwhelmed the faith of American Catholics. Those who leave often say the church and the Vatican are hopelessly outdated. Then, there are those Catholics, like my guest, writer James Carroll, who have serious disagreements with many church policies, but who choose to stay. In his book “Practicing Catholic,” he explores what it means to be a Catholic today and what role America is playing in shaping the Roman Catholic Church. James Carroll is a former Catholic priest, now a Boston Globe columnist. He won the National Book Award for “An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us.” He also wrote the New York Times bestseller, “Constantine’s Sword.” James Carroll, welcome to These Days.

JAMES CARROLL (Columnist/Author): Thank you so much, Maureen. Good morning to you.


CAVANAUGH: And we invite you to join the conversation. Are you a practicing Catholic? Tell us why and what that means to you. Our number for our listeners to join our conversation is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. So, James Carroll, what would you say is the focus of your book “Practicing Catholic?”

CARROLL: “Practicing Catholic” tells the story of the American Catholic church in my lifetime with the great figures that have been at the heart of church life from Pope John XXIII through Thomas Merton, the great monk, the ordinary men and women who are faithful to the church, a lot of people who have found it impossible to stay with it. It’s the story really of who we have been, and I tell my own story, having been a Catholic priest for five years, leaving the priesthood, finding myself as a Catholic layperson during these tumultuous years. I take up the questions of the church – terrible church failure during the clergy sex abuse scandal and the refusal of the hierarchy to reckon with it even to this day. And I take up some of the great signs of progress, especially what began at the Second Vatican Council when the church, for example, renounced its long tradition of anti-Judaism and when it affirmed the primacy of conscience, opening up respect for other believers and also giving Catholics themselves, like myself, room to come to our own terms with the Catholic tradition and Catholic doctrine. So it’s – it sounds like a multifaceted story…


CARROLL: …and it is, but it’s also a very simple story. I think many, many Catholics and former Catholics will recognize it.

CAVANAUGH: Now the term practicing Catholic, I don’t think is familiar to everyone and it means something rather specific in the Catholic Church. What does it mean?


CARROLL: Well, it means that you live the life of the Catholic community. Most especially it means that you attend the sacraments, especially the mass. My practice consists mainly of attending mass and being with other Catholics at the communion table which, for me, is a really powerful example of exactly what kind of Catholic I am because I love being at mass with people who are not like me. I don’t expect to be at mass with people who are politically to the left, as I am, necessarily or people who have affirmed a particular tradition in the Catholic Church. The mass is where we all gather. And what I love most about the practice of the church is that we gather despite our ideological, theological differences in respect and love since the most basic practice of any religion, actually, but certainly of this one is the demonstration of love, mercy, compassion, respect for the neighbor.

CAVANAUGH: And there’s also something about the term practicing Catholic that resounds the other way, too, and that is that there’s something almost permanent about being raised as a Catholic, whether or not you practice your faith or not.

CARROLL: Well, it’s true the Catholic experience is a powerful personal stamp and many former Catholics understand that. Many former Catholics still understand themselves in relationship to something they used to be. Practice is a fabulous word for what we are because for one thing it suggests that we’re not perfect, we’re practicing in the way that you practice a skill or a sport. You have some hope of getting better. We also joke that we’re practically Catholic, sort of acknowledging that actually nobody is really what you would call a good Catholic. When I was a kid, there was a category called ‘bad Catholics.’ When I became a novelist, I was haunted for a time by a statement that was attributed to George Orwell, who’s supposed to have said novel writing requires the free play of the mind, it is a Protestant art form. No Catholic has ever been a good novelist, he said, or if he was, he was a bad Catholic. Probably thinking of someone like Graham Greene. But the truth is, we’re all bad Catholics. Nobody in this community is without the need of forgiveness, and the most important thing the Catholic Church, like every Christian tradition does, is hold out the promise of God’s forgiveness.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with James Carroll. He’s the author of a new book, “Practicing Catholic.” And from your book, James, we learn that you are not only a Catholic but very much from an Irish Catholic heritage, and tell us what that means.

CARROLL: Well, the Irish Catholic experience, especially in the United States has been both quite glorious but also kind of haunted. People who know Irish Americans predict a certain kind of barbed humor, for example. What is that barb? There’s a way in which the Irish experience was colored by the terrible experience of the 19th century famine which seems like a long time ago but it’s only two and a half generations ago, really. My grandparents were personally impacted by the Irish famine. My grandfather left Ireland as a boy of 12 because there was no life for him there. Six million is the number by which the population of Ireland declined in the middle of the 19th century. It’s a haunting experience all the more so for actually having been kind of layered over in the Irish memory where we prefer to think of leprechauns and shamrocks and the joys of St. Patrick’s Day. But there’s a dark side to this experience, which I believe helps us to penetrate the human experience itself. There’s a tragedy in human life and everything doomed to die touches the heart, as someone said, and there’s a way in which we Irish Catholics have a special feeling for that tragedy. But not to belabor the dark side, it also prepares us for the great glories. And as for the kind of Catholic we are, well, we’re Catholics that understand to be in this church is also to be able to dissent from church teaching at times, to disagree. We Irish prefer contention over loneliness. The reason I don’t leave the church is it’s my community even though I disagree with some major elements of its teaching authority. The community is what makes us a people and that’s a kind of – well, that’s, of course, basic human experience but we Irish have a special take on it.

CAVANAUGH: Now, I also want to mention the fact that your father’s work was for the military and that also informs your feeling about faith and your world view. What is it that he did and how did his work influence your faith?

CARROLL: Well, my dad’s motto, like many people of his time, was ‘God and County.’ He was a United States Air Force officer. He gave his life – he dedicated his whole life to the service of his country. I’m quite proud of my father although the particular story that he and I shared was a sad one because I came of age during the Vietnam War which was his war. He was a – he was the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency during the war and we were on opposite sides of that terrible period and it was heartbreaking actually but – and I’m stamped still, though, by the experience of the United States military. I have a visceral respect and gratitude for the people who serve this country in uniform even while, because of coming of age in that period, I am profoundly anti-war. My last book was a long history of the Pentagon, a critical look at American military policy. And I, by the way, feel quite at home as an anti-war Catholic because in the last generation the Catholic church itself has become anti-war in a very important way. So my country, my church, two pillars of my identity, I love them both and, in all honesty, I criticize them both. I don’t feel in any way superior to either. I’m the person I am because I’m an American and because I’m a Catholic.

CAVANAUGH: Now as you unfold your personal story and wrap it into the story of Catholicism in the United States in the modern era, you were a priest for five years during the tumultuous years of the sixties and the early seventies, and then you left the priesthood. Tell us a little bit about that journey.

CARROLL: Well, the most important thing I experienced as a seminarian and priest was a close, close participation in the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, which you remember took place in the 1960s. Part of the tumult of those years was the Catholic revolution. Unlike other revolutions, it was a revolution from the top, it was started by the Pope, and Pope John XXIII, who stamps me to this day. I’m the kind of Catholic because of him. I hope your listeners remember him or those who were too young to remember him, I hope you know about this wonderful man. He was a roly-poly short peasant. He was not an aristocrat, he was an unlikely Pope. And he was a Pope for only a few years but he turned the church upside down, forced its reckoning with the holocaust, forced its change in the way it thinks about and teaches about the church’s relationship to the Jewish people, renouncing, for example, the Christ-killer slander. And he opened up the church. He loved to say ‘opening the church’s windows.’ He opened up the church to the modern era, affirmed the primacy of conscience which enabled the Catholic Church to let go of its old bigotry toward other religions and gave Catholics themselves the license to think critically about their faith. So that was the defining experience I had as a young man. It also came with an edge because in 1968, so only three years after the Council closed, the church began to close down on that reform especially, for example, with the encyclical in 1968 condemning birth control, which put the church in a terrible bind, a structure of dishonesty. The Catholic people have rejected the church’s teaching on birth control overwhelmingly and it shows, actually, the church’s hypocrisy. I, myself, affirm as a Catholic the church’s teaching about abortion, for example, but if you’re serious about wanting to lower abortion rates then you absolutely have to be an advocate for birth control, not an opponent of it, and that contradiction is the epitome of the contradiction that defines the contemporary problem for the Catholic Church.

CAVANAUGH: And why did you stop being a priest?

CARROLL: Well, you know, I used to joke or half-joke, three reasons: poverty, chastity and obedience. But the truth is it was obedience. I could not bend my conscience after Humanae Vitae and some of the other church teachings that came down after it to the post-Council rollback of church reform. To be a priest is to be an agent of the hierarchy, which is proper. Thank God for the priesthood, and we Catholics are all in debt to our priests. But I found it personally impossible to be responsible to teach doctrines that I, in conscience, did not agree with, most obviously about birth control. I was a college chaplain and it was impossible for me to deal with young people and pretend that I accepted the church teaching there. So to be a dissenting priest in a slight way is to be a figure of the absurd but to be a dissenting Catholic layperson, that’s fully possible, and I left the priesthood to protect my Catholic faith in an odd way. So I’m fully Catholic even while I am publicly in dissent from some of these large teachings of the hierarchy. I’m especially critical of the way in which the hierarchy has failed to reform itself in the wake of the priest sex abuse scandal, which was such a revelation of so much that has gone wrong in the church.

CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with writer James Carroll. He’s the author of the new book “Practicing Catholic.” And we’re taking your calls, inviting you to join the discussion at 1-888-895-5727. Sayed in Carmel Valley is on the line. Good morning, Sayed.

SAYED (Caller, Carmel Valley): Good morning. It’s a great program. Thank you for having me on line. Great guest, great speaker, great subject. It’s very interesting. I had an identical experience but if you just remove the word Catholic and put Islam in there, my experience with your author is almost identical if you – everything that he said but instead of using Catholic, use the other religion, Islam, is exactly the same. And I find it to be a universal approach to the new ideology and new changes of all these religions. I have friends who are in Jewish faith and I have friends who are Buddhist, and same experiences as the world is changing and the information is becoming more available to folks. People are becoming good Muslim, bad Muslim, good Jews, bad Jews and good Hindu and bad Hindu. And it’s just – I found it extremely heartwarming that your author have spent time and energy trying to verbalize all these feelings. Excellent job.

CAVANAUGH: Well, thank you so much for the call, Sayed. And, James, that’s one of the messages in your book, that America is influencing not only the Roman Catholic Church but sort of world religions.

CARROLL: Well, the United States of America is a very precious human experiment, an experiment in democratic liberalism. In the old world, you didn’t have to rub elbows with people who believed differently from you but in America elbows are raw. We’re with each other all the time and we don’t believe the same thing. We are co-workers, we’re neighbors, we marry one another and when one religion’s absolute claim is in the presence of another’s both religions become slightly less absolute. That’s what’s precious about this country, e pluribus unum, out of many, one. And that is a key element in how the renewal came to the Catholic church. The Second Vatican Council, about which I was speaking before, was a – the Catholic Church coming to terms with basic ideas that had their home first in America. Pluralism, respect for the other, separation of church and state, separation of church – of religious practice from state coercion, a strong commitment to the right of every person to freedom of conscience. I especially welcome Sayed’s call because, absolutely, he’s exactly right. This – what I’m reflecting is not particular to Catholicism, this is a contemporary problem. How religious traditions confront modernity and confront the new conditions of modernity is a global question. And as a Catholic, it matters urgently that this particular tradition go forward into the 21st century as a reformed, self-critical, respectful tradition, not fundamentalist, not intolerant, not denigrating people who are different. There are more than a billion Catholics in the world, as there are more than a billion Muslims. How these two traditions go forward in the century matters enormously for the human future and a self-critical, reformed, renewed way of being religious is urgent, not just for religious people but for everybody.

CAVANAUGH: Let me take another call. Sheena is in Mira Mesa. Good morning, Sheena.

SHEENA (Caller, Mira Mesa): Good morning. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your story about your journey. I’m not a practicing Catholic anymore but I completely empathize with you and understand where you’ve been. I love a lot of the things about the church and I have the family that’s very Catholic. My mom is in the choir, my dad is in the Knights of Columbus. My sisters are altar servers and at one point I was lector, I was a youth group leader, and I was also in the choir. So it was painful for me to leave the church but I had so many issues with the doctrine and dogma and there was one point where the – I was at a mass and our priest was actually having the homily about the scandal with the diocese in Boston with the molestation charges and he actually did not want to take responsibility and said that it was the terrorists’ fault. And I think that was the last straw for me.


SHEENA: I really felt like this is absurd and I can’t believe he’s not saying that this is something the church needs to deal with…


SHEENA: …and that we need to pray for the people that are possible victims and also for the priests that are involved and the people that need to make these difficult decisions to, you know, change the way the church deals with such things. And it was hard for me to make the decision to leave.



CAVANAUGH: I have to stop you there. A couple more people on the line. But thank you so much for sharing that, and I want to get the reaction from James Carroll.

CARROLL: Well, I want to thank you and honor you, Sheena, for your journey. You are reflecting, of course, the experience of millions of Catholics in this country have, quote, left the church over these recent years, many just like you, out of a sense of deep, deep disappointment and scandal at the way in which the leaders of the church have denied what they really need to face much more directly about that outrageous priest sex abuse scandal. Remember what was most outrageous about it was that while a small number of priests abused children, the overwhelming majority of Bishops, almost all of them, protected the priests instead of the children, and we have yet to reckon with that. Your decision is yet another point of pressure for change, and there are many, many people who’ve done just what you’ve done. And I wish you well in your own spiritual journey. I can sense you are a serious commitment to the truth and to conscience and you’re in a very good place. I salute you.

CAVANAUGH: Veronica is on the line. She’s calling from El Cajon. Good morning, Veronica.

VERONICA (Caller, El Cajon): Good morning. Thank you for having me on the air. I’m very excited to hear James Carroll although I was planning on going to the event on Saturday at the St. Paul’s Cathedral to listen to him speak. I have been a practicing Catholic for my whole life basically, however I have – I left the church this past fall. My children are Catholic educated but I just felt that I was too liberal, too different from the church in order to stay. But now I’m finding myself that I really want to go back but I’m having a hard time reconciling my feelings and my beliefs based on, you know, versus what the church is teaching. So how did you reconcile that where you felt that you stood to the left but you really wanted to stay true to your Catholic faith, which I really feel that I do but I just have a hard time sitting there listening to certain things and being around them all…

CARROLL: Well, I completely associate with you and I would say don’t sit there and listen to those certain things. Find a church where you don’t have to have your intelligence insulted. And if you can’t, consider other options. You know, one of the great revolutions of our time is we Catholics understand ourselves to be part of a larger church than simple Roman Catholicism. The Second Vatican Council teaches this. The church is a large body of Christ and there are other believers who are part of the church, including the Protestant traditions. The time of emphasizing denominational barriers is past. If you can find an Episcopal church or a Lutheran church where your sacramental needs are met and where your community and needs for intelligent and self-critical preaching are met, consider worshiping there. And you can hold on reserve, you know, what your own public religious identity is. My wife is an Episcopalian. I worship with her. I worship comfortably and gratefully in the Episcopal tradition, not – most of the time. Mostly, I’m in my own Catholic parish in Boston. But there’s more than one way of being Catholic today and that’s certainly not – It’s certainly important to maintain, as I hear you speak, the most important connection to what we’re talking about is a tradition that honors the memory of Jesus, finds Him present in the sacraments and submits to the test of self-criticism. Beyond that, there’s no perfect institution. We see the Episcopal Church torn in half by arguments over gay marriage and gay priests. We see the other Protestant traditions in furious arguments with themselves, so no tradition, no church is without its conflict and no church is perfect. But the search itself is the way you are part of the church, and I honor you for yours.

CAVANAUGH: Veronica, thank you for that call. In closing, James Carroll, you’ve referenced the – John the XXIII and the Ecumenical Council a number of times in shaping your attitude towards what the Roman Catholic Church might be able to be. We’re a long way from that time and we have had two rather conservative Popes in the interim, three, and I’m wondering if you are a little bit downhearted when you look to the future or if you’re not, what are your reasons for optimism for the progress of the church?

CARROLL: Well, I was disappointed when Cardinal Ratsinger was elected as Pope Benedict XVI. I respect Pope Benedict and mean him absolutely no ill but it was bad for the church that such a conservative and such an opponent of liberal reform became Pope at this time. But I have, you know, I have a habit of looking through the lens of the long view. The Second Vatican Council was a miracle in the church’s history, in my view, and the changes go so deep into the life and imagination of the church that it’s no wonder to me that they are accomplished with difficulty. Take, for example, the church’s teaching about the Jewish people. That goes so deep it touches the core of our New Testament tradition itself, which the New Testament is the source of anti-Jewish prejudice. And the church is unpacking that. Well, it’s no surprise that it’s taking time and it’s been moving forward and backward, moving forward and backward. But it’s – The basic forward movement is there, I believe it. And I’m convinced that what Pope Benedict represents is the end of a time – the end of an era and not the beginning of one. And a small signal of that is my own experience with this book. I’m promoting this book and presenting it to the public in Catholic churches, Catholic universities, but also in Protestant churches. I’m at the Episcopal cathedral with great gratitude in San Diego on Saturday. And it’s a signal itself of the broad way in which the church is beginning to think of itself now. We’re all the body of Christ and we’re all in need of forgiveness and patience with one another. Who would I be to declare a timetable by which my agenda for the church had to be accomplished? It doesn’t work that way and I don’t – it’s no surprise to me that it isn’t working that way.

CAVANAUGH: James Carroll, I want to thank you so much for talking with us and sharing the focus of your book with us this morning.

CARROLL: It’s been my privilege. Thank you so much.

CAVANAUGH: James Carroll is the author of the new book “Practicing Catholic.” He’ll speak this Saturday, April 18, at Congregation Beth El in La Jolla, and at St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral in San Diego. You can go to for more information about these events. And stay with us, coming up it’s a happy anniversary at the Preuss Charter School. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.