Tuesday, July 17, 2007

James Carroll on "Pope Benedict's Mistake"

Thank God for the informed perspective and articulate writings of Catholic theologians like James Carroll.

In his July 16 Boston Globe commentary, Carroll thoughtfully examines Pope Benedict XVI’s latest “reactionary initiatives” (see here and here) and concludes, in part, that the pope “inadvertently shows that he shares a basic conviction” with the likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens.

As you’re no doubt aware, all of these writers have recently cited “insights of science or the rise of sectarian violence” to denounce the very idea of God. Benedict, of course, doesn’t denounce or deny God, yet as Carroll points out, he nevertheless conveys the “basic conviction” shared by Dawkins, et al, that “religion is a primitive impulse, unable to withstand the challenge of contemporary thought.”

Following is a brief excerpt from James Carroll’s commentary, “Pope Benedict’s Mistake.”

Pope Benedict, in last week’s denigration of Christian traditions that lack the unbroken “apostolic succession” of Catholicism . . . was seeking to protect the “deposit of faith,” those core beliefs that were established by the Apostles themselves. But such literalist reading of apostolic succession goes out the window when one learns that none of the actual Apostles thought that they themselves were establishing a “church” in our sense, independent of Judaism. Similarly, the New Testament is “inspired,” but what does that mean for appeals to “apostolic” authority when one learns that its 27 books were not “canonized” until three centuries after Jesus?

Once we realize that doctrines of orthodoxy evolved over time, we stop treating them as timeless. Indeed, once we understand ourselves as belonging to one religious tradition among many, we lose the innocent ability to regard it as absolute. Once our internal geography recognizes that, however much we are a center, we are not the only one, we have no choice but to affirm the positions of others not as “marginal to our centers,” in a phrase of theologian David Tracy, “but as centers of their own.”

Faced with such difficult recognitions, religious people can retreat into fundamentalism or throw out religious faith altogether. Or we can quite deliberately embrace what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur called a “second naiveté.” This implies a movement through criticism to a renewed appetite for the sacred tradition out of which we come, even while implying that we are alive to its meaning in a radically different way. Pope Benedict is attempting to restore, by fiat, the first naiveté of “one true church.” In an age of global pluralism, this is simply not tenable. . . .

Elsewhere in his piece, Carroll shares the following observation, one with which I and many other Catholics strongly resonate:

The God whom atheists aggressively deny (the all-powerful, all-knowing, unmoved Mover; the God of damnation, supernatural intervention, salvation-through-appeasement, patriarchy, puritanism, war, etc.) is indeed the God enshrined in propositions of the Council of Trent, and in its liturgy. But this God is also one whom more and more believers, including Catholics, simply do not recognize as the God we worship.

To read James Carroll’s commentary, “Pope Benedict’s Mistake,” in its entirety, click here.

For Catholic theologian and historian Hans Küng’s thoughts on “apostolic succession,” see the previous Wild Reed post, The Many Forms of Courage (Part II).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Uncle Vince is at it Again
It’s Time We Evolved Beyond Theological Imperialism
Joan Chittister on the Restoration of the Tridentine Mass
A Christmas Reflection by James Carroll

Recommended Off-site Links:
James Carroll columns archive at The Boston Globe
James Carroll's website

Image: www.ruahspirit.org


Dale said...

Except that Carroll's not a theologian, unless you redefine the term to mean someone who writes on religious matters. He's merely a novelist who writes an opinion column on politics and Catholicism.

He has a minimal theological background stemming from his brief stint as a priest, has never held any theological professorship, has never published any peer-reviewed work in the field and is not a member of any theological society (e.g., the Catholic Theological Society of America).

He's entitled to speak his mind in his column, but its entitled to no more weight than any other columnist who writes on Catholic matters.

More to the point, Carroll never prove his assertion (it doesn't even rise to the level of an argument) from the examples he cites. To link Benedict's actions to the exemplars of the new atheism (also deficient in theological understanding) is, bluntly, a ludicrous stretch. Carroll has let his distaste for the Pope poison his reason.

Moreover, I have every confidence that Dawkins, et al, would find Carroll's views more laughable than the Pope's. I've seen Hitchens debate a progressive Christian (Chris Hedges), and Hitchens steamrolled Hedges, who also espoused a spiritual pluralism. It wasn't pretty for Mr. Hedges.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Dale,

Thanks for stopping by The Wild Reed and sharing your thoughts.

I was using the term "theologian" in its broadest sense. As I'm sure you're aware, theology is all about exploring and facilitating discussion about the different ways people talk about their experience of God. I believe most people are capable of engaging in and/or initiating a theological discussion of this most basic kind. Human experience, after all, is the "raw material" of theology.

I disagree with you that Carroll has a "minimal [formal] theological background." After all, he did study for the priesthood - regardless of how long he served as a priest. And I sense through his writings that his private reading and study - not to mention his openness to the Spirit in his own life and within the wider Church - continues to this day.

If we were to limit participation in theological discussions to only those who have held theological professorships, have been published in peer-reviewed journals, or who are members of theological societies, then these discussions (not to mention the various theologies they help establish) would be very dry and academic indeed!

The Church needs people like James Carroll, regardless of whether one labels him a "theologian," or "merely"(!) a "novelist" who writes opinion columns. (I feel you too easily discount the power of writers - some of whom have changed lives and thus the world through their works).

I, along with many other Catholics, appreciate the perspective of James Carroll, and discern in his works a spirit of wisdom and compassion sadly lacking in "official" theological documents and statements.