Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Brave Hope

I wasn’t planning to post anything this Easter Saturday, but the following excerpt from the New York Times review of James Carroll’s latest book, Practicing Catholic, seems appropriate.

This particular review is written by Jack Miles, author of Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, and the excerpt I share below looks at hope – the hope for renewal and reform with Roman Catholicism. To be honest, I’m left feeling conflicted by the central conundrum outlined in the last two paragraphs. Has the moment passed for real change within the Church as Miles’ contends? Is hope for such change – though “brave” – nevertheless a “faded” one? Are those of us working for reform and renewal wasting our time?

Yes, the issues and questions raised by Miles are definitely appropriate for Holy Saturday – a silent and empty day, a day devoid of ready and comforting answers; and a day which, for those very first followers of Jesus, would have been filled with a host of emotions – uncertainty, despair, grief . . . but perhaps also (and most importantly) a brave hope.


[The] ninth chapter [of Practicing Catholic], “Religion and Terror,” is an eloquently anguished denunciation of Pope Benedict XVI, “the chief sponsor of the new Catholic fundamentalism, enforced with no regard for the real cost to human beings” — a prophetic denunciation by a writer whose early, impassioned columns in The Boston Globe against the Iraq war were prophetic in a parallel way. No nose-blowing flippancy for him. He takes his country, his church, his ancestry and himself too seriously for that.

Carroll, married to an Episcopalian, reveals that he once considered becoming an Episcopalian himself: “Theologically there was no longer any substantial difference between Rome and Canterbury, with the one exception of Rome’s claim to supreme ecclesiastical authority. . . . My conclusions about the overreaching authority of the modern papacy made me more like an Anglican than a traditional Catholic. So why did I not follow the path that so many Catholics took in those years and become an Episcopalian?”

Having taken that path myself, I am predictably unpersuaded by his answer, but here it is: “By remaining a Catholic and advocating reunion of these two traditions (and ultimately of other Christian denominations), I am keeping faith with the widely held and profoundly Catholic conviction that the scandalous divisions of the Reformation must end.” His view is that “such ‘conversion’ was no longer to the point in the post-Vatican II church.” Mine is that resisting such conversion is no longer to the point.

In terms of lived religious practice, I concede, these differences shrink away to almost nothing. But behind them, there does stand one substantial divergence of judgment. “The Catholic people have already changed,” Carroll writes, “and this book” — autobiography though it may seem — “is that story. Catholics came to understand that they themselves — not their priests, bishops and pope — are the church.”

So Carroll believes. I believe otherwise. In the wake of the clerical pedophilia scandal, I thought it just barely possible that lay Catholic reform groups like Voice of the Faithful* might either force more democratic, more effectively self-correcting governance on the Roman Catholic Church as a whole or introduce it into the American Catholic Church in spite of the Vatican. But such groups never became a working majority, and now the moment has passed. The “new kind of Catholic identity” that Carroll names as the very subject of his book I see as a faded hope rather than, with him, an accomplished fact. It remains a brave hope, however, for all that, and no centurion of the pen is worthier than he to keep it alive and burning.

To read Jack Miles’ review of James Carroll’s Practicing Catholic in its entirety, click here.

To read the first chapter of Practicing Catholic, click here.

* I serve on the general steering committee of the recently formed Catholic Coalition for Church Reform (CCCR). Next Saturday, CCCR is hosting a prayer breakfast in Minneapolis that will announce and plan a series of “synods of the baptized” for our local church. This prayer breakfast will also feature Janet Hauter as keynote speaker. Janet is the vice-president of Voice of the Faithful. I look forward to talking with her about the issues and questions raised by Jack Miles’ review. For more information about CCCR’s April 18 prayer breakfast, click here.

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Emerging Church
Choosing to Stay
Of Mustard Seeds and Walled Gardens
Dispatches from the Periphery
The “Underground Church”
One Catholic Gay Parent Who Isn’t Leaving the Church
Our Catholic “Stonewall Moment”
“We Are Facing a Structural Problem”
A Time to Re-think the Basis and Repair the Damage
A Catholic Crisis and Opportunity in South Minneapolis
Alive and Well . . . and Flourishing!
An Update on St. Mary’s in Brisbane
Something We Dare Call Hope
A Declaration of Reform and Renewal

For more of James Carroll at The Wild Reed, see:
A Christmas Reflection by James Carroll
James Carroll on “Pope Benedict’s Mistake”
Thoughts on Tomorrow’s Presidential Election

Recommended Off-site Link:
James Carroll’s Official Website


Liam said...

I well recall the moments before VOTF was organized in Boston. In my own community, my suggestion that we organize committees of correspondence (an old Boston invention) to encourage communication and solidarity directly between local ecclesial communities.

VOTF was born a month later, but even at the time of its birth there were concerns (not just me, but others - we were in an inner city community, but with a lot of people drawn from all around) it might get burdened with too many agendas, too much materialist power structure focus beloved of suburban technocratic Catholics, and lose sight of more fundamental things. I fear that the concerns ended up being more well founded than I had hoped.

I have a hard time taking Jim Carroll's writings on reform in the Church seriously. His historical effort (The Sword of Constantine) was a botched effort not only as a technical professional matter (even Commonweal had a hard time digesting it) but it really came across within the tiny universe that is Boston as a kind of cri de couer of a locally popular form of Unitarian Catholicism (Unitarianism is the ur belief system of the Boston elite, and has been for about 200 years).

Where you find the Cross, you find the font of grace that leads to the empty tomb, the Ascension and Pentecostal recreation. American Catholics, living in a culture that relentlessly resists delayed or non gratification (which also is the foundation of the American Protestant prosperity gospel), have a very difficult time trying to turn the solidarity with the experience of the Cross into a short if dramatic chapter before moving onto longer, more gratifying chapters. But that is not normally God's way - the path of growth for most souls is one more marked more by desolation than consolation. American Catholics, however, have been ill served in their spiritual cultivation in preparation for prolonged (and I am talking years upon years, not weeks or months) of spiritual desolation that has been the classic mark of may of our most beloved saints (formally canonized or otherwise).

The path for reform in the Church starts with souls, not structures. I many ideas about structural reforms, but I know they are distractions from the harder and less gratifying work of souls tending souls cor ad cor loquitur.

A blessed Pasch to you and all.

crystal said...

Happy Easter, Michael.

Frank D. Myers said...

Joyous Easter from a hopeful Episcopalian to a hopeful Catholic whose work in turn gives hope to others!

Anonymous said...

Liam, you seem to be saying that the institutional inconsistencies with the Gospel that give Catholics moral pain are the work of God. You seem to be saying that years upon years of accepting this desolation is the path of sainthood. You denigrate American Catholics for wanting to reform the system to alleviate some of the suffering. In my experience there is quite enough unavoidable suffering in life to give one "solidarity with the experience of the cross" without looking to a dysfunctional church to provide it. What other institution would you tolerate that kind of dysfunction from? A gym that crippled its members? A school that deprived students of knowledge? A car mechanic who damaged your car? How is a church that provides unloving spiritual direction an instrument of God?

Michael J. Bayly said...

Here's a quote from the first chapter of Carroll's book, Practicing Catholic, that my friend Paula has alerted me too and which helps put things in perspective.

A tradition centered on social justice, accommodation of immigrants, the work of peace, sacramental respect for creation, liturgical beauty, a global vision, and the consolations of faith — all of this weighs as much in the scale of history as spiritual imperialism, scandal, and hypocrisy. One theme of "Practicing Catholic" is loss, but another — through the embrace of change — is renewal. Catholic history is nothing but a saga of glory and tragedy, corruption and reform, false starts and new beginnings. In our time, this age-old pattern has been compressed and sped up, with an edge that cuts deeper than ever before.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Happy Easter to you too Crystal and Frank, and to all readers of The Wild Reed.



Liam said...


Indeed. Except for the fact that God has (foolishly, in human eyes) entrusted the mission of growing God's kingdom to broken human beings. Thus, the institutions of that kingdom here do not look like gymnasia of the able and quick-witted, but hospitals of the hurting and hurtful (and if someone objects that hospitals are only about healing, they've not spent enough time in theml. There is no institutional nirvana when it comes to an institution of human beings. That's not a form of quietism when it comes to institutions, but merely a reminder that an obsession with the institutional dimension that distracts from ultimate dimensions misses the point.

I also distinguish between God's prescriptive and permissive wills, a distinction that is lost on many American Christians (regardless of denomination) who combine heaps of magical thinking about the operations of grace (contrast, say, with Flannery O'Connor's illustrations of the operations of grace as experienced violently and painfully) with a pelagian obsession that salvation is ultimately about what we are doing ('cuz capitalist and socialist economies are both very task- and structure-obsessed) rather than who we are becoming.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Hi Liam,

Surely, despite our "brokenness," we should never cease striving to make the human dimension of the institutional church as healthy, just, and whole as we can. (Even "hurting and hurtful people" can transcend their pain, limitations, and egos to work for and embody compassion and justice.) I don't equate this kind of work with striving for "institutional nirvana." I know no one who is dedicated to church reform and renewal who thinks in that way.

Similarly, cannot and should not our institutions reflect "who we are becoming"? In other words, what we are "doing" reflects what we are "becoming." I don't see these as separate but connected.



Anonymous said...

"...a pelagian obsession that salvation is ultimately about what we are doing ('cuz capitalist and socialist economies are both very task- and structure-obsessed) rather than who we are becoming."

You know more than I do about Pelagianism etc, Liam. But I agree with you that becoming is most important. I also believe that if we were all responding to grace we would be re-imagining our institutional arrangements. I guess the big difference in our views is that you seem to believe that God gave the institutional arrangements over to the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church, a very human crew, while I believe that all the baptized have responsibility for them. We are also a very human crew. As all organizational management students know, however, an in-bred, closed, top-down authority with absolute power to form its successors over years and years is not the best way to get the "able and quick-witted" into the ranks of leadership. It breeds company men whose main goal is to keep the institutional status quo. But I do agree with you that an institution is not what saves us; it only supports human development and gives some forms through which the Spirit may work. So why not make some changes to make the institution more supportive of human development? Flannary O'Connor notwithstanding, there is a question whether human spiritual deformity impedes response to the Spirit. Happy Easter, Liam.

Liam said...


Well, perhaps it would be better for this conversation to put a bit of flesh on your desire here. One question, put 2 ways:

1. If you were elected Pope next week, what would be the single most important reform you would undertake, not relying on any other significant reform? You only get one in your lifetime.

2. If you were never elected Pope, what would you believe the consensus of the entire body of the faithful would be around the single most important reform, not relying on any other significant reform?

The provisos are important: they mandate the focused consideration of the first step, rather than trying to control the ultimate step. Where and how the first step occurs is important, because it may be the most Spirit-filled step as it is often devoid of the grandiose and the pretense of control- which are more often a mark of the spirit of man than the Spirit of God.

Anonymous said...

I'd call a Council for the U.S. Church based on an extensive sociological study of what people who call themselves Catholic really believe in order to find out where the Holy Spirit is leading the Church.I'd go on from there.

Liam said...


You are talking about the US Church, not the Church as a whole. My second question (to which I assume your response was directed) was about the entire body of the faithful, not a nationalized segment thereof. Especially a very privileged national segment thereof.