Peoples Catholic Seminary Forum with James Carroll

PCS FORUM: A Conversation with James Carroll, author of The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul (Epilogue from the book may be read below the video).

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Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True. —Apocalypse 19:11 So let me directly address Catholics and invite the choice of hope. I want to make the case for another way to respond to the present crisis of faith than by simply walking away. What if multitudes of the faithful, appalled by what the sexual abuse crisis has shown their Church leadership to have become, were able nevertheless to work through anger and disappointment toward cold detachment from the cassock-ridden power structure of the Church, even while choosing to reclaim the Vatican II insistence that that power structure is not the Church? The Church is the people of God, period. The Church is the self-surpassing community that transcends space and time, geography and millennia, past and future.

Recalling that the so-called magisterium is a culture-bound creation of an imperial government with no direct connection to the Gospel—despite its claims to the contrary—Catholics should not yield to clerical despots the final authority over our personal relationship to the Church. I refuse to let a pervert-priest or a complicit bishop rip my faith from me. I brought up James Joyce earlier and his famous declaration, much repeated by my kind, that Catholic means “Here comes everybody.” But referring to the clerical establishment, not to that “everybody,” Joyce also said, less sweetly, “I make open war upon it by what I write and say and do.”

That spirit of resistance is what must energize reform-minded Catholics now—an anti-clericalism from within. There it is: an anti-clericalism from within. That is the stance I choose to take. If there are like-minded anti-clerical priests and even an anti-clerical pope—as one still hopes Francis and his successor could be—then we will make reforming common cause with them. Indeed, now that I think of it, affirming that anti-clericalism from within has been the purpose behind the “writing and saying and doing” of this book. Joyce was a self-described exile, and that can characterize the position of many former Catholics—people who have sought refuge in another country of the faith or in no faith at all. But exile of this kind is not what I propose. Rather, standing in opposition to the Catholic Church establishment from within the Catholic Church is to be a kind of internal exile—a poignant life on the ecclesial inner margin, that liminal space from which an eye is ever cast toward the center as toward an unforsaken home, still beloved. One imagines the inmates of internal exile as figures in the back of the church—where, in fact, some dissenting priests and many free-spirited nuns can be found as well. Think of us as the Church’s conscientious objectors. We are not deserters.

Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, keeping one’s distance from officially sanctioned Masses. It may mean life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows, or even outside. That remains my stance, as of now. But such distancing will still involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy that define the Catholic faith: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice—finding Jesus “in the least of these.” Such chosen forms of faith may involve, for many, unauthorized expressions of prayer and worship—egalitarian, authentic, ecumenical—having nothing to do with diocesan borders, parish boundaries, or the sacrament of Holy Orders. That may be especially true in so-called intentional communities that lift up the leadership of women. These already exist, everywhere. In this connection, I think of my old partner Sister Gloria and what I belatedly learned from her. No matter who presides at whatever form the altar takes, such adaptations of Eucharistic observance return to the theological essence of the sacrament. Christ is experienced not through the officiant, but through the faith of the whole community. “For where two or three are gathered in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I in the midst of them.”

In what way, one might ask, can such institutional detachment square with actual Catholic identity? Though I am not proposing a replay of the Protestant Reformation, I do take instruction from the tension that surfaced in past centuries between what was called “Catholic substance” and “Protestant principle.” The first refers to the tradition, liturgy, and dogma that developed in the Church across the centuries, while the second refers to the commitment to renew that substance by constantly measuring it against the Gospel and the example of Jesus Christ. The key to a humane Catholic future is to advance both substance and principle. Understanding how Protestants and Catholics alike failed to do that in the past can help us do better in the future. Nor am I proposing a mere withdrawal by elites as a mode of resistance against unsophisticated “popular” religion. Indeed, popular religion, the true and simple faith of millions that always exists on the margins of magisterial authority, firmly upholds the sacramental imagination that defines the best of Catholicism. It does this through devotions and prayers and rituals that will continue the tradition in many forms, even as the imperial structure of Church governance shrivels.

I envision a range of specific actions of renewal taken by legions of common-sensical believers—from base community organizers, to deacons in priest-less parishes, to parents who band together for religious instruction of youngsters, to social activists who take on injustice in the name of Jesus Christ—all insisting on the Catholic character of what they are doing. Such acts of resistance may involve old-fashioned community organizing: congregations sitting-in at their churches or picketing chanceries; strikes by religious women and nuns; priests themselves formed into associations demanding change. It may involve social media campaigns: Why not something like #ChurchResist?

As ever, the Church’s principal organizing event will be the communal experience of the Mass, the structure of which—reading the Word, breaking the bread—will remain universal. It will not need to be celebrated by a member of some sacerdotal caste. The gradual ascendance of lay leaders in the Church is in any case becoming a fact of life, driven by shortages of personnel and expertise. And then, in 2020, something else struck, to push such changes forward: the coronavirus pandemic. The worldwide shuttering of churches, necessary social distancing, and live-streaming recourse to “virtual” celebrations of the Mass amounted to an interruption in Church history, which is even now leading to an unprecedented re-imagining of ritual, practice, and belief. The moral impossibility of large gatherings, for example, may lead to the rediscovery of the house-church tradition—bread and wine shared in living rooms and at kitchen tables—that defined the practice of the Church in its first centuries. And who will preside at such Masses? Not the priest, as we know him today. In other words, Catholics, like all people everywhere, are having to re-order their lives and meanings in light of the ongoing challenge of the pandemic and its aftermath. That re-ordering, in the Catholic instance, will surely involve transformations in the way the faithful relate to the clergy and the entire hierarchy of the Church.

Now is the time to make this re-ordering intentional and to accelerate it. The pillars of Catholicism—the Book and the bread, traditional prayers and songs, reflection centered on the wisdom of the saints, an understanding of life as a form of discipleship—will be unshaken. The Vatican itself may take steps, belatedly, to catch up to where the Church goes without it. Fine. But in ways that cannot be predicted, the exiles themselves will become the core, as exiles were the core at the time of Jesus. They will take on responsibility and ownership—and as responsibility and ownership devolve into smaller units, the focus will shift from the earthbound institution to its transcendent meaning. This is already happening in front of our eyes. Tens of millions of moral decisions and personal actions are being informed by the choice to be Catholics on our own terms, untethered from a rotted ancient scaffolding. The choice comes with no asterisk. We will be Catholics, full stop. We do not need anyone’s permission. Our “fasting and abstaining” from officially ordered practice, even as it is reinforced by transformations caused by the pandemic, will go on for as long as the Church’s rebirth requires, whether we live to see it finished or not. As anti-clerical Catholics, we will simply refuse to accept that the business-as-usual attitudes of most priests and bishops should extend to us.

The future will come at us invisibly, frame by frame, as it always does—comprehensible only when run together and projected retrospectively at some distant moment. But it is coming. One hundred years from now, there will be a Catholic Church. Count on it. If, down through the ages, it was appropriate for the Church to take on the political structures of the broader culture—imperial Rome, feudal Europe—then why shouldn’t Catholicism now absorb the ethos and form of liberal democracy? This may not be inevitable, but it is more than possible. The Church I foresee will be governed by laypeople, although the verb “govern” may apply less than “serve.” There will be leaders who gather communities in worship, and because the tradition is rich, striking chords deep in human history, such sacramental enablers may well be known as “priests.” They will include women and married men. They will be ontologically equal to everyone else. They will not owe fealty to a feudal superior. Catholic schools and universities will continue to submit faith to reason—and vice versa. Catholic hospitals will be a crucial part of the global healthcare infrastructure. Catholic religious orders of men and women, some voluntarily celibate, will continue to protect and enshrine the varieties of contemplative practice and the social Gospel. Jesuits and Dominicans, Benedictines and Franciscans, the Catholic Worker Movement and other communities of liberation theology—all of these will survive in as yet unimagined forms. The Church will be fully alive at the local level, even if the faith is practiced more in those living rooms than in basilicas. And the Church will still have a worldwide reach, with some kind of organizing center, perhaps even in Rome for old times’ sake. But that center will be protected from Catholic triumphalism by being openly engaged with other Christian denominations. The ecumenical movement—the Pope John XXIII project of Christian reunion—will be fulfilled. This Church of the future will have more in common with ancient tradition than the pope-idolizing Catholicism of modernity ever did. Instead of destroying a Catholic’s love of the Church, the vantage of internal exile can reinforce it—making the essence of the faith more apparent than ever.

As all of this implies, clericalism will be long dead. The boundary-protecting magisterium will be gone—except in the majesty of old papal museums that preserve as cautionary collections the fossils of domination that prelates once exercised back in the days when the Church lost its way in the thickets of empire. For now, that imperial hangover is what we must recover from. The view as I see it from my place of internal exile shows that the Church, whatever else it may be, is the community of memory, keeping alive the story of Jesus Christ. The Church is an in-the-flesh connection to Him—or it is nothing. Because of that, even in “the depths,” we think of Him continually—an inbred response of which I had a hint way back in the beginning, when I was an altar boy transfixed by the words of the De Profundis: “I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits, and in His word I put my hope. I wait for the Lord more than watchmen wait for the morning, more than watchmen wait for the morning.” That’s me.

I began my story by telling of Jesus my Imagined Friend, ever faithful. His was the cosmic narrative of going into exile—crossing through longing and suffering and waiting and watching—and then coming home. The story was a promise, which is why it’s called “good news.” I return at the end to where I began. As a boy, in that first monastery, I sensed the radical thrill of the ultimate gamble, a roll of the dice on which one’s whole life is bet—a wager on the existence of a loving God. As a young man, I placed that bet because of my Imagined Friend. It is a bet, I see now despite everything, that I have won. Jesus remains really present to me, and through Him, that loving God does, too. Recalling that first monastery, I think of my mother, who brought me there. This book began with my un-wished-for sense of relief that she is not alive to see the Church’s grotesque unraveling, but I understand now that if she had lived to see it, she, too, would recognize in this heartbreak the potential for purification. What remains of the connection to Jesus once the organizational apparatus disappears? That is what I asked myself in the summer before I resigned from the priesthood all those years ago. I asked “out of the depths” back then, and have done so again this year, not presuming in either instance that the old mystery of “death and resurrection” would apply to me. My faith faltered. Perhaps I should have known, should have trusted. After all, the De Profundis is one of the psalms collectively called the “Song of Ascents.”

I began with my Imagined Jesus, and I end with an imagined Church. In the imagination lies the answer to the question about connection. The imagination, to cite Samuel Taylor Coleridge again, is the “I AM” of God alive in human beings.6 The Catholic faith is the form that takes in me—that’s all. In the future I foresee, the Church will imitate the Prince of Peace, standing with the dispossessed and against weapons. With Jesus, the Church will accompany suffering to change suffering’s meaning. Without platitudes, the Church will offer trustworthy consolation at the time of death. The Church will uphold the hope that humanity will continually surpass itself until it finds its truest home, the opposite of exile, in the fulfillment of a purposeful history, a final recognition of the Creator’s blessing never lost. And the Church will be, still, the fellowship—to repeat that earliest definition—of “those that loved Him at the first and did not let go of their affection for Him.” Yet the larger point will be—won’t it?—that He did not let go, despite everything, of His affection for us. A friend, faithful and true

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