Practicing Catholic

( 14 )


A clear-eyed and personal examination of the Catholic faith, its leaders, and its complicated history by National Book Award–winner James Carroll

James Carroll turns to the notion of practice—both as a way to learn and a means of improvement—as a lens for this thoughtful and frank look at what it means to be Catholic. He acknowledges the slow and steady transformation of the Church from its darker, medieval roots to a more pluralist and inclusive institution, charting along the ...

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Practicing Catholic

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A clear-eyed and personal examination of the Catholic faith, its leaders, and its complicated history by National Book Award–winner James Carroll

James Carroll turns to the notion of practice—both as a way to learn and a means of improvement—as a lens for this thoughtful and frank look at what it means to be Catholic. He acknowledges the slow and steady transformation of the Church from its darker, medieval roots to a more pluralist and inclusive institution, charting along the way stories of powerful Catholic leaders (Pope John XXIII, Thomas Merton, John F. Kennedy) and historical milestones like Vatican II. These individuals and events represent progress for Carroll, a former priest, and as he considers the new meaning of belief in a world that is increasingly as secular as it is fundamentalist, he shows why the world needs a Church that is committed to faith and renewal.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Carroll, a former Catholic priest who wrote of his conflict with his father over the Vietnam War in An American Requiem, revisits and expands on that tension in this spiritual memoir infused with church history. Here, Carroll traces his life as a son of the Catholic Church, showing how he and the church changed as he moved from boyhood into adulthood. Ordained a priest in 1968, the year Humanae Vitae, the controversial encyclical on contraception, was released, Carroll discovered by 1974 that he could no longer keep his vow of obedience if it meant heeding teachings with which he disagreed. Leaving the priesthood freed him to pursue more fully his life as a writer, but also to be the kind of Catholic he believes the reformers of his church envisioned in the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965. Although he laments what he calls the more recent "conservative reaction" to the council, he remains Catholic. Readers who, like Carroll, remain Catholic but wrestle with their church's positions on moral issues will most appreciate his story. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This book is both a memoir of former priest and writer Carroll's life and a keen analysis of American Catholicism in the late 20th century. Carroll's An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us won the National Book Award, and his Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews-A History was an acclaimed best seller. Practicing Catholic takes readers through the liberating experience of Vatican II and finishes off with the more restricting trends of current Catholic fundamentalism. Carroll convincingly shows the church's ebbs and flows and parallels them with the era's cultural, political, and economic trends. While Carroll is critical of church leadership and its policies on many fronts, he remains faithful to the core fundamentals of gospel truth. His book is actually a loving critique of a very human institution that is both in need of salvation and simultaneously an agent of grace. Brilliant prose, historically insightful, and sincere passion remain hallmarks of the author's work. The book includes an "American Catholic Chronology" and notes. Recommended for all libraries.
—John-Leonard Berg

Kirkus Reviews
Engrossing faith memoir mirrors the changing face of American Catholicism. Novelist and former priest Carroll (House of War: The Pentagon and the Disastrous Rise of American Power, 2006, etc.) sets out to understand and explain the state of Catholicism from the 1940s to the present, using his personal story as a nexus. In his view, the latter half of the 20th century was marked by this revelation: "Catholics came to understand that they themselves-not their priests, bishops, and pope-are the Church." Many would question that assessment, or at least state that it is not a global truth, but the author makes a good case that the "unchanging" Roman Catholic Church can and does change through the sheer will of its adherents. He begins by sharing childhood memories of growing up an Irish-American Catholic in the '40s and '50s, a time when Mass was celebrated in Latin, Catholics and Protestants rarely mixed and the people in the pews had no power or say. Carroll interrupted his undergraduate career at Georgetown to join an overtly American order of priests, the Paulist Fathers. His years at seminary and as a priest coincided with the Second Vatican Council and with one of America's most turbulent periods, a parallel history that the author traces with powerful effect. Becoming personally disenchanted with church teachings on celibacy, contraception, etc., Carroll left the priesthood in 1974. His account of the following decades focuses on the controversial social and religious stances of Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI), as well as the reaction to their policies by Carroll and other lay people. The author's prose is occasionally too weighty-"Kennedy'speroration was my conscription," "implicit contract of coresponsibility"-but overall the book is a page-turner and offers controversial insights on modern American Catholicism. A captivating look at the Church and a call for change from within its numbers. Author tour to New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Milwaukee
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547336268
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing
  • Publication date: 4/2/2010
  • Pages: 394
  • Sales rank: 627,068
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

James Carroll was raised in Washington, D.C., and ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1969. He served as a chaplain at Boston University from 1969 to 1974, then left the priesthood to become a writer. A distinguished scholar-
in-residence at Suffolk University, he is a columnist for the Boston Globe and a regular contributor to the Daily Beast.

His critically admired books include Practicing Catholic, the National Book Award–winning An American Requiem, House of War, which won the first PEN/Galbraith Award, and the New York Times bestseller Constantine’s Sword, now an acclaimed documentary.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Practicing Catholic 1

1 Born Catholic 11

1 Past, Present, Future 11

2 De Profundis 16

3 Jimmy Marching 23

4 Growing Up with Jesus 25

5 In God Who Is Not There 28

2 The God of My Youth 34

1 The Perfect Society 34

2 Martyr of Conscience 38

3 No Salvation Outside the Church 43

4 Infallibility 46

5 Americanism 52

6 Isaac Hecker and the Paulists 58

3 Coming of Age 65

1 Richard Cushing 65

2 Leonard Feeney, S.J. 69

3 Experience over Doctrine 77

4 John Courtney Murray, S.J. 84

5 Catholic Camelot 88

4 The Council 96

1 Pope John XXIII 96

2 Entering the Novitiate 100

3 Reform and Reunion 107

4 The Cuban Missile Crisis 113

5 Nostra Aetate: Jesus, a Jew 116

6 Religious Liberty 120

7 Thomas Merton and Peace 122

8 The Death of John F. Kennedy 125

5 A New Language 127

1 End of Latin 127

2 The Bible Told Them So 131

3 Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin 133

4 Learning to Read 139

5 The Mary Code 144

6 The Gospel of Women 154

7 Faith of the Fathers 158

6 Sex and Power 162

1 Unnatural Law 162

2 Personally Opposed 167

3 Celibacy as Control 170

4 Women's Liberation 172

5 1968: Howl 175

6 Catholic Radical 181

7 Martin and Bobby 185

8 Humanae Vitae 188

7 Thou Art a Priest 191

1 A Monk in Love 191

2 William Sloane Coffin, Jr. 196

3 Public Sinner 202

4 The End of the Beginning 203

5 Catholic Chaplain 205

6 Conscientious Objectors 211

7 Cardinal Cushing's Last Hurrah 217

8 The Scandal 220

1 How I Loved It 220

2 This Father Carroll 223

3 Paul Shanley and His Protectors 227

4 The Basilica of Denial 233

5 The Church on Fire 236

6 Three Reasons 238

7 Hans Küng vs. John Paul II 240

8 Ratzinger and Galileo 246

9 Religion and Terror 250

1 Crusade and Jihad 250

2 Catholic Fundamentalism 253

3 Member of the Laity 257

4 A German Pope 259

5 The Negotiation of Values 266

6 The West Against the Rest 268

7 Monotheism, Violence of 276

8 Peace Among the Religions 280

9 "Catastrophe" Means "Turning Point" 283

10 A Writer's Faith 287

1 Bad Catholic 287

2 Allen Tate 290

3 Death Is the Opening 300

4 Language Is God 302

5 The Meaning of Meaning 308

6 A Second Naïveté 312

7 The Catholic Imagination 316

8 Far Surpassing Human Hopes 320

A Twentieth-Century American Catholic Chronology 323

Acknowledgments 328

Notes 330

Index 361

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 14 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 14 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 10, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Practicing Catholic - A Lifetime Later

    James Carroll's approach to history is highly personal. In his recent historical surveys, "Constantine's Sword" and "House of War," he occasionally interspersed personal anecdotes to tie the broad sweep of historical events to his own life story and developing historical awareness. In this book, Carroll goes a step further and suggests his own story as a typical encapsulating narrative for the history of the American Catholic Church of our time.

    His life as a post-war Irish Catholic youth, Paulist seminarian and reform-minded, antiwar-activist priest anchors his account of the era leading up to Vatican II's aggiornamento and of the early stages of post-Council regression. But oddly, his personal narrative largely ends with his withdrawal from the priesthood in 1974.

    In the transition from his personal history, Carroll interweaves the background of the priestly sex-abuse scandal in Boston with the discounting of papal teaching on birth control before turning to pointed polemical diatribe against Cardinal Ratzinger / Pope Benedict. In a chapter titled "Religion and Terror" Carroll rises up as the dissident layman turned prophetic spokesman for the abandoned Conciliar reform agenda.

    Carroll left the priesthood to become a writer. But of his work over the next twenty-some years he has little to say. His return to religious topics was "an accidental development tied to religion's emergence as a public question in the past dozen or so years." More than likely it was undertaking a column at the Boston Globe that opened the pathway for "making public the private conclusions [he] had reached as a believer."

    Carroll's springboard into the final chapter on his faith as a writer is an episode once again drawn from the other side of his personal history, from shortly before his ordination. Here Carroll relates in greater detail than he did in "American Requiem" the story of his relationship with the poet Allen Tate, who had mentored Carroll as a beginning poet, and named his struggle to choose between two vocations, writer and priest.

    Flowing from this pivotal point in his vocational story, but standing on the other side of that choice now decades later as an accomplished writer, Carroll intertwines themes of word and meaning and language and even titles one section "Language is God." The creative medium of language, Carroll argues, somehow carries us beyond ourselves into the presence of the Word, a Christian turn of phrase, but also descriptive of the experience of Muslims in praying the Koran, or Jews in studying the Torah -- the point is the encounter with the divine beyond the mediating terms.

    While like Carroll we may have learned certain truths through a particular sequence of events and issues, the dramatic bias of one's role in the sequence can too easily become an endless replay of past conflicts without benefit of reaching any higher viewpoint. The inner story of a personal religious crisis of any existential authenticity surely runs much deeper than just returning to the polemical fray.

    Others who have gone through a similar crisis of faith and vocation have ended up in quite different positions. That there are a myriad other different paths through the same field of disillusionment contradicts Carroll's claim to universality. Once begun on a personal path, what one expected here was a more personal exploration of a particular journey toward the universal.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 22, 2009


    Thoughtful slice of history of the Catholic Church since Vatican II. Easy to read - I enjoyed it and look forward to passing it on to friends.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2009

    One is always practicing

    This book was stimulating to me. Carroll is truly a scholar, and this volume is exceedingly well documented. I have one fault. The introduction is really all one needs if you are looking for what he means by the title. I was drawn to it, as my faith has been very empty for almost a year, and his journey, all be it more tortuous than mine, showed me how much ones search can parallel another. It took a long time to read, as the notes are extensive and worth the time. I don't think I have fulfilled my quest, but there is hope in practicing.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 17, 2009

    less personal than I expected

    I am a fan of James Carroll's earlier books. I expected this book to contain a more personal account of why he continues to be a practicing Catholic. It was a much more academic treatment of the evolution of practices in the Catholic Church. It was a good book, but not an easy read. I would recommend it to others, but enter with different expectations than I had.

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