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About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
What Is to Be Done?
It was January of 2001 when I published Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews, but the twenty-first century had not really begun. Politics and religion were central to that book's consideration of Christian anti-semitism, but the meaning of politics and religion both were transformed by the event that marked the new era's true beginning, which was, of course, September 11. A savage act of violence was committed in the name of Allah. America's consequent War on Terrorism, inadvertently labeled a "crusade" by President George W. Bush, is being waged with a good-versus-evil religious fervor. As with Bush, absolutism has newly gripped world leaders, especially in the tinderboxes of the Middle East, on the Indian subcontinent, and in central Asia. Challenged by these unsettling developments, religious people everywhere have undertaken an urgent new examination of the relationship between variously held beliefs and their effects on those who do not share them.
We Americans have discovered with something approaching astonishment the wild diversity of religious and spiritual impulses that has come to mark not only the planet but our own nation. "Today," as the great Catholic theologian Karl Rahner put it, "everyone is the next-door neighbor and spiritual neighbor of everyone else in the world." And as Rahner argues, even from within Catholicism, this new circumstance means the assumptions of every religion must now be the subject of reexamination.
Ideological and religious elbow-rubbing is a global phenomenon, but it occurs in the United States as nowhere else. As a nation that welcomes an unending stream of immigrants, with their plethora of faiths and traditions, America implicitly sponsors this reexamination, as religiously diverse peoples encounter each other in the mundane "neighborhoods" of work, school, and living. The testing of assumptions that inevitably follows is one of the reasons America is suspect in the eyes of rigidly traditional societies.
After September 11, the Islamic presence in America drew particular attention, and the still dominant assumption of the mainly Christian, or "Judeo-Christian," character of the nation was punctured. Americans discovered that there were more Muslims living among them than Presbyterians or Episcopalians, and as many Muslims as Jews. Suddenly, with Islam, on one side, being perceived as a religion that sponsors violence, and with God, on the other, being invoked as "blessing" America's War on Terrorism, religious differences as such loomed as flashpoints in the nation's life.
Meanwhile, across the globe, fundamentalist truth-claims, rooted in various religions, were seen to be fueling conflicts with ferocious new energy. In the Arab world, and in Europe, there was a virulent outbreak of the old scourge of anti-semitism, with some Muslims believing that the September 11 atrocities were the work of Jews, and with some in the West inclined to accept Osama bin Laden's deadly equation between the existence of Israel and the misery of impoverished Arabs. Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, surfaced as an antisemite's dream, with few of his critics seeing his "overwhelming force" escalations against the Palestinians in the context of America's sanctioning. After all, "overwhelming force" was the mode of America's war in Afghanistan, the full costs of which have yet to be tallied. Likewise, Israel's critics have painted with the old broad brush, drawing few distinctions between the Israeli government's belligerence and the segments of Israeli society that continued to support the ideal of peace. Some drew moral equivalence between the Israel Defense Forces and Hamas, or condemned IDF incursions into Bethlehem, for example, while saying nothing about a Seder massacre in Jerusalem. Once again a stereotyped and univocal fantasy of "the Jews" was broadly seen as a problem to the world.
Hannah Arendt, the Jewish political philosopher of the mid-twentieth century, warned of the doom that follows from the idea of "eternal antisemitism," as if Jews were fated to play the victim's role. As the War on Terrorism unfolded, some reduced all of Islam to the idea of an "eternal jihad," as if the "clash of civilizations," in Samuel Huntington's phrase, between Islam and the rest of the world were inevitable. As bigoted stereotypes of Jews and their religion once more entered the common discourse, wildly distorted characterizations of Muslim belief and practice were accepted as fact. The religions of both groups were understood as motivating behavior, whether approved or condemned, that had grave consequences for humanity.
All at once, the widely held twentieth-century assumption that religion would grow increasingly irrelevant seemed naive. The centrality of religion to life on earth, for better and for worse, had made itself very clear in a very short time. Yet never had the dark side of religion seemed more manifest, with various forms of what must be termed religious fascism being recognized as such. The Muslim suicide-murderers, wreaking such havoc in Israel, are religious fascists, certainly, but in hindsight it could be seen that so were the Catholic and Protestant fanatics of the die-hard fringes in Northern Ireland. The Hindu who assassinated Indira Gandhi was a religious fascist, and so was the Jewish student who murdered Yitzhak Rabin. What territorial compromise is possible among people who believe their claim to disputed land derives from God? What truce can interrupt violence that is held to be sacred, even if it is suicidal? Regarded across time, what religion seems free of such demonic impulses?
With numerous mainstream religions being challenged from within by their own fundamentalist extremists, and with expressly fundamentalist denominations ascendant over much of the world, the task of renewing the rational element in religion, historically minded and ecumenically disposed, has become more and more important. The capacity of each religion to engage in self-criticism and correction has come to be seen as a compelling issue not only for the religions but for their neighbors, whose very lives may be put at risk. "There will be no peace among the nations," as the Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung put it, "without peace among the religions. There will be no peace among the religions without dialogue between the religions. There will be no dialogue between the religions without the investigation of the foundations of the religions."
How do we correct the foundations of our beliefs when they show themselves to be inhuman? And how can basic change in religious affirmation be made without undermining the authority of the tradition itself? These are grave questions, because in an era of terrifyingly rapid change, religion functions for many people as the only connection with tradition, and it can seem desperately important to wall off the realm of faith from the chaos and uncertainty that plague everything else. But history breaks down such walls. As demonstrated by the world's move to the brink of nuclear war between Pakistan and India in the spring of 2002 in a dispute that defined itself religiously, nothing less than the future of the human race is at stake in our readiness to think critically about what we believe.
As if all of this were not enough, the Roman Catholic Church was then hit by a tidal wave that, while very different from the September catastrophe, has been for Catholics a comparable trauma. The Church has been staggered in ways no one could ever have anticipated, even in that staggering season. A few months after September 11, in early January 2002, the Boston Globe published a front-page story entitled "Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years." It was an account of how Boston's archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, and his predecessors had protected pedophile priests, enabling them to continue what was widely characterized as their predatory crime spree against children. The scandal led to an unprecedented explosion of Catholic awareness of Church failures, and the new climate of religious self-criticism has taken on a particularly pointed meaning among Catholics, especially lay people.
An abused child had finally told his story to his mother, explaining the delay in his report by saying, "We couldn't tell you because Father said it was a confessional." That statement offers a clue to the dimensions of the tragedy that broke over the Church — not only the betrayal by some priests, but the corruption of something sacred that made the revelations exponentially more shocking. In abusing their child victims, and in then controlling them, priests invoked sacraments, their own exalted status, the cult of sacred secrecy, and the wrath of God. In addition to all else, their assaults were acts of blasphemy. And when, extending this magnum silencium, priest-protecting bishops equated confidential out-of-court settlements with the seal of the confessional, the blasphemy became sacrilege.
Here is a shameful example: A victim named Tom Blanchette encountered Cardinal Law at the funeral of Father Joseph Birmingham. When Blanchette described to Law the way Birmingham had abused him as a child, Law, as Blanchette recounts it, "laid his hands on my head for two or three minutes. And then he said this, 'I bind you by the power of the confessional never to speak about this to anyone else.'"
Child sexual abuse is by no means unique to the Catholic priesthood, but children abused by priests, in Boston and elsewhere, were typically abused twice: once by the physical assault, and then by the deflection and denial tied to the holy powers of the priesthood and the needs of the clerical culture around it. Priests raped children, and their bishops protected the priests, allowing rape to happen again. And much of this occurred in the name of God.
The scandal in Boston soon spread across the United States, as hundreds of previously undisclosed cases of fondling and rape came to light, as well as dozens of instances in which bishops exhibited more concern for the clerical institution, or even for the abusive priests, than for the traumatized victims. The cascade of revelations concerning everything from how Church personnel matters were handled to how Church funds were administered revealed that a vast anomie had gripped Catholicism. An unaddressed disorder infected clergy and laity alike, and, more broadly, Catholic attitudes toward authority — and toward gender and sexuality.
It would be simplistic to attribute the moral paralysis that so long marked Church responses to priestly child abuse to any one characteristic of Catholic culture, be it celibacy, the all-male priesthood, a Jansenist suspicion of sexuality that breeds repression, a male fear of females, or the disparity between increasingly self-respecting homosexuals in the Catholic clergy and a Catholic moral theology that continues to preach contempt for homosexuality. But taken together, such notes of contemporary Catholic conflict are indications of the dysfunction that results when the gap between preached ideals and life as it is really lived becomes too wide — especially if the ideals are false.
The Second Vatican Council (1962–1965) was the Church's great attempt to deal more honestly with the contradiction between a religious culture still firmly rooted in the Middle Ages and a Catholic people who had come of age in the modern world. Catholic attitudes toward liturgy and theology dramatically shifted. Interreligious dialogue advanced among Christians and between Christians and Jews. The Church questioned its own exercise of power. Pope John XXIII (1958–1963) trusted his fellow bishops and the Catholic people to help bring about such basic changes, but his successor, Pope Paul VI (1963–1978), made a momentous — and, history suggests, disastrous — decision to reserve two great questions to himself, trusting no one. The questions concerned birth control and priestly celibacy. In both cases the pope later handed down absolute decisions — against birth control (Humanae Vitae, 1968) and for celibacy (Sacerdotalis Caelibatus, 1967). As noted by numerous critics, and as experienced by a whole generation of Church faithful, these pronouncements led to a tragic Catholic decline.
Loyal Catholics, faced with the sex abuse scandal, want to defend the many good priests who are men of impressive virtue, yet it is these very priests who carry the burdens of dishonesty and collapse caused by those two Church policies. Catholics simply do not believe that birth control is evil, nor, from all reports, do most priests; yet the rule stands. A related "idealism" has cost the Church its credibility on all matters of sexual morality, from the so-called evils of masturbation to the rejection of condoms even when used to prevent HIV infection. Catholic leaders will oppose contraception even if it means a rise in abortion rates. To protect the ideal of marriage-for-life, priests are expected to encourage women to stay married to men who beat them. The Catholic lie about divorce is enshrined in the word "annulment." Regarding sex generally, a Catholic culture of dishonesty reigns. And the bishops' inability to teach with authority on these questions is tied to a general decline in their moral influence, so that on a matter like the death penalty even a traditional Catholic like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, a death penalty advocate, can dismiss the bishops' teaching with contempt.
This loss of credibility is destroying the very structure of the Church. Catholics have watched the priesthood collapse around the harried men who still serve — while the Vatican rejects the service of married men and, most disturbingly, refuses to ordain women, on the strictly fundamentalist ground that all of the apostles were male. The Vatican has said its pronouncement against women priests is forever and infallible, yet most Catholics reject it. Meanwhile, more than half the parishes in the world have no priest, and what priests remain are aging fast. Why this crisis? Because virginal sexlessness is deemed morally superior to an actively erotic life — an inhuman idea that opens a gap, an ethical abyss, into which the most well meaning of people can fall.
None of these factors, taken alone, led to the sexual abuse of children by priests, but when that horrible crime occurs, the culture of silence, denial, dishonesty, and collapse makes it far less likely that the Church, from the hierarchy to the people in the pew, will respond honestly and wisely. That is why the scandal must lead to more than accusations and the disciplining of individuals. The abusers punished and removed, yes. The bishops repentant and held accountable, yes. The children protected above all. But the scandal must also lead to a new awareness of what it means to be Catholic — no longer at the mercy of the moral paralysis of Church leaders or the corruptions they defend. This is why the Catholic people, whose instinctive response to the abuse crisis has been clear from that traumatic January forward, moved at once to take the Church back. Using every forum they could, Catholics began demanding reform — for the sake of their beloved Church and, more important, for the sake of the children.
In parishes throughout the United States, Catholics gathered in large numbers to discuss a range of matters spilling over from the abuse crisis. As reports surfaced of financial settlements secretly paid to victims over the years, Catholic philan-thropists and foundations demanded an accounting of the monies they donated to the Church, and parishioners began withholding contributions from collection baskets. One lay group, Voice of the Faithful, founded at St. John the Evangelist Church in Wellesley, Massachusetts, soon had fourteen thousand Catholics enrolled in its cause, which was defined by the slogan "Keep the faith, change the Church." Even conservative Catholics, in rejecting the passive role traditionally assigned by the hierarchy to lay people, found themselves enlisted, perhaps despite themselves, in what the New York Times called "a quiet revolution."
My preoccupation in Constantine's Sword was with the history of Christian antisemitism and how this primordial sin of the Church had prepared the ground out of which grew the Nazi program to eliminate the Jewish people. Recognitions tied to the Holocaust led to a massive postwar Christian reform, nowhere more profound than in the Roman Catholic Church. But the Church reforms begun at Vatican II were not sustained, in part because Church authorities began to roll them back, as we saw with Paul VI's encyclicals, and in part because the Catholic laity, despite its implicit dissent on those and other matters, was never able to take the practical responsibility for the Church that the council had made theoretically possible. And under the pontificate of the charismatic and admired John Paul II, the laity, with some vocal but always marginal exceptions, seemed happy to resume its traditional role as adjunct to "the Church," which continued to define itself as, essentially, the priests, the bishops, and the pope.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Toward a New Catholic Church"
Copyright © 2002 James Carroll.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
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