Practice makes perfect, eventually

By  Peter Kavanagh, Catholic Register Special
  • June 12, 2009
{mosimage}Practicing Catholic by James Carroll (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, hardcover, 400 pages, $37.95).

James Carroll is a tough guy to read, and for critics a tough thinker to argue with. He’s demonstrated that in 10 novels and five serious works of non-fiction so far. His latest work, Practicing Catholic will for some be his toughest book yet. For others it will be like a long cold drink of water on a fiery day.

Carroll, raised an Irish American Catholic (and the qualifiers are important) on the eastern seaboard of the United States has bedevilled conservative lay Catholics and conservative members of the hierarchy for nearly four decades. Trained as a Paulist priest with two vocations — priest and poet — Carroll is a man of Vatican II who finds his faith and solace in that truly astonishing and earth-shaking convocation which rocked the church 40 years ago and still does to this day.

Practicing Catholic is Carroll’s testament to the nature of his faith, his communion with Catholicism and his bill of indictment of those who would deny the visions and consequences of all John XXIII set in motion. It is a powerfully argued cri de coeur rooted in a deep understanding of church history, biblical scholarship and theology.

{sa 0618670181}He does not stake out a position based on what is convenient. He is actually a thinking believer who asks what it means today to be a Catholic in a world where the answer to that question may be of utmost importance.

Carroll believes Vatican II was the long-needed correction to a church grown encrusted with bad thinking, venial motivations and sinful deeds of commission and omission. Practicing Catholic is an account of what led up to Vatican II and what has happened since. It is a story rife with great hopes crushed cruelly by what Carroll sees as a curia more concerned with authority and power than truly coming to grips with the concerns, hopes and aspirations of Catholics around the world.

In particular he centres his critique — more accurately, his assault — on the matters of priestly celibacy and the prohibition on birth control. He sees the two as linked because of the nexus of sexuality. But it’s also because, from his perspective, neither is linked to theological authority. They are errors of kind, akin to the mistakes the church has made with Galileo — stubborn positions taken out of institutional pride rather than faith, reason or any magisterial combination of the two.

From time to time while reading this church history, couched as personal memoir, you want to ask, “Why are you still a Catholic?” But Carroll is poetically clear on that. He is still a Catholic because that’s what he is. He is a man who believes, who understands to the core of his being what Jesus means to the world, how institutions evolve, how what is clear today wasn’t clear yesterday and why it matters that people gather together to share a common faith in a deeply believed reality.

Carroll knows his Augustine and cites his observation that  “spirals down into memory” were the most reliable way to God. This is his motivation for documenting his path from altar boy to priest to ex-priest to committed Catholic. The remembrances and context are a vivid account of a turbulent time in Catholic history from the late 1940s until today.

Carroll is a well-read believer and this book is a veritable reference work which invites further exploration of thinkers and perspectives that would keep any of us busy for years. His literary style is such that you quickly realize that when you suspect you disagree you will need to work hard at rebutting or even engaging his arguments.

The title is the key. Carroll is a practising Catholic. He is aware, deeply aware, that we are all human, all imperfect, all seized with the potential, the possibility, the reality of sin and error. He asks a lot of his church. What makes his demands so troubling is that he asks a lot of himself.

The least any other practicing Catholic can do is hear him out. It will be a beneficial encounter for everyone.

(Kavanagh is a CBC Radio producer.)

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