Former Priest Calls to Reform the Catholic Church

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CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: From one historic conflict now to another. The battle to reform the Catholic Church that has been plagued by a long-running sexual abuse crisis. Author, historian and journalist, James Carroll, argues that mail dominance is the root cause of the church’s issues. His new memoir, “The Truth at the Heart of the Lie,” links his own crisis of faith as a priest to the history of the church its. And he joins our Michel Martin to discuss his cause to reform the church and the need to raise women’s voices and their power within the institution. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) MICHEL MARTIN, CONTRIBUTOR: Thanks, Christiane. James Carroll, Jim, thank you so much for joining us once again.

JAMES CARROLL, AUTHOR, THE TRUTH AT THE HEALTH OF THE LIE: Michelle, I can’t tell you how pleased I am to be with you.

MARTIN: We last spoke in 2019 when you wrote a piece for “The Atlantic.” And in that piece, you said that the way forward for the Catholic Church is to abolish the clergy. And this sparked a, you know, furious reaction, even from progressive Catholics with whom you, you know, otherwise have a great deal in common. You obviously had more to say, hence this book. So, what was the question that you had to further interrogate with this book?

CARROLL: Well, actually, I’m glad you pointed out my first go-around with this question did get pushback from people I admire and I respect and it made me think harder about what I’m saying. I did call for the abolition of the Catholic priesthood, by which I meant the abolition of clericalism, the culture in which the priesthood is embedded, the idea that the priest is a person apart unlike other human beings elevated above others, sits on a pyramid of power, and that the power structure of the Catholic Church centered on the priesthood, oppresses women, exploits and oppresses late people, prepares the church for nothing but betrayal of the Jesus Christ of the gospels. So, in thinking about it since that article was published, I’ve gone deeper into it and I’m more convinced than ever that clericalism is the root cause of the Catholic Church’s dysfunction, and it must be dismantled. So, I’m still calling for a major shift in Catholic culture, organization, and the way the church understands itself.

MARTIN: And this landed particularly hard for many people because you are a former priest yourself. You trained for seven years, you served as a priest for five years, then you left, but you remain a loyal Catholic. You saw yourself as a faithful Catholic. You went to mass more than once a week, as I recall. And I think that just landed with such a thud with people that they couldn’t — it was almost like they couldn’t sort of process. And I was just wondering why you think it landed with such a thud.

CARROLL: It landed with a thud on me, Michel, first. And the simple answer is that when Pope Francis became the pope of the Catholic Church, I thought that the vision of Pope John and the Second Vatican Council of many decades ago, my youth, was finally being realized. A real reform of the church that would dismantle this oppressive power structure and the male supremacy of the church and bring about the fulfillment of the democratic movement that began in the early 1960s. Pope Francis has been unable to do it. He’s denounced clericalism, but he hasn’t dismantled the very pillars of clericalism, which is the all-male priesthood and the prohibition of women for being priests. Those are the two key elements. Pope Francis has protected them both. MARTIN: So, him carrying his own luggage, moving into a smaller apartment, speaking of the dignity and importance of the poor. His visionary, outspokenness on climate change, you say that it’s not that none of it matters, but what, it cannot matter until — CARROLL: Let me just say a word about all the virtues of Francis. The world has welcomed his fight against populism, his defense of migrants, his rejection of inequality, his calling for new forms of commonwealth and responsibility, criticizing capitalism, a major defender of the climate. All of that has been so important. And, yet, the single most important thing Pope Francis had to do was advance the reform of the Catholic Church. And he’s failed to do it. MARTIN: And that became clear to you on his trip to Ireland? CARROLL: It did.

MARTIN: And you said that that was really a breaking point for you. But why is that? I mean, why — doesn’t all this other important work level the score as it were? Why is that Ireland trip so pivotal for you and what he – – not just what he said but what he failed to say on his trip to Ireland?

CARROLL: Yes. It’s true. Cast your mind back to that summer, it was 2018, August. Ireland is ground zero of the priest abuse scandal. Something almost approaching 20,000 Irish victims of priests over the decades. Almost everyone in Ireland is related somehow to a victim of a priest. The Irish church is in a state of collapse. The Catholics in Ireland are crushed by this scandal. Pope Francis knew it. He went to Ireland. Many of us expected major announcements of dramatic reforms, a final reckoning with this scandal. What was he going to do? And all he did was business as usual platitudes. Shame and sorrow, he expressed it, yes. When he was — when people demanded more action, he called a meeting of bishops in Rome that took place a few months later. The bishops dealing with this problem is effectively like calling mafia chieftains to be on the crime commission. And, sure enough, what they came up with, which was touted by defenders of the church as a real resolution of the abuse crisis was nothing more than business as usual. Yes, priests and bishops required to report cases of abuse, but report it to other bishops, not to civil authorities. No transparency, no required participation of lay people. It was a kind of scandalous dodging of the bullet yet again. It began for me in Ireland when it was also the season when the grand jury in Pennsylvania revealed that hundreds of priests had abused more than a thousand children. 15 attorneys general around the United States were opening up investigations into the church because the bishops had failed to do it. There were reports in Germany, Cardinal McCarrick, one of the most senior figures in the Catholic Church was convicted by a Vatican tribunal of abuse. Michel, all of this crescendo, a tsunami of revelation that season, that was the thud that hit me. When is the church going to deal with this and why won’t it? And it’s because, to change this would mean changing basic, basic ideas and structures of the Catholic world going all the way back to the way we read the bible.

MARTIN: You said, you know, the church’s upheaval is part of this kind of larger human problem. I mean, in date, you know, if your argument in essence is that the failings of the church aren’t just a problem for the church, but they are a problem for the world. Why do you say that?

CARROLL: Yes. Well, let’s take one of the most blatant examples. The problem surrounding the church’s teaching on contraception. Stepping back from that, the human species right now is going through mutation in the meaning of biological reproduction. The ways in which laboratories are bringing cloning and new forms of genetic research into the fore, changing the way in which human beings think about reproduction, something so basic to us, something that has defined the human condition for millennia. And in our lifetimes and over the lifetimes of our children, there’s going to be something no less than a mutation in the way human beings relate to reproduction, sexuality, sexual intimacy, its meaning, the great questions ahead of us about a genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, CRISPR. These moral dilemmas facing the human species at this moment desperately need an authentic, wise, reliable source of moral meaning. The Catholic Church could’ve been such a thing. It squandered that position with its ridiculous anti-female, anti-science power-hungry reiteration of its condemnation of birth control. It sounds like a stretch to say that, I know it. But in 1968, the Catholic Church could’ve changed its teaching on birth control. A papal commission recommended that it do so. The Vatican Council earlier had prepared the groundwork for doing so. The pope said no. Why? To protect that pyramid of power, male power. And that effectively ended the capacity, even of Catholics, to trust the church as a center of moral meaning. What did Catholics do about birth control? They ignored the hierarchy on it. They walked away from that ruling. Now, Catholics pretend to observe it, priests pretend to teach it, bishops pretend to enforce it. What do you have? You have a structure of deceit at the heart of Catholic meaning.

MARTIN: You make the point in the book that Catholics around the world but particularly in Ireland and in the United States are voting with their feet. That they’re walking away from the church in droves, that they are walking away both sort of physically and as a matter of sort of practice but also in their financial support for the institution. But I have to say, Jim, I go to many churches. You can see sort of decline in attendance. Many of the people I see there are women. Many of the people who are most vociferous in defending the church’s conservative position are women.

CARROLL: It’s true.

MARTIN: So, the church is as demeaning to women and as oppressive of women and their agency as you believe it to be. Why is that?

CARROLL: My own strong view is that everybody has a right to their position and a right to be heard and respected in holding that position. And that’s true of the left and the right both. The Catholic Church is no different. But when you lift up the power of women, whether they’re on the right or on the left, that actually you’re putting your finger on what I regard as the single most hopeful sign from the future. Because the power of women, conservative women raising their voices as well as liberal women raising their voices, the point is those voices must be raised in the culture of the west and especially in Christianity and Catholicism. Those voices were to be silent. So, even a conservative woman raising a positive powerful voice is, in effect, breaking new ground, wouldn’t think of herself perhaps as a feminist, but it’s a feminist stance.

MARTIN: Is there some role that you think Joe Biden should play in this pivotal moment, what you see as a pivotal moment? He is our most visible Catholic person at this moment. Is there some role you think he should be playing?

CARROLL: Look, Joe Biden is a welcome president at so many levels. But he’s especially welcomed from us liberal Catholics. I’m not sure he would call himself a liberal Catholic. He’s a devout Catholic. It’s very moving how his Catholic faith energizes him and gives him hope. He’s also been through struggles with it by his own account. His witness as a Catholic who thinks for himself, who doesn’t kowtow to the hierarchy, unthinkingly, is what has brought the wrath of many Catholic bishops down on him. There are Catholic bishops who don’t think he should go to communion, for goodness’ sake. Imagine that.

MARTIN: Well, that’s been a thing for years. I mean, certain Catholic politicians, like pro-choice Catholic politicians, for example, for years have had to call around to find out where they would be welcomed to, to take communion. That’s been a thing for years, as you know.

CARROLL: Yes, it’s true. And it’s an example of this argument the church is having with itself. And remember, the bishops who are imposing orders like that on liberal pro-choice politicians are not actually interested in protecting the moral principle they’re citing, they’re protecting their own power. That’s what’s really going on, in my view. But, back to Joe Biden. I love that he’s a man who’s open about what he believes. You remember the moment when, as vice president, he got ahead of Barack Obama on the question of gay marriage. He came out in favor of it and said it’s the right thing to do. He shut down White House obfuscation on that question in that moment. And very quickly, the Obama administration affirmed the rightness of gay marriage. Last week, the Vatican said that the Catholic Church cannot bless gay marriage and gay partnerships. I would love to see Joe Biden come out and encourage the Catholic Church, Pope Francis in particular, to change that, advancing his own principle of the rightness of gay marriage.

MARTIN: You remained a faithful Catholic. I mean, you have — even when it’s been difficult. I mean, even when you have faced the sort of criticism and disapproval, just the theory of people who shared your faith. And I was wondering about that. Like, why do you think you’ve stayed faithful?

CARROLL: Because the Catholic faith defines my hope in a very basic way. I also love my association with the billion other Catholics around the world. I love being part of this broad community. James Chewy (ph) said that the Catholic Church means, here comes everybody. And that’s who we are, everybody. I love that. I also value so much the work of the church around the planet, educators, medical people, social workers, people risking their lives and their health to be of service with no strings attached. That’s crucially important to what the church is. The religious orders, the educators, the Catholic Church’s tradition of thinking about belief, rational faith. All of these things define who I am.

MARTIN: You talked about the fact that you stopped going to church a couple of years ago right around the time you published your piece about abolish the clergy. Over the course of this pandemic year, a lot of people were forced into the same place you were for the reasons of public health and safety, people had been discouraged from gathering. And I wonder if that experience has changed anything. There’s no science to this. I’m just wondering what your thoughts are.

CARROLL: Well, the experience I’ve been undergoing that I wrote in this book is an experience of grief. I’m grieving the loss of my easy Catholic faith. Now, I have a hard Catholic faith. And I’ve been required by conscience to step away from business as usual as a Catholic. But I think that I have also stumbled into in this pandemic period the broad condition of being in exile. We’ve all been in exile in so many ways. But religious people exiled for the communions, the communities with whom they are religious has been extremely painful. I predict that we will all come out of this differently. We will experience our communities differently when we return to them. And in Catholic practice, I suspect that the power of the priest won’t be quite what it was. People haven’t been going to confession. What has that done to their sense of how they’re forgiven? Pope Francis said himself early in the pandemic, you don’t need a priest to go to God. Well, that was once considered heretical. In the pandemic period, that’s become normal. We go to God however we do it. But the pandemic has changed us most I think, I believe, because it’s been overwhelmingly such an experience of grief that we’ve had to carry alone, true, we’ve been carrying this alone, but we’ve also been carrying it together. And I believe we’ll find a new depth of our religious faith and practice because at least my own Catholic religion is a religion that exists with great power at the moment of grief. And I think we’ll recover that. And it’s a consolation that we get not from the clergy or the hierarchy or the bishops, we get it from one another.

MARTIN: James Carroll, thank you so much for talking with us and Happy Easter to you.

CARROLL: Thank you so much, Michel. I wish you well.

About This Episode EXPAND

WHO’s chief scientist Soumya Swaminathan discusses vaccine inequity. Novelist Tim O’Brien reflects on his life, career and family. Former priest James Carroll explains why he’s calling for reform within the Catholic Church.