Last week, The Atlantic published a cover story for its June 2019 edition written by James Carroll, an ex-priest of Boomer age with, apparently, a very confused sense of Catholicism. Entitled “Abolish the Priesthood” by whatever flamboyant editor ran with the article, it is one of the best examples of confused Spirit-of-Vatican-II nonsense I’ve read in recent memory. Selective, arbitrary, arrogant, and self-indulgent, Carroll’s diatribe comes across as a man eagerly pushing an agenda on grounds so obviously erroneous that his audience could only be found perusing the pages of The Atlantic.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the same issue of The Atlantic happened also to feature yet another article in the Shakespeare-was-a-woman denialism tradition. These must come out at least once every May.
Before we get into the article, I’d like to point out that just about everything I’ll be covering is very basic stuff for Catholics, so if you’re already Catholic, and you already read Carroll’s piece, then you already get how bad it is. Undergoing the catechesis process myself, I’m increasingly aware of exactly what the Church teaches on very obvious, basic aspects of the faith—things which Carroll apparently disagrees with on a very fundamental level. Based on the claims he makes in The Atlantic, whatever brand of Christianity he adheres to is clearly not Catholicism, despite his claim. I’m not going to pretend to be an authority on theology or the metaphysics of the Church, here, but it shouldn’t take an authority to point out the obvious.
Some background on Mr. Carroll: he left the priesthood quite some time ago, and in this article he explains a little bit as to why. He seems to be a charming, photogenic older fellow, writer of fiction and nonfiction, and a fairly common name around the elite circles of writers for such esteemed publications as, say, The Atlantic. Also, he claims to be Catholic, despite leaving the priesthood, rejecting Catholic authority, rejecting Catholic history, rejecting Catholic theology, and rejecting Catholic sacraments. I’m not one to judge his personal motivations on this front, and maybe I’m mistaken about some of this, but I struggle to see the reasoning behind self-identifying as something he clearly rejects.
At the root of this rejection is, at least on the surface, a belief that Catholicism could be a great thing, if it weren’t for it being so bloody Catholic. If only its hierarchy wasn’t so rigid and male-dominated, if only its history wasn’t so defined by oppression, if only sexual freedom wasn’t so attacked by St. Augustine—if only the Church wasn’t so rife with Clericalism, that perfidious notion that clerics exist and have authority! If the Church wasn’t so overridden with these things, then—then!–we’d have the universal Church of love and happiness that was so touted in Gospel.
If this makes any sense to you, then you’re probably Protestant.
So, on to the article:
Against the Eucharist
He begins with the thing that’s been on everyone’s minds for the past year (or three decades, depending on the length of your memory): the sexual abuse crisis. Having spent enough time over the last eleven months digging into this, reading about it, and hearing predominantly right-of-center voices comment on the crisis, it’s a bit interesting to see what a liberal, pro-Vatican-II ex-priest would have to say on the subject. Unfortunately, it’s not all that comprehensible.
He directly addresses a slew of cases that document the egregious character of priests from the third world to downtown New York City, paying special attention to the pedophile scandals and the reshuffling of known predators throughout various diocese. Typical of the liberal line, he mostly avoids the subject of the relationship that these predators had to homosexuality, presenting instead the exceptions to that rule—such as the priests who had illicit affairs with teenage girls and the nuns who accused certain priests of rape in other countries—as being the norm. No one is going to argue with him on whether these things are bad. The issue is whether he’s adequately addressing what the problem really is.
This touches on the dubiousness of the term “Clericalism” in the first place, as well as his relationship to sexual liberation, but these are things we’ll come back to later. Before that, he finishes off the first segment of his essay with his own personal reaction to the abuse cases, the magnitude of the crisis, and the magnitude of the cover-ups surrounding it.
For the first time in my life, and without making a conscious decision, I simply stopped going to Mass. I embarked on an unwilled version of the Catholic tradition of “fast and abstinence”—in this case, fasting from the Eucharist and abstaining from the overt practice of my faith. I am not deluding myself that this response of mine has significance for anyone else—Who cares? It’s about time!—but for me the moment is a life marker. I have not been to Mass in months. I carry an ocean of grief in my heart.
This pretty much tells you all you need to know about how off the rails this article is going to get. We have to remember a few things before sinking our teeth into the ramifications of what he’s babbling about, though.
Firstly, fasting and abstinence are linked directly to mortification and the sacrament of penance in Catholic tradition. The practice serves a few purposes: one, to condition the body into a state in which the will can embrace a certain form of suffering, through which it can become more pleasing to God by endurance of it; two, to remind you to remain detached from worldly things and thereby focus your attention on God in prayer; and three, to a certain extent, as a practice of outward humility. Notice that all of this pertains to the cultivation of virtue in the effort of becoming more pleasing to God, and notice that it’s only possible to fast as an intentional act of will. Accidental starvation, or forgetting to eat a few meals because you’re busy and end up famished by eight in the evening, aren’t fasts in the penitential sense that Catholic tradition asks of us. So right there, an “unwilled fast” isn’t part of Catholicism.
Secondly, the whole idea of “fasting from the Eucharist” is madness. The Eucharist imparts sanctifying grace on the communicant so long as he’s of a disposition to merit it—such as not being in a state of mortal sin. Additionally, as the Baltimore Catechism succinctly explains:
The Holy Eucharist remits venial sins by disposing us to perform acts of love and contrition. It preserves us from mortal sin by exciting us to greater fervor and strengthening us against temptation.
So not only does the Eucharist impart grace that makes us holier and more pleasing to God, it also remits certain bad marks on the soul and enables us to better love ourselves, our neighbors, and God. Since it is directly from Our Lord, there can be nothing bad about the Eucharist. And given that it is Our Lord’s body and blood, supernaturally transubstantiated, the Eucharist is not fundamentally a worldly thing. I think we figured out why Mr. Carroll caries an ocean of grief in his heart, after all.
What exactly does it mean to fast from the Eucharist? It means to deny Christ. This isn’t a simple matter of doing his utmost to please God and failing to make it to confession once in a while, or abstaining from receiving communion every few weeks because he wasn’t able to keep his fast that morning or doesn’t have time to properly adore Our Lord in thanksgiving afterward. This is a guy who has recognized his decision to cease partaking in holy communion and cease attending Mass over what is essentially a worldly problem with the Church. It’s a form of spiritual suicide.
Typical of the solutions you hear parroted by the irreligious idiots of the Alt-Lite, “just stop going to Mass to send a message” is an attempt to leverage the pews against the clergy’s pocketbook—the problem is you’re leveraging your own spiritual well-being against the only apparatus equipped to help you. He’s only hurting himself.
Keep this in mind as we continue, because the reasons for this become clearer deeper into the article—as does the real purpose of the article itself.
Any practicing Catholic should be able to tell that tying these things to an excuse to avoid the Sunday obligation is a little bonkers, but we shouldn’t assume that the readers of The Atlantic are going to be practicing Catholics.
His essay continues, shifting gears into a look at Vatican II—a council that, according to Carroll, wasn’t actually liberal enough, despite a radically restructured Mass and enormously relaxed or dispensed-with traditions that resulted from it—and a very brief attempt to connect the hierarchical trappings of the Catholic clergy with the Imperial vestments of ancient Rome. There are cases to be made in at least one of these points, but as is typical of the essay, Carroll makes the wrong ones.
On the first issue, Carroll’s claim that Vatican II wasn’t really liberal enough in its effects will be approached more in depth later. He does spare some paragraphs, however, to approach the subject of Pope St. John XXIII’s—and the council’s—softness on the Jews. As Catholics, we know already that Judaism is actually, literally outdated, and if you’ve done any digging at all on the subject, we can even question whatever tenuous connection that contemporary Rabbinical Judaism has with the religion of the ancient Hebrews passed down into antiquity from Moses’ and Aaron’s time.
In any case, Catholicism, like most world religions, makes the claim that it is the one true religion at the expense of all others, and it goes so far as to even consider the very First Commandment of the Old Testament to be a serious, grave concern that all practicing Catholics are obliged to follow. Do not take false gods, do not worship false gods, and worship Our Lord, the one true God, the manner in which he desires to be worshiped—this is what is meant by the term “jealous” in the most common translations of the Commandments. While modern Judaism presumably worships the same God, they do not do it in His desired manner. If they did, they’d be Catholic.
But all this aside, there’s a definite tone of favoritism that—though unstated here—seems to hint at the somewhat popular dual-covenant theology that so frequently comes wrapped up in the same package as liberal Catholicism. But maybe I’m just reading too much into it. See for yourself, when Carroll writes:
The model of potential transformation for this or any pope remains the radical post-Holocaust revision of Catholic teachings about Jews—the high point of Vatican II. The formal renunciation of the “Christ killer” slander by a solemn Church council, together with the affirmation of the integrity of Judaism, reaches far more deeply into Catholic doctrine and tradition than anything having to do with the overthrow of clericalism, whether that involves women’s ordination, married priests, or other questions of sexuality. The recasting of the Church’s relationship with the Jewish people, as I see it, was the single largest revision of Christian theology ever accomplished. The habit of Catholic (or Christian) anti-Judaism is not fully broken, but its theological justification has been expunged. Under the assertive leadership of a pope, profound change can occur, and it can occur quickly. This is what must happen now.
He brings this up toward the end of his essay, but it ties into his bit about the Jews and draws upon the documents of Vatican II. Well, let’s look at the documents of Vatican II and see if the “theological justification” for “anti-Judaism” has been expunged. We’ll bring up Nostra Aetate, or, the document explicitly written on the topic of the Jews specifically, in order to better clarify what Carroll is referring to. If this doesn’t clearly define Catholicism’s relationship with Judaism in the post-VII world, then I don’t know what would:
True, the Jewish authorities and those who followed their lead pressed for the death of Christ;(13) still, what happened in His passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.
So what’s Nostra Aetate telling us here? Love the Jews, just as we’re commanded to love all men. If Jews preach in the name of God anything that runs counter to the Holy Scripture and the “spirit of Christ,” by which we can presume they mean the Magisterium of the Church, then they should be corrected.
What’s Nostra Aetate not telling us to do? It’s not telling us to pretend they’re saved by virtue of their false religion. It’s not telling us that their religion is every bit as valid and attuned to the salvation of souls as Catholicism. It’s not telling us that Judaism will help their immortal souls, insofar as Judaism remains in error.
The document is quite short, so give it a read when you have the chance. What’s striking about it is that, like many of Vatican II’s documents, it does leave a lot of room for interpretation. But even navigating its ambiguity, it’s not hard to come to a pretty direct and forthright interpretation. The Catholic position on the Jews remained unchanged in the wake of Vatican II as it was before it; only the general attitude changed.
As for accusations of the Church’s complicity in Nazism, which Carroll points to a particular historian on earlier in the essay, all I can say is that the Church was no friend of the Nazi regime, and the Nazis were certainly no friends of the Church, if the sheer number of martyrs to be found buried or cremated in the work camps of Poland are any indication.
But as if this wasn’t enough twisting of history, then he jumps into how clericalism apparently became entrenched in the Church’s hierarchy. According to Carroll, the very existence of the Church’s hierarchy is evidence of clericalism, since early Christianity was “egalitarian” at heart. He writes:
Clericalism’s origins lie not in the Gospels but in the attitudes and organizational charts of the late Roman empire. Christianity was very different at the beginning. The first reference to the Jesus movement in a nonbiblical source comes from the Jewish Roman historian Flavius Josephus, writing around the same time that the Gospels were taking form. Josephus described the followers of Jesus simply as “those that loved him at the first and did not let go of their affection for him.” There was no priesthood yet, and the movement was egalitarian. Christians worshipped (sic) and broke bread in one another’s homes. But under Emperor Constantine, in the fourth century, Christianity effectively became the imperial religion and took on the trappings of the empire itself. A diocese was originally a Roman administrative unit. A basilica, a monumental hall where the emperor sat in majesty, became a place of worship. A diverse and decentralized group of churches was transformed into a quasi-imperial institution—centralized and hierarchical, with the bishop of Rome reigning as a monarch. Church councils defined a single set of beliefs as orthodox, and everything else as heresy.
Carroll is effectively saying here that the organizational structure of the Church only dates itself back to Constantine’s time. Such an assertion is so mindbogglingly wrong that it makes me wonder how Carroll could find it in him to put such words to paper. If diocese didn’t exist prior to that period, what exactly was the purpose of bishops—who clearly existed, as the existence of, say, the bishops of Rome indicate, in addition to many saints and martyrs of the first three centuries. Parishes existed as early as the reign of the third Pope. The primacy of Peter is implied in the Gospels of Matthew and John and asserted in Acts, and the primacy of his seat is explored in John. Primacy is only important if there’s some form of hierarchy in the first place—and there was, as evidenced by the Scriptural account of the descent of the Holy Ghost at Pentecost, in which the Apostles were given special graces and knowledge in order that they could conduct Mass properly and administer the sacraments. This is all Catholicism 101, which is what makes Carroll’s claims here so absurd. Either you’re Catholic, which means you believe this stuff, or you’re not.
As expected of a liberal, Carroll’s argument inevitably brings sexuality into the picture. This aspect of his essay is one of the more frustrating ones, primarily because it isn’t just so wrong-headed, but because it’s also such a gargantuan body of study that always includes eternal damnation somewhere in the dialogue.
Catholic teaching—not even traditionalist teaching, mind you—has not changed on the subjects of contraception, abortion, and sexual misbehavior (now referred to frequently as homosexuality or any number of other “sexualities” and “-philias”). This stems from a very intuitive philosophy of the body, as derived from Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas. Human beings come in two sexes, they are complimentary, and sexual intercourse results in children. Ergo, the family is one of the most fundamental and natural units of human well-being, sexual pleasure is ultimately irrelevant to stable families, and moreover, sexual gratification remains one of the many means by which the flesh and/or the Devil can tempt someone into sin.
For those unconvinced of Thomism, all one needs to do is a quick internet search on the topic of pornography addictions to be convinced of the detrimental effects that sexual indulgence can have. I don’t need to spend any time here outlining the levels of psychological unbalance, depression, disease, and general instability of the average homosexual in order to make that point.
Catholicism primarily draws a distinction between a person’s actions and his essence. Everyone is created in God’s image in their essence and their faculties—not an exact image, to be sure, due to the nature of the Fall, in addition to the fact that we’re finite beings. But what this means is that no one can be intrinsically disordered in their essence, in their fundamental nature. Whatever disorders we are to wrestle with in life, be they genetic tendencies toward addictions or outright birth defects, they are not representative of our fundamental character. This also means that various sexual perversions aren’t aspects of a person’s character sufficient to form identities around, which blows a hole in the entire LGBT narrative. No one is intrinsically “homosexual” in the sense that they’re born categorically different from the general population. Instead, Catholicism treats homosexuality as what it is: inclinations toward particular behaviors that must be guarded against and never indulged in.
In addition to confusing sexuality with identity, sexual liberation depends on the confusion of the biological ends of men and women. We see this manifest most obviously in the feminist movements of the last century and a half, wherein women are steadily pushed further and further into the social spheres occupied by men, and men—perhaps as a direct result—become increasingly feminized.
All of this is important when approaching Carroll’s statements on sexuality, identity, and the place of women in the Church. In order to alleviate the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, he’s of the opinion that women should be allowed to be priests and that priests should be allowed to indulge their sexual appetites. If this sounds counter-intuitive, that’s because it is.
The celibacy of priests, which grew out of the practice of ascetic monks and hermits, may have been put forward, early on, as a mode of intimacy with God, appropriate for a few. But over time the cult of celibacy and virginity developed an inhuman aspect—a broader devaluation and suspicion of bodily experience. It also had a pragmatic rationale. In the Middle Ages, as vast land holdings and treasure came under Church control, priestly celibacy was made mandatory in order to thwart inheritance claims by the offspring of prelates. Seen this way, celibacy was less a matter of spirituality than of power.
Again, his cognitive dissonance is on full display. In the same paragraph he can announce the ascetic nature of priestly celibacy, an aspect of sexual virtue that coincides with the priest’s marriage to God through the Church, and then try to claim that that it’s really just the implementation of a power structure necessitated by Feudal demands. Carroll’s material explanations, founded on power rather than on theology, continue to point toward his modernist background. He speaks of both the theological aspect and of the practical concern regarding priestly celibacy, but notice which one takes priority. This is not the language of a man of God so much as it is the language of a man of the world.
His interest in sexual liberation continues on down the same road, when he insists that sexual morality within the Church—both in its clergy and in its laity—collapsed because it was simply an impossible standard to uphold, as though remaining chaste was a burden asked of us by Our Lord yet fundamentally unattainable. This of course reeks of spinelessness and an inability to confront one’s own sexual vice, which is only compounded when one ceases attending Mass and attending confession.
Carroll writes rather explicitly on the notion that our wills are dominated by sexual impulse and that there’s simply no recourse to it, and that hey, that’s not really our fault after all:
When the Catholic imagination, swayed by Augustine, demonized the sexual restlessness built into the human condition, self-denial was put forward as the way to happiness. But sexual renunciation as an ethical standard has collapsed among Catholics, not because of pressures from a hedonistic “secular” modernity but because of its inhumane and irrational weight. The argument within the Church hierarchy on divorce and remarriage has amounted to an overdue attempt to catch up with the vast population of Catholic laypeople who have already changed their minds on the subject—including many divorced and remarried people who simply refuse to be excommunicated, no matter what the bishops say.
The liberation of the sex drive here again coincides with the revolutionary character of disobeying authority. It’s not up to a layperson to decide if he’s been excommunicated or not; that’s the ruling of the Church, and the Church doesn’t do such things lightly. And it’s also up to the Church as to whether to administer communion to people that a priest knows are living in mortal sin. This entire passage here puts on display the childlike arrogance of a man who doesn’t want to admit that sexual vice can be controlled and guarded against but only so long as the will is held in humble adoration of God.
This also shows a belligerent disrespect for those that do guard against sexual licentiousness and temptation—the good members of the clergy who do their utmost to carry out their vows and the upstanding Catholics engaged in matrimony who remain appropriately chaste in their interactions with their spouses. So what if they claim that it’s possible, Carroll is effectively saying; they’re probably lying anyway, and even if they aren’t, they’re simply not normal. The latter part of that implication is exactly the point, though. God does not ask us to be normal, in the sense that normalcy bows its head to sin and takes a knee to temptation. God calls on us to adore him, and part of that entails a degree of self-mastery that is partly discipline, and partly rewarded through grace. If God was happy with us as we existed in the entirety of our sin, then He wouldn’t have bothered to redeem us from it in the first place.
The previous three attacks all come to service this: the evil boogeyman pulled out of the closet every time the sexual abuse crisis is brought up. He manages at least to define the nebulous term as “the vesting of power in an all-male clergy”, as though this somehow explains the corruption that runs rampant throughout the Church hierarchy, or the sinister machinations of so-called anti-Francis cardinals and bishops:
What Vatican II did not do, or was unable to do, except symbolically, was take up the issue of clericalism—the vesting of power in an all-male and celibate clergy. My five years in the priesthood, even in its most liberal wing, gave me a fetid taste of this caste system. Clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness, and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. The clerical system’s obsession with status thwarts even the merits of otherwise good priests and distorts the Gospels’ message of selfless love, which the Church was established to proclaim. Clericalism is both the underlying cause and the ongoing enabler of the present Catholic catastrophe. I left the priesthood 45 years ago, before knowing fully what had soured me, but clericalism was the reason.
There you have it: clericalism is effectively the Church, and the very fact clerics exist in the first place. Carroll claims that his disgust for clericalism is due to the mishandling and scope of the abuse crisis, but it’s a far leap to go from acknowledging the problem to advocating for the entire structure to be torn down and replaced. We’ll look at what he proposes to be the alternative in the last section, but first, we’ll address what he has to say about clericalism.
Those familiar with the present state of the Church will recognize how divided its clergy is over the issue of Pope Francis’ perceived liberal attitudes toward liturgical practices, politics, and social mores, and to be sure, the penning of Amoris Laetitia only solidifies a lot of those perceptions. But the core issue that’s gaining more and more traction in the minds of the laity is that these issues stem from fundamental problems with Vatican II, both in the council’s execution and in the intentional, legalistic ambiguity that was written into its documents. Solid arguments can even be made that all of it really stems from the restructuring of the Mass and the initial abandonment of the Tridentine form.
Carroll is aware of this, and in his own way addresses it. He’s familiar with the traditionalist pockets of the clergy, such as Cardinal Burke, who adamantly oppose much of Pope Francis’ attempts to liberalize aspects of Church administration. He’s also familiar with the sweeping reforms made by Vatican II.
What’s dishonest about his interpretations is that by denouncing clericalism, he’s intentionally obfuscating who exactly is responsible for the corruption, cover-ups, and abuse within the hierarchy. The traditionalists in the Church are, generally speaking, the most outraged by the degeneracy of the hierarchy, and people like Cardinal Burke and Archbishop Vigano have gone on the record, risking their livelihoods, to publicly denounce those responsible. Carroll, however, views these efforts as effectively partisan and designed to protect the power-structure:
The pope’s critics among his fellow prelates have engaged in intrigue, rumormongering, leaks, and open defiance—a desperate rearguard effort aimed at weakening a pope deemed insufficiently committed to the protection of clerical power. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, formerly the Vatican nuncio in Washington, D.C., ambushed Francis during that pilgrimage to Ireland, publishing a letter claiming that the pope himself had covered up the abusive behavior of clergy. Viganò had ambushed Francis before, during his 2015 visit to Washington, by arranging a private meeting with the Kentucky court clerk who had refused to certify same-sex marriages. Viganò is supported by the pope’s American nemesis, Cardinal Raymond Burke, who has paired with Bannon in promoting a right-wing school for theological “gladiators” in Italy.
When put into context with his disgust for the sexual abuse crisis, this paragraph doesn’t seem to make any sense. Archbishop Vigano addressed the Pope directly because the Pope had hitherto been entirely silent and, apparently, inactive in pursuing investigations or punishments for known abusers in the clergy. Even worse for his optics was his close relationship at the time with Cardinal McCarrick, until the Vatican clerical authorities were effectively cornered into defrocking him.
We’ll come back to this, but let’s address the second aspect of this clericalism problem first: Vatican II. Again, Carroll’s interpretation of events comes across as dishonest, since on one hand he praises the efforts of Pope St. John XXIII, and then in the same sentence will condemn the work of Pope Blessed Paul VI. Remember that it was under Paul VI that the Novus Ordo mass was rolled out, that Vatican II was concluded, and that Humanae Vitae was penned. He writes:
Pope John XXIII’s successors were in clericalism’s grip, which is why the reforms of his council were short-circuited. John had, for instance, initiated a reconsideration of the Church’s condemnation of artificial contraception—a commission he established overwhelmingly voted to repeal the ban—but the possibility of that change was preemptively shut down by his successor, Pope Paul VI, mainly as a way of protecting papal authority.
So Vatican II, which emphasized ecumenism, softness on other religions, a radical restructuring of the Mass (with disastrous input by Protestant advisors), and drastic relaxation of fasting, abstinence, and general requirements of the laity, were all short-circuited? Obviously they weren’t. What Carroll’s upset about here is the issue of contraception, and that the Church, perhaps miraculously, held firm to what is true under the pen of Pope Paul VI.
Carroll does at least state outright that he has a bone to pick with clericalism, but the structuring of his article, with such an emphasis that it carries on the abuse crisis, tries to paint a different picture.
The Message Itself
In a somewhat amusing twist, what we see here is Carroll acknowledging the depth and magnitude of the abuse crisis, and that the crisis is as much one of corruption as it is of sexual abuse, yet somehow he misses the enormous elephant in the room: the culprits themselves, the various rings they run in, and the most-common mark of their abuse crimes. Carroll has prioritized attacking the partisan anti-Francis and broader anti-Vatican II traditionalists, which casts shade over his entire argument.
For Carroll, Vatican II was a positive good. It’s still good. If anything is wrong with the Church, there’s no possible way it could stem from Vatican II’s reforms except, perhaps, that the reforms weren’t extensive enough. If anything, he’s critical of the reforms for exactly that reason; what Carroll is looking for in the Church isn’t reform, it’s outright revolution. The article is a nod to revolutionaries who seek radical restructuring of the Church and seem to believe that the Church’s doctrines can somehow be changed by men without consequence.
And this is where Carroll’s views take a dive into the downright evil. His own abstaining from communion is one thing, since it’s only opening the door to his own damnation. His historical illiteracy is tedious, and his views on sexual liberation are gross, although not unexpected given his generation. But in his attack on what he calls clericalism reveals his desire to bring as many people into the pit of existential despair that he’s plunged himself into:
Replacing the diseased model of the Church with something healthy may involve, for a time, intentional absence from services or life on the margins—less in the pews than in the rearmost shadows. But it will always involve deliberate performance of the works of mercy: feeding the hungry, caring for the poor, visiting the sick, striving for justice. These can be today’s chosen forms of the faith. It will 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. 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.”
He wants the degeneration of Catholicism. He wants it reduced to a community service, a worldly affair. He wants the sacraments eradicated, the altar removed, the priesthood abolished. The title of the article, rather than being hyperbolic, doesn’t go far enough in describing the extremism of his position. What he’s describing is worse than even what Luther ended up implementing. At least Lutherans retained their churches. Carroll seeks the replacement of parishes with picnic tables.
It should be clear now that this piece was not written in good faith. For a man whose reputation is girded with completing seminary and spending a few years as a priest to write an article so riddled with basic, obvious contradictions in Catholic thought is unthinkable. The contradictions aren’t even simple errors or mistakes; based on his attempt to apply faulty historical information, his indulgent attitude toward sexual behavior, and his wanton disregard for both the worldly authority of the Church and the supernatural authority of God’s laws and His love, Carroll reveals that interests aren’t those of the beleaguered, pained ex-clergyman who genuinely wishes the best for the Church. By his own admission, he does not wish the best for the Church. He wants it destroyed. This piece was written as a direct attack against the Church and, by proxy, against Our Lord Himself.
The message of the article is two fold. Most obviously, it is an appeal to do exactly what the title demands: abolish the priesthood, destroy the Church. Carroll wants an “egalitarian” manner of practicing the faith—a practice that lacks ordinations, lacks officiators, lacks consecrations, lacks sacrifice, lacks penance, and probably even lacks baptism. Eucharistic observation becomes eating together at the table once a week. Well, we’ve heard something like that before, haven’t we?
His reasoning for wanting this unattainable goal, however, reveals the second message, which is the more important one: draw people away from the Church. He knows that the Church’s hierarchy is here to stay, whether he believes in the supernatural presence of the Holy Ghost or not. By any practical measure, overturning Catholicism is an unreasonable expectation. But drawing people away from it, like the Protestant revolutionaries did five hundred years ago, and like the Arians and Monophysites did in antiquity—that’s the game plan. Attempting to shift the attention to the worldly degeneracy of so many corrupt and degenerate clergymen follows the same pattern set down by Luther in the sixteenth century. Ignore the substance of the Church, but attack its body—the theology is only drummed up to service this attack as an excuse for legitimacy.
What we see here of Carroll’s article is a man disgusted with the clergy, with ‘clericalism’, because of its un-moving, non-negotiable position on sexual liberation. What sort of personal stake he has in this fight is beyond me, and I have no interest in making suppositions. But it’s clear he has some kind of stake in it, because no one could look at the abuse crisis present in the Church and believe that greater emphasis on sexual freedoms would somehow solve the problem. Granted, Carroll’s argument goes a bit further than that, advocating for the destruction of the whole apparatus, but that’s at least a conclusion that follows from his premises.
Pray for James Carroll. Pray for the Holy Father. Pray for the clergy. Pray for the Church.