James Carroll: Practicing "Americanist" Catholic

Click to listen to Chris’s conversations with James Carroll (56 minutes, 26 mb mp3)

“Practicing” — meaning:

James Carroll: radical, pastoral, sacramental

…that through these disciplines, rituals, and searches, we have some prospect of getting better. This, therefore, is practice like the practice of an art or sport. That we are practicing means, above all, that we are not perfect — not in faith, hope, or charity. Not in poverty, chastity or obedience. Not in the cardinal virtues, or the works of mercy, or the acts of contrition. Not in peace or justice. Not in the life of prayer, which is nothing but attention to the presence of God. In all of this we are practicing, which is the only way we know to be a Catholic.

James Carroll, Practicing Catholic, Houghton Mifflin, 2009. p. 10

“Americanist” — meaning: stamped with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s individualism and universal in-dwelling spirit. Embodied in the Boston priest of JFK’s inaugural, Richard Cardinal Cushing, who was moved by his love of his sister’s Jewish husband, Dick Pearlstein, to bury the old Roman boast that there was “no salvation outside the church.” Jim Carroll’s Americanist piety moves in a zone between, on one hand, our overtly secular national culture and, on the other, the anti-modern, anti-democratic European church tradition that Pope Benedict XVI seems to be reviving.

“Catholic” — meaning:

The practicing Catholic is at Mass. What makes a Catholic? This tradition is sacramental. The practice of Mass trumps all doctrine. We can have disagreements with the Pope and the bishops — about abortion, birth control, stem cell research, the miracles of the saints, all of that. But what we have in common is the intuition that at the table, around bread and wine, we encounter each other and God in a profound way. It’s food. It feeds a kind of hunger. Catholics go to Mass. What is a practicing Catholic? It’s somebody who goes to Mass.

James Carroll in conversation with Chris Lydon in Boston, April 10, 2009.

Jim Carroll, like me, was in the last generation of Latin-Mass altar boys, a child of the “faux-medieval” Catholic Church before the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. He was a Paulist Priest and university chaplain for five years, and was then absolved of his vows to pursue a rival vocation: writing. For most of 30 years now Jim has modeled to me what it could mean to modernize a tradition that, even if we didn’t quite grasp it, grasped us forever.

Long ago over lunch with our friend, Bernard Avishai, the question was, “No kidding, do you believe in God?” When I hesitated a while, Jim said: “Chris, you believe in music…,” which I surely did. That was a rough start of a religious inquiry which led, not least, to my second baptism at the Twelfth Baptist Church in Boston in 1987. Along the way, Jim, Bernie, I and a grown-up variety of seekers (mostly Jews and Catholics, of many degrees of conviction and curiosity) read and chewed over the Bible, twice, from Genesis to Revelation.

Our conversation resumed this Good Friday morning over coffee and Jim Carroll’s arresting new book, Practicing Catholic. Jim is a learned radical in religion, ever at odds with the hierarchy, and still “incurably pastoral.” I think of myself as an ill-educated spiritual enthusiast, “eternally hungry.” And so it astonishes me to read anew how often our searching paths crossed over the years — around Emerson, for example, and Cardinal Cushing, who baptized me at birth; also Martin Luther King Jr., William Sloane Coffin, Thomas More and Thomas Merton.

Part of my puzzle in all these ruminations is whether Jim and I are sharing the fixations of one generation of American guys, or rather questions that reach all sorts of other people sooner or later. So your own versions of Jim’s questions and mine – church, tribe, belief, modernity and God – are entirely to the point and much more than welcome.

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  • nother

    A wonderful listening-in on a life’s worth of friendship and soul-searching. Can’t match it with much except to say that I’m happy there was a consensus that compassion is the common denominator. I like to think that I myself bow to a religion of compassion. A good I will never attain, but a good that I will grasp for till the end. Listening to this hour I felt a commonality and a fraternity of serene grasping.

    There is one thing that gnaws at me though. Mr Carroll rightly denounces the condemnation of condoms by the Pope. But he checks it off on a list of other grievances so many of us have – abortion, exclusion of women, ext. This is a different egg though. The church has gone to great lengths to cultivate the devotion of the masses…many of them uneducated. Not only does this guy (who voted himself in) and his organization say that condoms don’t help the Aids crisis…he says they MAKE IT WORSE! As far as I’m concerned, they now have blood on their hands, lots of it…and no end in sight. I would like to see at least the same outrage among liberals that I see against the Republican Party in the aftermath of deadly imperialism. I would like to see Mr. Carroll and all professed Catholics boycott the church and stop giving that money at Mass. Let’s see how fast things change then. Please stop “practicing.”

  • nother

    My Catholic upbringing is a little different. I was Confirmed…I remember that – Garrett John Francis Zevgetis. I remember less of my First Holy Communion – although I can still see myself marching proudly in step with my little peers and our little black ties. And I also remember being “saved” one night in the hallway of a Central Florida auditorium. It’s a funny story actually – my buddy (we were about 11 at the time, invited me to a child church function. The allure was a racy all night affair – dance candy and rock-n-roll! – till dawn! I remember specifically riding go-carts at the un-godly hour of MIDNIGHT! After all the shenanigans they rounded us young’ns up and corralled us in the auditorium for some good ole preach’n fun. Somehow (I’m sure we thought we were lucky) my buddy and I ended up in the front row. The main man on stage proceeded to launch into an impassioned speech on the need for us to be saved. “Good friends, you need only to raise your hand!” My 11 year-old ears had never heard the term “saved,” but the sentiment sounded sound. For one thing, these grown-ups running this club had shown us a gnarly good time all night, and if all I had to do in return was tell them they saved me…I would oblige. And besides that, the odds on this saving deal were pretty good if all I had to do was raise my hand and these good people say good things will come my way.

    So here is where all my reasoning goes awry (a common theme hence). After telling us to close our eyes in prayer, they start yelling “just raise your hand man and you will be saved!” So I (apparently I was the leader of our pack…our particular two-man pack) slyly elbow my buddy to convey “raise you hand man.” – completely convinced that every other red-eyed eleven-year-old (must be 2 am at this point) were raising their hands as well!

    There was only two problems with my reasoning: #1: we were in the front row and consequently couldn’t sneek a peek and see that – not one other soul in the auditorium had their hands up. 2#: I was twelve years old and officially did not know shit from shinola.

    So the story goes this way- they eventually tell us to open our eyes and then proceed to make a statement over the microphone about the two guys in front who have come to the lord and agreed to be saved. Now I’m not sure what was sicker, my stomach or the look my friends face to my left. Somewhere in my gut though I thought we might ride this one out. I was wrong. The shorthaired stiffs proceed to march us theatrically out of the audience for private (individual) saving in the back hallway of this freak’n hollow hall.

    To make a long story short, I don’t remember what the guy said to me on that plain strange stairway. I do recollect that I was either holding my breath in personal penance or else wallowing in prescient dread as to whether the faulty over-reasoning of raising my hand to pacify the preacher was destined to be a metaphor in my days to come of using valuable reasoning skills to placate the unworthy? Beyond that I was pissed that I wasn’t riding the go-carts anymore.

    The moral is: kids don’t like to save anything…so please don’t try to “save” them.

  • bryongw

    I would have an enjoyed a question or two asking James Carroll for his thoughts on the challenges made recently in the books by Dawkins and Hitchens.

  • OrlandoFC

    Thank you for helping me understand that I can disagree with the church and still be a good Catholic. For a long time I have grappled with basic ideological conflicts between myself and the views of the church, at least now I know I am not alone. Now, what to do about my, eh hem, feelings towards the Pope…

  • potter

    I have not finished listening yet- but I have to say that I had a laugh from a deep place when Chris recited whatever that was in Latin. I am not Catholic but it brought me right back to something my mother made me say every morning in Hebrew starting when I was five years old. I had to say this before I could have breakfast, part of which was always orange juice- freshly squeezed too in the early days when the frozen concentrated kind was just beginning to come out. Both the prayer and the juice were forced upon me. The juice gave me a stomach ache ( too early in the morning for all that acid on a tender stomach) and I complained to no avail. I had to say the prayer and then drink the juice. ( I had to say something else at night.) I am amazed that after hearing Chris and saying how awful that this was forced upon him that I then said “hey wait a minute” and remembered my own indoctrination. So I tested myself and there it was- it came right out in Hebrew.

    As I understood it, it was/is a thanks to God for bringing me through the night.

    one translation( in part) : I thank you God, Eternal One, for lovingly restoring my soul to me, filled with Your eternal trust.

    …which is beautiful. But I did not like being forced either to say the prayer or to drink the juice and as soon as I was old enough, I l rebelled.

  • I didn’t mean to say it was a hardship, Potter. It was just one of those things that stuck. The Latin words are: Suscipiat Dominus sacrificium de manibus tuis, ad laudem et gloriam nominis sui, ad utilitatem quoque nostrum, totiusque eccesiae sui sanctae. Meaning (obviously) as a response to the priest consecrating the bread and wine: May the Lord accept this sacrifice from your hands, for the praise and glory of his name, for our benefit and the benefit of the whole church. The charm of it for the altar boys was that it was our longest “speech” in the Mass, and we were under pressure to be quick about it. With my brothers Johnny, Mike and Peter, there were usually two of us paired as altar boys, and it became a game and a race ever afterward to see who could get through it, intelligibly, first. We still do it.

  • potter

    Chris- I wrote above

    I am amazed that after hearing Chris and saying how awful that this was forced upon him that I then said “hey wait a minute” and remembered my own indoctrination.

    I should have written: I am amazed that after hearing Chris and saying to myself how awful that this was forced upon him……

    which was my reaction to what happened to me, not what I heard you say…. Sorry for the the way I worded it. You certainly seemed joyful at the memory. My memory brought pain and defiance. But like yours, mine also stuck to this day.

    Thanks, as always.

  • potter

    This was a very very beautiful interview.

  • zeke

    What a privilege to “sit at the kitchen table” and just listen to these two friends talk with each other. The story about Allan Tate moved me greatly. Yes indeed, nother: compassion. Whether wearing a collar or a corderoy coat (William Sloan Coffin). I am increasingly convinced that certitude is the villain. Give me a seeker any day.

  • RMM

    I just listened to this and can only (but must) echo the sentiments of others here. In the midst of a very traditional Catholic upbringing I reluctantly admitted at age 11 to my parents that I wasn’t sure I was a believer. I am now 44 and I am still seeking and, at times, struggling to seek. When you ask whether this particular brand of seeking just a characteristic of men who came of age during Vatican II, I can assure you it is not. When I left home for college at age 18, it was with every intention of severing all ties with the Church. No one was more astonished than I that I did not. Though I couldn’t explain why, I couldn’t leave. Perhaps it was the calming, almost escapist ritual of the Mass. Perhaps it was that I had the good fortune to attend St. Paul Church (of James Carroll’s Ash Wednesday story), surrounded by people of staggering intellect who still felt called to worship and lean towards faith. I continue to grapple with this question, even as I tentatively expose my own small children to our imperfect Church and my imperfect faith. However, like other listeners, your words about compassion and love of neighbor as universal, unifying themes across all religions seemed, forgive me, heaven sent. This was my first “listen” to Open Source. I’m now greedy for more! Thank you.