Interview: James Carroll

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 1, 2009

Did Benedict's ascension to the papacy play any role in your decision to tackle this particular subject?
Well, I think Benedict's ascension to the papacy is the end of something, not the beginning of something. He's the last gasp of the medieval, monarchical papacy, which is not central to the Roman Catholic tradition. The church has been having an argument with itself about the authority of the Pope for a thousand years — but only for a thousand years! This kind of papacy is an invention of the Middle Ages, and it got a new lease on life in the 19th Century, in the revolutionary period. The church threw itself firmly against liberalism and against revolution, and the Vatican reinvented itself as a bulwark against democratic liberalism, which was one of the few firmly positive things to come out of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment's a mixed bag: it gave us contemporary hyper-nationalism, and it gave us the tyrannical despotisms of the 20th Century. It gave us a lot of nihilism. But it gave us democratic liberalism, which is a very precious mutation of political evolution — and the Catholic Church stood solemnly against it, and Pope Benedict is the end of that. So what Pope Benedict actually gives a Catholic liberal like myself is the perfect foil. He enables me to actually affirm my convictions as a liberal Catholic. And since I've been writing this book, and since I've finished writing it, Pope Benedict has put on display, again and again, exactly what I'm talking about.

The question to be put to Pope Benedict at this point is, why does he find it necessary to apologize so often? This is a man who temperamentally is not given to apologizing. And yet, just speaking from his gut and acting from his gut, he displays the political — and I would say religious — limits of his vision.

He's not sufficiently attuned to the legacy of anti-Semitism, which is why the story around Bishop Richard Williamson took him so by surprise. He's not sufficiently attuned to the centrality of the Holocaust as a moral event — not in the life of Jews, but in the life of Christians. If the Holocaust doesn't change the way Christians think about their tradition, people are not paying attention. And he's a Holocaust minimizer. Williamson is a Holocaust denier, but Benedict is a Holocaust minimizer. He thinks the Holocaust was the work of — as he put it in Auschwitz — a small group of gangsters who took control of the German nation. No. It was the work of the German nation in collaboration with western civilization. So Benedict, for all of his good intentions — and he's clearly a man of good intentions — is a manifestation of the ways in which the church still needs very much to be reformed.

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