Interview: James Carroll

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 1, 2009

Some of them threw in the towel, and said, 'Enough of this institution,' and either gave up on religion or found another religious home. But a lot of Catholics have stayed with the church. Catholic parishes, many of them — the ones I attend — are full of people; they're full of thoughtful, critical, well-educated people who have begun to take for granted their own moral authority on large questions. So, for example, Catholics make their own decisions on matters of sexual morality; they do not pay attention to the teachings of the bishops.

Condom use is a good example. We know from a generation's worth of reliable polling that Catholics do not take seriously the church's teaching on contraception, but do take church teaching on abortion seriously. It's one of the reasons we don't take church teaching on contraception seriously, because if you're seriously opposed to abortion, you have to be seriously in favor of contraception and sexual education.

That's a paradox that I've never been able to wrap my head around. As someone who's not particularly invested in the church, I just don't understand how you can make those arguments add up.
Well, it shows the moral bankruptcy of the church position on this — because the church's teaching isn't about sexual morality. It's about papal power. The popes and their supporters among the bishops find it impossible to change the church's position on contraception, as I explain in this book.

Can you expand on that a bit? The argument that the teaching on birth control is really about power?
It is about power. Let's talk about condoms for a minute. You know, what the pope would tell you is that the church has been against condoms since the time of Jesus. Well, hello? Condoms are a modern invention. It was only with vulcanized rubber, and then the invention of latex in the late 18th, 19th, and 20th Centuries that anything approaching reliable contraception has been an option for human beings. So to suggest that the church has an ancient position on contraception on its face is absurd.

The church took a firm position against what it called artificial contraception, by which it really meant the rubber, in the 1930s, with a papal encyclical, Casti Connubii. And that came right in the middle of the period when the papacy was reinventing itself as an absolute source of authority in the Catholic Church, which really begins with 1870, and the First Vatican Council. Remember, it's only then that the doctrine of infallibility is formally defined. So the pope is claiming a kind of infallibitily, as it was put, in matters of faith and morals.

So if you have Pope A claiming infallibility in matters faith and morals, and then Pope B taking a firm posit on a moral question — the meaning of sexuality — in the 1930s, well, popes after that are kind of stuck. Because in order to say that contraception is moral, they have to say that Pope Pius XI got it wrong — or maybe, if he didn't get it wrong, he didn't quite fully see it.

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