Interview: James Carroll

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 1, 2009

And the fact that the church has taken positions already on some of these posits may prove to be irrelevant, because technology has so changed the way these issues are presenting themselves to human beings. And if that's the case in 2009, imagine how it'll be in 2050! What will the questions be that human beings are dealing with a generation from now? And this is just on the beginning of life; the same thing applies on the end of life.

I think that the Catholic Church has a moral wisdom going back 2000 years. It's part of the biblical tradition going back 5000 years. That's crucial for human beings going forward. I think it needs to be part of this moral reflections that human beings have to do.

So what would it take, in terms of internal church reform, for that tradition to be successfully mined?
Well, you can look for an analogy at the church's tradition on war and peace. In my lifetime — I never thought I would see this — the Catholic Church has gone from being a partner to war makers to being a partner to peacemakers. The Vatican and the hierarchies of the Catholic Church have been staunch opponents of war making and military violence for most of a generation now. The Catholic bishops, following the lead of the Vatican, have opposed all of America's wars since Vietnam, including the short war against Panama, the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, and now the war on terrorism. Popes and bishops have been staunch critics of these wars, even in periods when most Americans were pretty enthusiastic about them.

For someone raised in the era of Cardinal Spellman, that's unbelievable. Spellman was a military cardinal; he was famous for saying, My country, right or wrong. And Pope Pius XII was a warrior pope. He's famous as the pope of World War II, but he was also the pope of the Cold War. And the Catholic Church was a staunch ally of the American nuclear standoff against the Soviet Union, and the Catholic Church was silent during the corruptions of the Cold War's deterrence period, when something like 100,000 nuclear weapons were created by both sides in the Cold war. There was no moral teaching coming from the church on that.

That's all changed! What we have is the church retrieving its own tradition of criticism and resistance, going back to the Just War theory of Saint Augustine. St. Augustine articulates the Just War theory against the Christian Roman empire. Before the Roman Empire became Christian, Christianity was a pacifist movement; it becomes a militarist movement when the empire becomes the church and the church becomes the empire. Within two generations, the most important theologian in the church articulates an argument against unbridled use of violence by power.

There's a peace tradition to be retrieved, and the church has been retrieving that in my lifetime. The church has also been retrieving its firm commitment to be on the side of the poor, which is something that was also lost during the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance, and the modern era, when the church was firmly allied with wealth and with power. That's changed. It's one of the reasons that all those poor people were able to cheer the presence of the pope in Africa last week: poor people in Africa understand that the Catholic Church is on their side. Well, only two or three generations ago, that wouldn't have been so obvious. So the church's retrieval of its preferential option for the poor, as the bishops of Latin America put it, is another signal of what's possible.

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