Interview: James Carroll

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 1, 2009

The church needs to retrieve its tradition of treating all people equally. Therefore, the rights of women have to be firmly affirmed by the church, which isn't happening — either on sexual morality or in the ways in which church power structures forbid the admission of women, most obviously in the ordination of women as priests.

Having said all that, the church has learned to retrieve these traditions them not from religious teachers, but from secular teachers. It was the antireligious revolt, beginning with the French Revolution in 1789, that put human rights on the world agenda. The declaration of the rights of man in 1789 right up to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948: all of that comes out of secular, antireligious, Enlightenment movements. I'm not saying that the church is the source of these great ideas, but the church can learn from them, and retrieve from its own tradition religious justification for these ideas.

This matters so much because there are more than a billion Catholics in the world, and a lot of them live in the most desperate parts of the world. Those folks really need a reformed, liberal, justice-and-peace-oriented church to be their great ally.

InPracticing Catholic, you talk about reform being driven by the move from ethics to theology. Could you discuss that principle in general, and a couple ways in which it's played out? I wasn't familiar with the story of Cardinal Cushing and his brother in law, for example.
There was this revolution associated with Copernicus and Galileo. What was that? It was a move away from the idea that the truth comes from above — from God, from the teaching author of the church, from the rules of the monarch, and down to the people. The modern revolution reverses that. You see it in science, where truth comes not from above, but from the self.

When Descartes says, 'I think, therefore I am,' what Descartes is telling us is that he knows he exists not because God told him he exists, but because he can experience it himself. And when Galileo says that Copernicus was right — that the earth goes around the sun, not the other way around — he can look through his telescope and show you why he's come to that conclusion. His eyesight gives him his truth, and that puts him in direct conflict with an establishment that's saying, 'No, your eyesight doesn't give you the truth. The power structure of the church — the tradition — gives you the truth, and your eyesight has to conform with that.'

That, in a capsule, is the change that's been taking place over the last 400 years, not just in the church but in the broader culture. And in my lifetime, this has played out in the Catholic Church most powerfully around the idea of what makes for salvation.

Salvation used to do for human beings what the idea of meaning does for human beings today. Lots of us can be indifferent to whether we're being saved or not; you haven't been worried about that this week. But every day, you get up and wonder if your life is meaningful. And despair is the conclusion that life isn't meaningful.

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