Interview: James Carroll

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 1, 2009

In the past, human beings couldn't live without the idea of being saved. And the tradition said that, in order to be saved, you had to be a Catholic. Other traditions had their versions of the same thing: if you're not with us, you're lost. It's a common human dynamic.

That doctrine — No Salvation Outside the Church — changed in my lifetime. It was one of the first things I was taught as a child, and I remember it troubling me, because my neighbor and best friend was a Protestant, and my neighbor on the other side was a Jew. So, my best friends are going to Hell. That troubled me as a seven-year-old. I was already a kind of troubled Catholic.

And then in 1953, when I was 10 years old, I learned that there was a priest in Boston, whose name was Father Feeney, who was excommunicated for teaching No Salvation Outside the Church. It was my first experience in theology. I was 10 years old, and I said to my mother, 'I thought that's what we believed.' My mother said, 'It was.' 'Well, what do we believe now?' My mother said, 'We believe, live and let live.' And I thought, 'Whoa! how did this happen?'

It was only years later that I understood. It happened because of this Irish Catholic archbishop in Boston — he wasn't a cardinal yet — named Richard Cushing, who was a working-class Irish guy from South Boston. And he was a typical American. By that, I mean he grew up in a society that did not take for granted the borders, the boundaries, of the old world. The peace of Westphalia, in 1648, defined nations in Europe by religious denomination. So if you were a Catholic, you didn't know anybody who wasn't Catholic, and if you were a Protestant, you didn't know anybody who wasn't Protestant. The exception to that were Jews, who had to make their way inside these communities. But if you weren't Jewish, you knew very few Jews.

But when I was a boy, we lived next door to a Jewish family, and on the other side of us was a Protestant family. This is America. In America, people rub elbows with people who are different from them. That's been defining this country from the beginning, and is part of this country's genius.

So there's Cardinal Cushing growing up in South Boston. It's an Irish enclave, that's for sure, but he, like everyone in South Boston, has to make his life outside, in the bigger town. He starts commuting across Boston to go to Boston College. His sister gets a job as a token-taker at the MTA, and marries a guy she falls in love with, whose name is Dick Pearlstein. He's Jewish. So Cardinal Cushing suddenly has a brother-in-law who's Jewish, and he has a relationship with Dick Pearlstein that includes friendship and authentic love.

Cardinal Cushing becomes archbishop in the mid-1940s, and in the late 1940s, he hears complaints from people — probably including his brother-in-law — that there's a Catholic priest down on Boston Common giving sermons that denigrate Jews, and say Jews are going to hell. Cardinal Cushing has to hear that in a way that maybe, in the old country, he wouldn't have heard it — because Jews going to hell includes his brother-in-law, which is a personal affront.

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