Interview: James Carroll

By ADAM REILLY  |  April 1, 2009

And this is the condition of a kind of grassroots experience that begins to weigh more than the doctrine at the top, which says No Salvation Outside the Church, including Dick Pearlstein. I don't think so.

I don't think it's an accident that the first person in almost a thousand years to challenge this particular doctrine of Catholicism is this Irish bishop in Boston, who tells Father Feeney, 'You can't say that.' To which Feeney says, 'What do you mean I can't say it? This has been the teaching of the church since Pope Innocent III in the Middle Ages, and since the Fourth Lateran Council in the 13th Century. How can you tell me not to say it?' And Cushing says, 'I'm just telling you not to say it.'

Feeney disobeyed Cushing, and they went back and forth. Finally, Feeney was excommunicated by Cardinal Cushing in 1953. But he wasn't bothered by that, because he immediately appealed to Rome, assuming Rome would support him and not Cushing.

And the astonishing thing in this story — this shows you how the world had changed. This is post-World War II, post-Holocaust, post-the collapse of European culture, including Christian culture. It's a period when people are looking for a new meaning in their experience. Experience has begun to weigh more than doctrine throughout culture. And the cutting edge of this, the issue that changes it for Catholics, is this one.

When Feeney appeals to Rome, to the astonishment of everyone — including me, a 10-year-old in Alexandria, Virginia — Rome supported Cushing against Feeney and upheld the excommunication. Now, it's true that they tried to dodge the issue by saying they were upholding Cushing because of Feeney's disobedience, and not condemning the position Feeney took. But they upheld the excommunication.

That's the beginning of the end of No Salvation Outside the Church, which is gone! And what put the nail in the coffin was the Second Vatican Council, exactly ten years later. Cushing, by now a cardinal, is one of the leaders in the council arguing in favor of the council's declaration on human liberty, which is an affirmation of the primacy of conscience. Conscience weighs more than doctrine — it's a principle of modern life, that the self is the beginning of meaning. And that revolution began with a relationship between a Jew and his Catholic brother in law.

One question I have, as the child of parents who cite Vatican II as an example of what the church is capable of, is: what if Vatican II was an anomaly out of keeping with the broader character of the church?
History makes me hopeful. There has been, on average, one council every century — a gathering of all the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church. These are gatherings in which church leaders, together, exercise authority over the church. Between councils, popes exercise authority over the church. You can understand the whole history of the church as a tension, if not a conflict, between the teaching author of the pope and the teaching author of the council.

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