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Interview: James Carroll

The full transcript of the Phoenix's conversation with the author
By ADAM REILLY  |  April 1, 2009

Catholic tilt: James Carroll justifies his faith. By Adam Reilly.
The Phoenix's Adam Reilly recently spoke with Globe columnist James Carroll about his new book, Practicing Catholic (Houghton Mifflin), and his critical but durable relationship with the Roman Catholic Church. An edited transcript follows.

Start by telling me what the genesis of the new book was.
A decade ago, I was working on a book on the history of Christian anti-Semitism, and I published the book in 2001. It's a very negative story; it's a sad, tragic story of how, century in, century out, Christians — Catholics in particular — have betrayed the message of Jesus by attacking Jews. And that tradition is part of what led to the Holocaust. How much more negative can you get?

And one of the great questions that I faced everywhere I went, and still face, was: knowing this history, and clearly being so affected by it, how can you still be a Catholic? And it wasn't just a question I had to field; it's a question I had to ask myself. I'm not just a Catholic. I take it seriously. I go to mass regularly because I need to and want to, it's a source of consolation and support and strength in my life that I can't live without. And I felt like I owed myself and my readers an explanation of what this is.

Why does it matter so much to me? I'm not the kind of Catholic I was as a child, or a young man, or even a middle-aged man. I'm 66 years old, and I'm actually able to imagine the end of my life in a way that I didn't used to be able to. So the meaning of this tradition is different now — and I knew that I would only be able to actually understand that meaning if I wrote this book. So I wrote it to answer the question: Why am I still a Catholic?

And I had a similar experience to the one I had with Constantine's Sword. By the time I finished Constantine's Sword, I was more committed to the church than ever, even as I was more aware then ever of its fallibility and tragic flaws. And I hope that readers find, in this book, a description of this flawed institution that will help them understand it better, and be less offended by it. I'm not looking to get anybody to sign up for the Catholic Church, but the church's flaws are not its problem. Its flaws are its solution, really, because what the church is about is proclaiming that God loves humans the way we are, not the way we wish we were. And I find the love of God in this flawed institution, which is a way that I have of living with my own flawed character.

Did Benedict's ascension to the papacy play any role in your decision to tackle this particular subject?
Well, I think Benedict's ascension to the papacy is the end of something, not the beginning of something. He's the last gasp of the medieval, monarchical papacy, which is not central to the Roman Catholic tradition. The church has been having an argument with itself about the authority of the Pope for a thousand years — but only for a thousand years! This kind of papacy is an invention of the Middle Ages, and it got a new lease on life in the 19th Century, in the revolutionary period. The church threw itself firmly against liberalism and against revolution, and the Vatican reinvented itself as a bulwark against democratic liberalism, which was one of the few firmly positive things to come out of the Enlightenment.

The Enlightenment's a mixed bag: it gave us contemporary hyper-nationalism, and it gave us the tyrannical despotisms of the 20th Century. It gave us a lot of nihilism. But it gave us democratic liberalism, which is a very precious mutation of political evolution — and the Catholic Church stood solemnly against it, and Pope Benedict is the end of that. So what Pope Benedict actually gives a Catholic liberal like myself is the perfect foil. He enables me to actually affirm my convictions as a liberal Catholic. And since I've been writing this book, and since I've finished writing it, Pope Benedict has put on display, again and again, exactly what I'm talking about.

The question to be put to Pope Benedict at this point is, why does he find it necessary to apologize so often? This is a man who temperamentally is not given to apologizing. And yet, just speaking from his gut and acting from his gut, he displays the political — and I would say religious — limits of his vision.

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