In the April 6, 2021 New York Times, book reviewer Dani Shapiro offered an interesting take on memoirs: “Pity the poor memoirist. The urge to excavate memory does not tend to come from a place of contentment.” Our book at hand, James Carroll’s The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul  is a dual memoir, of Carroll’s formative life in the Catholic Church—which he carries as far as his leaving the Catholic priesthood in his 30’s nearly a half-century ago—and his concurrent memoir of the development of the Catholic Church from the universal call of Jesus into the Kingdom of God to its present position of cultic power as a male dominated institution preciously guarding its discriminative standing.
I came to know the author through his novel The Cloister [2018, see my review] and to appreciate his skill at balancing multiple narratives between the covers of one text. In The Truth at the Heart of the Lie the dual narrative is Carroll’s youth and the Catholic Church of his old age. He avoids the pitfall of memoirs--what Shapiro cites as revenge and justification bordering on self-congratulation--by writing to discover—or evaluate—his own early faith experiences and how he himself became enfolded in clerical culture. As a laicized priest myself close to Carroll’s age, I can testify that there is a visceral wonderment in seniority at how I came to priestly life in the pre-Vatican II era, how I ministered through it, and why I left it. As a reviewer I do not have Carroll’s skill at intertwining narratives, so I will focus first upon the man and second on his analysis of “the heart of the lie.”
Carroll’s description of growing up Catholic is captivating. His early devotion to Jesus as his best friend is a testament to Father James Martin’s 2021 observations about the validity of early childhood mysticism in his Learning to Pray. But Carroll was more than devout: he reflected from an early age on God’s involvement in humanity and what theologians refer to as justification, reinforced by frequent attendance at funerals as an altar boy. His best boyhood friend Peter was Jewish, and in the late 1950’s “no salvation outside the Church” was still taught to Catholic school children. That Peter was persona non grata to the reward of afterlife struck Carroll as unfair and troubling. The crippling polio of his younger brother posed an early introduction to the randomness and meaning of evil and suffering. A pious heart and a critical mind in the same young persona created a stress which carried into his teenaged years.
Carroll’s family life was complicated. Probably the major domestic influence in his life was his relationship with his father and his work. The senior Carroll, an espionage specialist, became a high-ranking Air Force officer at the Pentagon and, during young Carroll’s high school years, at Wiesbaden Air Base in Germany. The author describes his father as somewhat distant, professionally absent from the home, and discrete in the extreme. The unspoken expectation was that son would follow father into the Air Force, a career holding no interest for Carroll, who seems to have deliberately scuttled his chances for the Air Force Academy with subpar academic performance in high school in Wiesbaden.
The Wiesbaden high school years were formative in another sense. Carroll became acutely aware of the imminent dangers of nuclear war. He and his friends had traveled into East Germany on occasion and observed firsthand the tensions at the border. When Carroll senior was reassigned to the Pentagon, the author returned to the U.S. and entered Georgetown University. One of the more dramatic accounts in this work is a night during the Cuban Missile Crisis when Carroll is told by his father to head to the countryside with the family when full nuclear war broke out. Knowing that flight from atomic weapons was a fool’s journey, and growing contemptuous of his father’s militarism, Carroll announces his choice of career—the priesthood.
The author admits a sad irony about his relationship with his father. As he became more pacifist and outspoken through the 1960’s and the expansion of the Viet Nam War, his relationship with his father deteriorated to the point that they were barely speaking in 1969, the year of Carroll’s ordination to the priesthood. He had no way of knowing that his father, within the secrecy of the Pentagon, was becoming increasingly frustrated in the management and expansion of the war, to the point that President Nixon relieved him of duty for his opposition.
During his Georgetown years the author encountered the Paulist Fathers, an American community devoted to publishing, journalism, and evangelization. Eventually he entered the Paulist seminary in Washington, D.C. and was ordained in 1969. His seminary years coincided with the Civil Rights Movement and the expanding Viet Nam War as well as the new directives coming forth from the Council Vatican II [1962-1965]. By the time of his ordination, the author was estranged from the American Church hierarchy which, in the manner of Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York, strongly supported the war effort. Carroll suffered a crisis of conscience at his ordination on the issue of professing obedience to what he saw as an institution of dubious claims on his conscience; while he proceeded through the ordaining rite, he felt remorse. “As I stood and crossed the sanctuary to take my place on the cold stone floor, lying prostrate in formation with my classmates, I felt awash in guilt.” [p. 235] For all his pain, Carroll served a respectable five years as chaplain to Boston University before leaving the priestly ministry in a conflict with the Boston archdiocese over liturgical disciple, an episode I will relate later.
At this point I will turn to the author’s analysis of “the lie” at the heart of Catholicism, a discussion interspersed throughout the book. Carroll remains a Catholic and has throughout his long career, but he has embarked upon a “Eucharistic fast” in response to the institutional failure of the Church in the matter of addressing child abuse by the clergy. “The nub at the center of the notorious Roman Catholic sexual predation is an idolatry of the priest and of the priestly status that goes by the name of ‘clericalism.’ It is a malignity marked by a cult of secrecy; a high-flown theological misogyny that demeans all women and fosters an unbridled male supremacy; a suppression of normal erotic desire; a hierarchical domination of priest over lay people; and basing that power on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, drawn from a misreading of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The inbuilt rank-obsession of the clerical system thwarts the virtues of otherwise good priests, and perverts the message of selfless love that the Church was established to proclaim.” [pp. 9-10]
While one might argue with the intensity of this charge, it is undeniable that every element of Carroll’s indictment carries historical bases that enjoy varying degrees of agreement among scholars today. He does not invent new theses to explain Church history but brings together a variety of strands of historical interpretation from a variety of disciplines. He examines the first century identity of early Jewish followers of Jesus and the division that erupted within that community after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. The Gospels, he contends, written after this catastrophe, embodied for all time the relationship of Christians and Jews as one of dominance, with Christians citing betrayal of the Messiah Jesus as a justification of exercising condemnation and persecution of their former Jewish brothers until virtually this day. [Coincidentally, as I pen this entry, I received word that the Catholic Swiss theologian Hans Kung has died at the age of 93. Kung’s advocacy of greater union and reconciliation with Jews won him considerable suspicion and censure by the Roman Curia on the eve of Vatican II in the early 1960’s.]
From its first century roots, Carroll contends, what we know today as the Church devolved from an organizational principle of service to one of power that in a variety of ways the Church has fought to maintain over two millennia. Much of this book describes three primary foci of power: justification, sexuality, and clerical caste. In Carroll’s assessment of the way we are justified or raised to heaven, the text of Matthew’s Gospel [Matthew 16:19] had placed an enormous power with the priestly caste, the unchallenged power to save or damn the Christian faithful. The author, torn by his own youthful, troubled conscience as we saw above, encountered during his seminary years an alternative to the high-risk moral power of the confessional in the insights of the Swiss Lutheran theologian Krister Stendahl [1921-2008]. A long-time professor at Harvard Divinity School, Stendahl reoriented the author toward a new understanding of justification rooted in “a gracious God whose faithfulness to the promise inherent in the very act of creation weighs infinitely more than any imagined ‘faith’ on the part even of a perfectly repentant human.” [p. 217]
A Church empowered with the infinite judgement of the sacramental keys, as Matthew’s Gospel was interpreted through much of history, would inevitably generate a particular moral anthropology and theology of sin and the tendency of humans toward evil. Here the author turns to sexuality and the inordinate influence of St. Augustine’s influence upon Catholic thought. Augustine’s interpretation of Adam and Eve and his construct of original sin and pessimism over human sexuality is reasonably well known. Carroll goes on to explain Augustine’s understanding of Eve as temptress, an interpretation that has played heavily into the narrative of justifiable patriarchal dominance of women in both church life and the culture of Western Christendom.
The issue of celibacy is the third leg of Carroll’s stool of dysfunction and institutional deceit. The prohibition of a married clergy is seen by the author as a cultural protection of the hierarchy’s power, eliminating the troublesome distraction of wife and children in order to solidify the “black wall” of hierarchical authority and secrecy. The issue of women in the Church is one of acute memory for Carroll, as it was an immediate factor in his decision to abruptly leave the active priestly ministry in 1974. He was ordered by his bishop to fire his associate campus minister at Boston University, a religious sister, for allegedly offering the Eucharist at a students’ Mass while Carroll was absent. Carroll refused and resigned immediately. He admits to feeling blindsided by her at the time, but later came to regret his insensitivity to the commonplace slights of women ministers in the Church.
Clearly, a man whose 60-year professional resume includes priesthood, journalism, history, and literature, has seen these conditions up close for his entire life. The tipping point, it seems, that prompted this book is a fear that the Church has still learned nothing from its mistakes, exemplified in several episodes of Pope Francis’ limp responses to very recent abuse scandals in Ireland, the United States, India, Argentina, and elsewhere. Equally pressing is the author’s age, as he appears eager to lay out a plan of Church reform in his final chapters, “Hope is a Choice,” [pp. 305-309] and “A Catholic Manifesto: An Anticlericalism from within.” [pp. 311-319].
In his final thoughts, Carroll argues that “to simply leave the Catholic Church is to leave its worst impulses unchallenged—and its better ones unsupported.” [p. 308] His exhortations to reform energy rests on the belief that many Catholics share his frustration and are waiting for an effective roadmap to cut at the heart of “the lie.” Unfortunately, I fear this may a poor read of the parochial landscape. I could enter my computer rolodex right now and find ten friends who would rally to the cause, but we are all the author’s age cohort, a dying breed who have matured with both the promises and the lies of the institutional church. Amazon reviewer George OJ may have a precautionary insight when he wrote “Most of the book (in line with its subtitle - no complaints here) is Carroll’s personal memoir, admittedly a beautifully written one, if occasionally wrapped in guilt and regret, unfortunately too late to be useful.”
It is noteworthy, too, that this week’s Gallup Poll reveals the baseline of church membership for all Americans has dropped below 50%, the lowest percentage in the eighty years of such poll taking. Two points for reflection in closing. First, the preoccupation of most congregations in the foreseeable future will be survival, and reformers will need to make the case that churches thrive when their conduct reflects their founder. Second, while nearly all churches are hemorrhaging members, there may be greater diversity in why people leave. The Gallup Poll does not indicate causes. In short, even with other pressures, Catholicism in the United States and elsewhere will need to address its specific sins—which means that Carroll’s memoir may survive as a memorial for “changing those things that need to be changed.”
For Folks Who Can't Read Everything