What James Carroll Sees in the Inkblots

Early last week I finished reading Practicing Catholic, a memoir of sorts by the novelist and former Roman Catholic priest James Carroll. The pivotal episode in Carroll’s coming-of-age story is the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of the world’s Roman Catholic bishops that took place in several sessions between 1962 and 1965. Colloquially known as “Vatican II,” it is widely regarded as having been the most consequential religious event of the twentieth century (among the Council’s most notable acts is its decision to allow the Catholic Mass to be said in the vernacular in place of Latin). So-called ecumenical councils do not happen often: the two immediately prior to Vatican II were convened in 1545 and 1870, respectively. But could another be happening soon?

Unlike Carroll’s earlier book An American Requiem, Practicing Catholic is intended less as a traditional autobiography and more as an overview of American Catholicism from the 1950’s on, with personal anecdotes inserted where relevant. As it happens, this is nearly everywhere, since important milestones in Carroll’s life coincide with key events of the twentieth century in uncanny fashion (Bobby Kennedy is assassinated the morning that he preaches his first sermon as a deacon, he is ordained a priest a few days after Apollo 8 orbits the moon, etc.).

Moreover, the range of prominent figures with whom he has personal encounters or extended personal relationships is astonishing. While Carroll is a high school senior, his family is granted an audience with the pope on account of his father’s status as the “senior Catholic officer in the Air Force in Europe.” In an incident that could be a scene out of Forrest Gump, he spends a night in jail in 1972 following an antiwar sit-in; the very next cell holds civil rights leader and Protestant clergyman William Sloane Coffin, Jr., who leads the detained protestors in singing hymns from Handel’s Messiah. Later on, Carroll becomes a student of the poet Allen Tate and consoles him after the death of his child; meets Cardinal Richard Cushing, the progressive cleric who presided over the wedding and funeral of John F. Kennedy; and interviews the theologian Hans Küng, an early mentor of Joseph Ratzinger and now his ideological archnemesis.

In a coincidence almost worthy of Carroll himself, I unknowingly finished the book on the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Pope John XXIII, the reformist pontiff who convened the Second Vatican Council and who serves as one of the key protagonists of Catholic. I realized this either later that night or the next day, when I read a piece in the National Catholic Reporter about Pope Francis’ remarks to a group of pilgrims from Bergamo, John’s native province in Italy, wherein he praised the former pope by saying that

[f]ifty years after his death the wise and fatherly guidance of Pope John’s love for the Church’s Tradition and his awareness of the constant need for renewal, his prophetic intuition of the convocation of the Second Vatican Council and his offering of his life for its success stand as milestones in the history of the Church in the 20th century; and as a bright beacon for the journey that lies ahead.

NCR’s Michael Sean Winters writes that “there is something in the mien of these two men that really is similar, a knack for the common person, a willingness to speak from their own experiences… and the ability to communicate intense love to people in their midst and across the airwaves.” Carroll himself, in a column in the Boston Globe, opines about what this similarity might portend for the future of the Church:

[I]n a homily in the chapel at St. Martha’s, this pope lifted up what he called the “culture of encounter”… [T]he Argentine pope praised every human being as a source of goodness. “Even the atheists?” he asked, giving voice in the homily to his inevitable critics… It has been a long time since popes have incited holy wars, and there is nothing new in the call to tolerate those who believe differently. But [Francis’] sermon suggests a movement beyond tolerance toward an authentic pluralism in which the convictions of others are not only allowed, but valued. Instead of opposing others’ beliefs, Francis emphasizes “encounter”… Is it reading too much into a simple homily to imagine a coming shift? In the case of a pope, not necessarily. The reforming openness of John XXIII first showed itself in nuances like this, and the ecumenical spirit of Vatican II followed. It may be happening again.

Much has been made of Francis’ gestures of humility since becoming pontiff. And while some of these have perhaps been overanalyzed – Francis answered a question from a schoolchild about why he has been living in a Vatican guesthouse instead of the papal apartments by saying that the decision is more about his “psychiatric” need to avoid isolation rather than any kind of desire to intensify his “personal virtue” – they certainly represent a stylistic departure from Benedict XVI. Is Carroll right to suggest that they are more than that: harbingers of a Third Vatican Council?

The reliably middle-of-the-road John Allen, Jr. warns that Francis’ knack for extemporaneous homilies has meant that his public monologues tend to be “open to widely differing interpretations,” and that “they almost seem to function as an ecclesial Rorschach test, revealing the agenda of constituencies eager to put a frame on the new pope.” So while “liberals… jumped on… [a] homily devoted to the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council, in which Francis criticized ‘those who wish to turn the clock back’ on the council’s reforms,” “conservatives… celebrate every time the new pope uses traditional argot, such as his strikingly frequent references to the devil.” The bottom line is that Francis’ reference to John XXIII as a “bright beacon for the journey ahead” could mean many different things, and those who hope for sweeping changes might, as Carroll puts it, be reading too much into simple homilies.

I think it would be an understatement to say that the odds of Francis convoking a Vatican III are long. But it seems to me that his early statements do indeed indicate an intention to do more than just bring about a slight shift in papal rhetoric. His past remarks about the “spiritual sickness of a self-referential church” and the perniciousness of “rigorous and hypocritical neoclericalism” (a denunciation of priests who refuse to baptize the children of unwed mothers) suggest that, in making episcopal appointments, he will perhaps be looking for men who are more like Sean O’Malley than Charles Chaput.

Carroll’s religious views are undeniably heterodox, so it’s natural that he would be inclined to see Francis’ most publicized comments as declarations of revolution. He describes himself in the book as a “Catholic radical,” although “on the larger scale of culture and politics, [his] being Catholic [disqualifies him] from being radical in any real way” (this notion will come to be a recurring theme at RM).

That said, his optimism about the future may not be wholly unfounded. Yes, many of the most fraught questions facing the Church are ones that previous popes have declared to be definitively settled, like the ordination of women to the priesthood or the use of artificial birth control. But there are plenty of substantive reforms that remain within the realm of the possible. Beyond the more mundane matters of ecclesiastical governance, like the need to overhaul the operation of the Vatican Bank, there are the debates over obligatory priestly celibacy and the ordination of women as deacons, debates that the hierarchy admits are open to discussion.

Francis is not the first pope to function as an “ecclesial Rorschach test,” and by now the phenomenon is probably a permanent feature of the papacy itself. But only time will tell whether James Carroll’s vision of five thousand bishops jam-packed into a basilica actually comes to fruition – or whether it’s nothing more than a mirage in inkblots.