Sunday, May 3, 2009. 10:10 AM
How Catholicism is Changing
Samuel T. Lloyd: Good morning, and welcome to the Sunday Forum, our ongoing weekly conversation at the intersection of faith and public life. It’s a special privilege today to have with us one of America’s most preeminent writers in the area of religion; someone whose work has been exploring a range of topics having to do with American religion, but also the implications of American religion for our interfaith relations and for what’s going on more globally.
James Carroll is the author of the New York Times best seller Constantine’s Sword. It is a history of western Christianity’s relationship with the Jews. And he wrote a National Book Award–winning memoir, An American Requiem, about his complex relationship with his father, who was an Air Force general deeply involved in American intelligence in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, especially during the Vietnam War. James Carroll is a former Roman Catholic priest who remains deeply involved in his church but has had many wise insights, not simply about his church, but about where the church more broadly is going.
He has a brand new book out called Practicing Catholic, which tracks the evolution of the church and of his own spiritual life over this last half-century.
Jim, it’s great to have you with us.
James Carroll: Thank you, Sam. It’s a pleasure to be back.
Lloyd: Change is a subject that comes up a lot in your book: change that does happen and change that doesn’t happen, in the life of particularly the Catholic Church, but also as theological thinking emerges. At one point, you write, the great question modernity puts to faith is, Can religions change as human beings change? Some would say religions shouldn’t change. They receive their deposit of wisdom and insight and they should stick with it.
Tell us a little bit about how change you think ought to happen, hasn’t happened, and maybe should be happening going forward.
Carroll: Well, I love the image you naturally made reference to, “the deposit of faith.” We used to say the deposit of faith is unchanging, but of course what we have all experienced in the last eight or ten months is the value of deposits can change pretty radically. And the church, as custodian of the unchanging deposit, is about as “unchanging” as the bank, as the custodian of the unchanging deposit. The deposit of faith unchanging.
But of course the irony, the deep irony here is, it’s a modern illusion of ours that anything of the human condition can be unchanging. Maybe it’s because change can be so threatening to us that we look for some realm or world that’s unchanging, and so we say religion is unchanging. That’s the rock. Nothing changes there.
I was born into a Roman Catholic faith that understood itself as having not changed at all since Jesus. So, for example, we did the liturgy in Latin because, if Latin was good enough for Jesus, it was good enough for us. We thought of Jesus as the first Catholic priest, I thought of him as the first Irish Catholic priest.
It came as a big surprise to my generation of Catholics that Christian faith had evolved: evolution, Darwin, the evolutionary principle. The church came into being gradually, not all at once. And as for change, nothing in the world that we’ve experienced as Christians compares with the change that the church underwent when Constantine the Roman emperor became a Christian: when the small minority dissenting sect in the Roman Empire—Christians, persecuted outsiders—within a generation they became the empire itself.
And so much of what we think of as the unchanging church—its structures of governance, its language, its imagination, the order of the sacramental life—so much of what we think of as the church itself really shows up in the time of Constantine, and then constantly evolves through the centuries since then. The great glory of the church, in other words, is exactly in its changing, and the contest always that is to maintain the faithful commitment to the core belief that does come through time, even while the ways in which it is manifested in each generation are different.
Lloyd: Why do you think religions in general (I don’t think it’s just the Christian tradition) are so resistant to change? They’re all, it seems, fundamentally conservative. They want to hold on to some special moment in their past that are always… I would say they are so often threatened by and resistant to adjusting things in the current time. Why is that, do you think?
Carroll: Well, I think it’s because that’s the way we are. I don’t know about you, but I… I’m reluctant… I have… When I’m with young students talking about American politics or questions of religion, I often have reference to the 1960s, and I can remember… Well, I mean I see it often: I see the look go across the eyes of the students, which translates to me, I can read their minds, they are saying to themselves, the 1960s, Martin Luther King, the Kennedys, the Vietnam War, Civil Rights, the riots, the assassination, the demonstrations, get over it! And as I sense that in their response to me, they’ve responded that way perhaps to their parents.
I am always aware of a voice in me that wants to say, “No, I will never get over it.” I am defined by the experience of those years. That’s peculiar to my generation. I’m shocked to recognize this thing in myself that I saw in my parents. Only for them it wasn’t the Sixties, it was the Thirties. It was the Depression.
I think human beings are marked by experience. They have to reconstitute what the world means to them when they are marked. And then having it meaningful: you’re terrified that, in deconstructing the meaning, you will lose it!
And what is it to be alive in the world without a point of reference, without a source of meaning? That’s a terrifying prospect to us. So of course we cling to the meaning that we’ve come to, and every generation does a version of this. And we see it in our politics. We see—every four years in this country, we have a new debate over the old questions, and it’s very difficult. In every generation we have to return to the old points of reference and understand them anew.
Why do we need a new biography of Lincoln every twelve years? Well, we do, don’t we? It’s because we understand Lincoln differently every twelve years, every fifteen years, every thirty years. The genius inside of a historian like Doris Goodwin—why the “team of rivals” is suddenly relevant in the United States of America—well, it was because American politics has been nearly destroyed over the last ten years by the blue state/red state paralysis of disagreement. And what does Lincoln’s experience tell us about that?
So it’s a new read on the old story. And that’s what we are constantly doing. But the temptation human beings have is to stay with the old story because it’s familiar. It’s the one we have. And if we do that, we deprive ourselves of the final, and I would say perennially human, renewal—of reinventing our understanding of the past for a new present experience. It’s dangerous when we lose faith in our ability to constantly discover the new meaning of the old story.
Lloyd: You have a number of heroes in your book, people who model for you being grounded in the Catholic tradition but willing to lead the church through change: for one, Cardinal Richard Cushing; another, Pope John XXIII. Would you say something about how it was that each of them was able to face into a time when things seemed to be as locked down as ever and opened up new breezes to blow through the church?
Carroll: Cushing, some of you remember Cardinal Cushing. Probably, maybe most unforgettably, Cushing stood across town here at St. Matthew’s Cathedral and put his hand on the casket of President Kennedy, having presided at the funeral mass, and said, “Dear Jack.” Cushing, for a moment, because of President Kennedy and then because of Bobby, was kind of America’s Catholic prelate.
He was my first theology teacher when I was ten. I didn’t know it was theology I was learning. I was living in Alexandria, in St. Mary’s parish, and the nuns were abuzz one day with the news that a Catholic priest had been excommunicated for teaching “no salvation outside the church,” and the monsignor was flustered, and I went home and I said to my mother, “A priest was excommunicated for teaching no salvation outside the church.”
And my mother said, “I heard.”
And I said, “But I thought that’s what we believed.”
And my mother said, “It was.”
I said, “What do we believe now?”
She said, “We believe, live and let live.”
Cushing excommunicated Father Leonard Feeney for preaching “no salvation outside the church,” a doctrine that went back to at least to Unam sanctam, a Papal bull dating to the early fourteenth century. Thomas Aquinas, a dozen councils of the church, every great theologian for most of a thousand years taught “no salvation outside the church.” Feeney was teaching it on Boston Common, especially aiming his diatribes against Jews who were especially damned to the eternal lake of hell fire. And Cushing told him to stop it, and Feeney didn’t stop it, and Cushing summoned him and told him solemnly to stop it. And Feeney knew he had a thousand years of church teaching on his side, and he didn’t stop it, and Cushing excommunicated him.
Feeney was fine with that. He appealed immediately to Rome, and the news that I was hearing at age ten was Rome upheld the excommunication, which was the beginning of the profound change in Catholic doctrine about the church’s relationship to other believers and people of no belief at all, which culminated twelve years later in the Second Vatican Council declaration, Dignitatis humanae, which says, quote, “Anyone can attain salvation who acts according to the dictates of conscience,” unquote. A profound revolution in a basic Catholic thought which was quite relevant to the sermon you preached—are preaching today.
Why was Cushing the person who brought that issue to a head? Because his sister Dolly, who worked as an MTA token taker, was married to a fellow named Dick Pearlstein, who, with his brother, ran a men’s clothing store, Louis, a fine clothing store that’s still in Boston. And their lunch hour strolls close enough to the Boston Common no doubt took them past Feeney’s soapbox.
Cushing heard from Dick Pearlstein what Feeney was saying. Cushing knew that Dick Pearlstein was a good person, not a candidate for the eternal lake of hellfire. And that human experience of his sister’s husband changed Cushing, which is, in a capsule form, the way in which all change takes place. Human experience prompts dogma, and dogma is constantly having to be tested against human experience. And that’s the Cushing anecdote.
The Pope John XXIII anecdote is similar—human experience trumping dogma—only in that context, it had to do with the Holocaust, an experience he had intimately, trumping the dogma of the Church’s superiority, contemptuous superiority, to the Jewish people.
Lloyd: Those two people, who were able to break something loose—but it’s not always been easy to do that in the Catholic Church. After the revolution of Vatican II, which opened up the church in so many ways, and you might just say a word about what you think the impact of Vatican II was. It seems that that moment of revolution and transformation began to close, and a lot of the latter part of your story is how that enormously creative moment under John XXIII began ultimately to cease to be so creative, and it finally was closed down. So say a word about Vatican II and then what’s happened to the church since then, and why do you think…
Carroll: Well, Vatican II, you remember, took place between 1962 and 1965. And though it’s not often talked about this way, I argue that Vatican II was the Catholic Church’s and ultimately Christianity’s reckoning with the church failure during the Holocaust. That’s what I meant a minute ago by John XXIII’s experience. You remember who he was: Angelo Roncalli, small... well, short but very rotund peasant, unusual to be elected to the papacy if you’re not an aristocrat. John XXIII was elected as a compromise candidate because the cardinals couldn’t agree on the two leading candidates for the papacy. He replaced Pius XII, the wartime pope.
He was elected in 1958 and he was supposed to be an interim caretaker, keeping the chair of St. Peter warm.
He stunned the world when he immediately announced a worldwide ecumenical council, a gathering of all the church’s bishops from around the world, including non-Catholic observers who would be an intimate part of the council: other Christians, Jews, Orthodox Christians, and what was astonishing about this talk about change was John XXIII himself saying, “the church needs to change,” and what made him say that? It was like Cushing seeing the need for change because of his sister.
Angelo Roncalli had been a papal legate during the war. He was the Vatican’s ambassador to Turkey. He was one of the only Catholic prelates to actively resist the Holocaust. He provided hundreds, perhaps thousands, of counterfeit baptismal certificates to Jews fleeing Europe through Turkey. Faked, that is to say lied, baptismal certificates for the sake of life. He saw up close what was happening to the Jews and he did something about it. And at the end of the war he was dispatched to Paris, where he was the papal legate, whose main responsibility was to reckon with the Catholic hierarchy’s collaboration with the Vichy Regime in France, a regime friendly to Hitler.
That is to say, Angelo Roncalli saw up close the church’s failure. And so the first thing he says about the council is, “this council has to take up the church’s relationship with the Jewish people.” Excuse me, what is to take up there? But he knew what there was to take up there, which is why the most important act of that council was Nostra aetate, 1965, “In our time.” That document—and you know this, you’ve heard about it—renouncing forever the Christ-killer slander which is embedded in the New Testament and affirming the ongoing, permanent covenant that God has made with Israel, repudiating almost two thousand years of solemn church teaching that because they rejected Jesus, God rejected the Jews.
Talk about change, Sam! This is the most significant theological change in the history of the church. A revolution! And it came from the top! From the top! This is why Vatican II matters so much, and it’s why it’s… you talked about the kind of… the closing since, but of course there is closing since, change at this deep level in the DNA of Christianity, change which, by the way, mainstream Christian traditions all responded to and affirmed. Change at this level must be difficult. So it has been, and since the Second Vatican Council in Roman Catholicism there has been resistance to this level of change, there has been confusion about it.
And we see it manifest in, for example, the question of Holocaust denial. When Pope Benedict lifted the excommunication of Bishop Williamson, the issue seemed to be Holocaust denial, but that really isn’t the issue.
The issue is Bishop Williamson and his movement’s repudiation of the reforms of Vatican II. If you don’t want Vatican II, you have to find a way to deny the Holocaust, because that’s what led to Vatican II. They go together! Which is why the affirmation of Vatican II and the ongoing fulfillment of it, now as we Roman Catholics understand ourselves as part of the broader church, to which Sam referred, the communion of the baptized—so it’s no longer the one narrowly defined “true church.” We are all the church, which is what I’m doing here as a Catholic. We are all the church, we are all reckoning with the need for change at this level. And anti-Semitism, and therefore the Holocaust, is the… has been the pressing wedge issue. Making us see the absolute necessity of change.
Lloyd: You’ve talked so much in your book about the many ways the church has impacted you. From the way you describe that sense of unworthiness you’ve carried with you all your days, stemming back to your earliest experience but all the way up to your anti-war stuff in the 1960s and later your decision to leave the priesthood, on into your great concerns about the church of the last fifteen years or so under John Paul and Pope Benedict. It’s very much a lover’s quarrel you have with your church. What is it that keeps you there in the Catholic Church? You write movingly and passionately about the sex scandal that has been so devastating over these last eight, ten years, and yet you’re Catholic. Why is that?
Carroll: Well, let me say the other large question that defines me, it’s probably because growing up here, the son of a military man, I understood myself. And talk about those youthful moments that define you and that you’ll never get over, for me it was something very much about the Cold War threat of nuclear war that lodged in my psyche in a very powerful way.
The Cuban missile crisis was the end of an eighteen-month period that began with the crisis over Berlin. I was a student at Georgetown when the Berlin crisis unfolded and that’s when my father confided in me that he was afraid, terrified, that World War III was about to break out. In fact, what he knew, that I didn’t know, is that one of the clearest ways that might have happened is because Curtis LeMay, inside the Pentagon—our next door neighbor at Bolling Air [Force] Base—was recommending to President Kennedy a first strike against the Soviet Union to take out their nuclear capability before they could use it against us. So what my father was aware of was [that] there was an American-initiated nuclear war being seriously considered inside the Pentagon. The terror of that time infected me just as if it were the flu.
I mentioned the Second Vatican Council. The Second Vatican Council opened in October of 1962. You remember what else happened that month? That’s the month of the Cuban missile crisis. It’s not an accident that the council was so revolutionary, because it opened then, because the bishops of the church saw what was at stake in the question of whether Christianity is going to be relevant and responsive to the human condition as it is. And the human condition as it is then literally was on the precipice of the nuclear abyss. And that’s what they were responding to together with the lessons from the Holocaust. And that too led to fundamental change.
The Roman Catholic Church in my lifetime went from being the “just war church” friends in almost every circumstance to military impulses, to being a peace church. And the fact that in my maturity I watched a pope, John Paul II, instrumental—not the main instrument but one of them—instrumental in the non-violent, non-violent resolution of the Cold War. The non-violent dismantling of the Soviet system is astonishing!
And it in some way begins with John Paul II, in the field outside of Krakow in 1979, saying to a million Polish who are breaking the law by being there, “Be not afraid.” And one of them, an unemployed electrician who had hitchhiked to get there, bought a souvenir pen with the pope’s picture on it, which he used a few months later to sign his death warrant—well it should have been his death warrant—The Charter of Solidarity. That’s Lech Walesa of course. And Solidarity is the beginning of this grass-root, non-violent—the Pope insists it’s non-violent—movement that is instrumental. In the United States of America, we went from being Cardinal Spellman’s church—my country right or wrong—to being a church that is critical now of America’s war-making impulses right through to the present time. I’m stunned by the courage and the surprise of this level of change in the Catholic Church!
In that context, my arguments with the church—and I have them… I have them on matters of sexuality, on the ways in which divorce and remarriage are discussed, the ways in which gay people are denigrated, especially the role… the way in which women are unjustly kept from sacramental positions of power in the church. I have my arguments. But in the context of what I’ve witnessed as a Catholic, I’m astonished to be a part of this community. And I see it, and I also see the unbelievable vitality now of the ecumenical relationships that define the whole church. So the vitality of the Episcopal tradition’s witness to the Roman Catholic tradition, and I hope in some way vice versa, is a good signal of the—of what there is to stay with, and to be worthy of, in this tradition.
Lloyd: One more question before we go to our audience. You I know have a lot of concern about whether Christianity in the 21st century is going to be up to the challenge. That is, we are going into a world that is more and more connected and more and more tribal in the ways that they deal with each other. It’s a time when leadership from the great faith traditions—certainly our own, in caring for the environment, for addressing issues of war and peace, an array of issues—is urgently needed. What are your hopes for what’s going to come of the Christian movement in the 21st century? And I know you thought a lot about the dangerous part of Christian faith and the potential it has to have a significant impact. What would you like to see happen to Christianity in America or Christianity more broadly?
Carroll: Well Hans Küng, the great Roman Catholic theologian, says, “No peace among nations without peace among religions. No peace among religions without dialogue among religions. No dialogue among religions without fundamental change within the religions.”
It’s very clear that, to the surprise of many people, religious peace is a pre-condition for world peace. And the capacity for human self destruction now, not just through war but through environmental degradation, is evident to everyone.
The future of the human species is at risk. We are the first generation or the second generation in history for whom that’s been the case. We do have it in our hands to bring about the end of our own species. And religion is going to be a key part of how that dilemma is resolved in this century. Will Islam ignite world conflict? Or will Islam be a force for understanding and mutuality, as it has been in its glorious past? Will Judaism—a narrowly understood Biblical, fundamentalist Judaism, which has taken hold in a very powerful way on the West Bank—will Judaism be part of what ignites a conflagration? But overwhelmingly, Christianity… for one thing, the most powerful nation in the world is defined by its Christianity.
Yes, we have the separation of church and state, but we are overwhelmingly a people who have imagination, who have the imagination of Christianity, for better or for ill, in us. And we’ve seen in the last eight years, ten, nine years, how Christian attitudes can underscore, underwrite impulsive militarist impulses that are more destructive than anyone could have imagined them to be. The way in which evangelical religion, which has its place, which we… This isn’t to denigrate evangelical religion, but the way in which evangelical religion has crossed a boundary within the United States military in recent years, to define itself as a proselytizing source of unit cohesion in Army and even in Naval combat units, very significant signals of what’s at stake here.
What do we need? We need a self-critical, historically minded, reformed religious impulse. We Christians certainly need it. I believe it’s coming, it can come. I’ve already referred to the kinds of changes that are underway, but there are a billion and a half Christians, more than a billion of them Roman Catholics. There are more than a billion Muslims.
The world is on the cusp of a terrible conflict and it defines itself as a war between Islam and the west, the rest. That’s us and what are we doing? Discussions like this at the grass roots all over America are taking place. They matter enormously.
The United States of America belongs to us. We are responsible for it. And how this nation resolves these questions, and in a particular way our religious understandings of ourselves going back to John Winthrop’s “city on a hill,” right through Lincoln’s “last best hope,” to Woodrow Wilson’s sense of us as the “messiah nation,” bringing the good news to the world, right through John Foster Dulles’s understanding of our conflict against atheistic communism, coming up to the present time, where we are so ready to define our crusade for democracy as kind of holy. We have to understand more fully how this impulse of ours has defined the past and what’s at stake for it going forward into the future.
Lloyd: Let’s go to questions…
Deryl Davis: As we start with questions, I ask the audience, if you would, pass questions, if you have them, forward to the center aisle for collection.
Question 1: In your book Practicing Catholic, you do mention your hopes for a reunion of Christian traditions. How realistic do you think that is today? And is it something you can imagine in the lifetime of any of us here?
Carroll: Well, it depends of course on what we mean by reunion. I do take for granted the, as a Catholic, the mandate from the Second Vatican Council to work toward Christian unity as you say, but I am an American. And one of the beauties of the American experience is the way it has influenced religious experience certainly in Roman Catholicism. “E pluribus unum” is the union we want, so we maintain our integrity as individuals, or individual groups or traditions within a larger understanding of our communion.
So it’s clear to me, and I’m sure to you, that the reformation ended, and the denominational visions that were expressed so often in violence, some of the worst violence in history, was among and between Christians. That’s over! And the question now is how we, all Christians, move toward a sense of communion while understanding that we each may come from traditions that need to have their own integrity protected. In the Roman Catholic Church this “e pluribus unum” principle has been observed wonderfully by the way in which religious orders, individual religious orders, embodying different, or dissenting, or sometimes even quasi-orthodox impulses, have been able to be part of the larger communion.
I would see, going forward, that there will be an American Christianity that is liberal and democratic; there might be an American Christianity that is less liberal, maybe even less democratic, but there will be ways in which we understand ourselves together. The Christian world in Asia, Latin America, Africa, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Anglican; vital, vital growth of the church in those regions, we understand all of that to be the church. That’s what we mean; certainly as a Catholic, that’s what the Second Vatican Council invites us to mean by “the church.” The heavy emphasis on denominational difference, I believe, is going to be frittering away, even as some traditions of each denomination are allowed to thrive within a larger sense of unity.
Question 2: There has been some heated discussion around the University Of Notre Dame’s graduation invitation to President Obama. Can you speak to what is going on there?
Carroll: Well, it’s a wonderful manifestation of the very phenomenon I’m discussing. The Catholic Church is a, to use a common metaphor, a big tent. And the Notre Dame controversy demonstrates that, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. The only thing I would observe is the sectarian, conservative Catholics are in what you might call an excommunicating mode. There is only one way to be a Catholic, that’s our way.
It’s interesting that, that isn’t the way you hear, even from the conservative hierarchy. So Notre Dame’s impulse to honor President Obama, which I regard as a tremendous thing—I’m a liberal Democrat, so it’s easy for me to say that—but it’s also clear that only a fringe of Roman Catholicism has registered this objection. And in a sense it makes the point that the Catholic Church has changed, and Notre Dame is a wonderful instance of that. And it will be a proud day for us Catholics when President Obama is honored there, which I think is two weeks from today.
Question 3: This question is, how do Catholic lay persons overcome the clericalization of their church, and take individual responsibility?
Carroll: Well the clerical culture of the Catholic Church is making it a little easier for lay people to do that, because it’s in a state of rapid collapse. Well I… it is kind of amusing at one level, but it’s a tragedy, it’s a deep tragedy, it’s a tragedy for the priests who’ve been, in my view, abandoned by their hierarchy.
Priests are under tremendous pressure in the Catholic tradition today. There are all too few of them. They are overworked. There are impossible demands made on them. But more than that, the way in which the hierarchy has refused to tend to the obvious inhuman shortcomings of the clerical culture that were so obviously made manifest in the priestly sex abuse scandal, is also tragic. That the bishops and the pope have refused to address the basic needs for the reform of the clerical culture is a true scandal that many, many, many Catholics are continued to be quite angry about. And we are not finished with that.
But I’ve spent a lot of time… I travel with… I’ve been in Catholic churches all over this country, universities, I’ve met with Voice of the Faithful, the Catholic reform group. Catholic lay people, many, many Catholic lay people have claimed this church for themselves. It’s also true that many, many, many Catholic lay people have said no to it and have simply stopped being Catholic, which is a new phenomenon. And that’s a signal also, which will also have reforming consequences. In short, the clerical structure of the church is in collapse. There are tragedies, human tragedies, unfolding as a result of that, but there is no question in my mind that this is the end of an era. And the new era is going to be unfolding right before our eyes.
Question 4: You’ve written about the 1962 October missile crisis as being a focus of different currents in your own life as you were preparing for the priesthood and your father’s role in that. Could you touch on that?
Carroll: Well, having referred to the significance of the October missile crisis with the Vatican Council… I will just quickly tell you a story to illustrate that significance. When the Council began, so it’s a space like this, only imagine it two and a half times bigger, and there are bleachers lining the whole length of the nave of St. Peter’s Basilica, full of bishops, all in mitres and in vestments, and the bureaucracy of the Vatican is controlling the proceedings of the council by making sure they’re conducted in Latin.
And the bishops, most of the bishops, are pretending to understand. And one who stopped pretending was Cardinal Cushing, who, in the very beginning of the Council, stood up and basically said, “I don’t know about the rest of you fellows, but I don’t understand a word.” And he offered to fund a simultaneous translation system. And the bishops took a vote and he was overwhelmingly voted down.
The missile crisis begins to unfold. The bureaucracy presents the bishops with the first declaration they’re supposed to make. They’re not going to discuss it, they’re not going to debate it, they don’t have to. The Curia has written it. It’s a declaration on the liturgy, no change; it’s a pious nosegay to the Blessed Virgin Mary, no change, no change in the language, no change in the rituals, nothing.
The bishops are presented with this, the world is terrified that it’s going to be brought to an end by nuclear war. By the time that crisis recedes, the bishops are different people, and the council is a different event, and they vote on the declaration on the liturgy presented by the Curia, and they overwhelmingly vote against it. And the vote to establish their own committee to write their own document, taking the power away from the Curia, and when Cardinal Taviani, the head of the Curia, the conservative who was trying to make sure nothing happened, went to the microphone and began to berate the Bishops as if they were boys, and unfortunately for him he broke one of his own procedures and spoke too long, and when the bishop in charge of the microphone pulled the plug on the microphone, the bishops broke into an ovation of applause.
Pope John XXIII, watching from his apartment on closed-circuit television, turned to the person next to him and said, “Now begins my council.”
The Cuban missile crisis, an act of history that required human beings to change, began right there to make it happen. The personal note for me, I honor the memory of my father. My father was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a fledgling new agency that President Kennedy had just established as a counterbalance to the CIA after his terrible experience at the Bay of Pigs, and he wasn’t going to depend on the CIA alone anymore.
And the DIA was to be a counterbalance, and my father’s triumph in the bureaucracy was that it was DIA and analysts who recognized the marks on the ground in Cuba as the beginning of Soviet missile sites. My mom and dad were on their way to General Taylor’s house at Fort Myer for a formal party. My dad was dressing when one of his people came from DIA to the house at Bolling, presented him with the photographs. My father and mother went to the party—wonderful Washington story, don’t you know—and my father took Secretary McNamara and General Taylor into a side room as they arrived, and as my mother later told me, she didn’t see my father again for two weeks. Taylor and McNamara and my father left the party, and McNamara showed the photographs to President Kennedy the next morning. I have a whole range of reasons for never getting over it.
Lloyd: One last question.
Question 5: This question asks in specific about the Episcopal Church, but we could also ask about other Christian traditions. Was a doctrine of the Jews as Christ killers or as Jesus killers something accepted for all the cross-traditions until mid/last century?
Carroll: Well, you know, in the Christian tradition, there has always been the teaching that Jesus died for all of our sins, that who killed Jesus? We all did by our sins. That’s always been a current in Christian teaching. And in some churches and traditions, that’s had more weight. And in certain times it’s had more weight, but it’s always been in competition with another tradition, which is “they” killed Jesus, scapegoating Jews. Which begins in the New Testament and that has affected the Christian imagination from the start.
And it’s so deep in us. We still are at the mercy of the binary structure of thought that defines us as the “good people” and them as the “bad people.” We have the New Testament. They have the Old Testament. We have the God of love and mercy. They have the God of judgment. This binary structure of the imagination is rooted in us.
So it isn’t as simple as being nice to Jews. We have to unpack a fundamental structure of our own imaginations, which is why the Second Vatican Council’s Nostra aetate is the beginning of something, but notice Nostra aetate is hardly known. It’s hardly known even in the Catholic world, so that when Mel Gibson’s film, The Passion of the Christ, is sweeping the Christian world, very few Christians are actually equipped to criticize it, and to understand what’s offensive about it.
We might get a little creeped out by the level of violence in it, but the fact that Jesus is never seen wearing a head covering, nor are any of his close friends, but all the people who hate him, or all the men who hate him, are wearing head coverings.
What’s Mel Gibson doing there? He is telling us that Jesus isn’t Jewish. Because Jewish males had their heads covered. It’s as manipulative a piece of filmmaking as the cowboy movies in our youth when the good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats. And yet we didn’t have the capacity to criticize it. So that The Passion of the Christ remains the single most successful act of Christian education in history, and every Holy Week now, forever, it will be brought back to us. We Christians, in other words, have a lot of work to do. It belongs to all of us to be astute, theologically literate, and scripturally critical. It’s an obligation we all have. How we read our text, whether we are Christians, Jews, or Muslims is now a matter of life and death. And we see it.
I see that we are coming to an end, Deryl, and I can’t come to the end without acknowledging my tremendous debt to you. Sam, I’m privileged to have known Dean Lloyd when he served in Boston as the pastor of Trinity Church. There is no National Cathedral in Boston but if there was one it would be Trinity Church. And at Trinity Church, Sam was an image of, well an image of hope and the church’s responsibility for all of us. And it’s a special delight to reunite with you here and be able to participate with you all in this wonderful place.
Lloyd: Please join me in thanking James Carroll for this wonderful time.