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Review of Practicing Catholic


Review: James Carroll. 2009. Practicing Catholic. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 396 pp.


Former Catholic priest James Carroll is a novelist, memoirist, Boston Globe columnist, and religious scholar whose work is always worth reading. His second latest book, Practicing Catholic, is one that he accurately describes as follows: “Though centered in one person’s experience, [it] is less a family memoir than a religious and cultural history, addressed to everyone concerned with questions of belief and disbelief” (p. 2). Speaking as an atheist philosopher who was raised Catholic, I think that readers from diverse religious and nonreligious backgrounds can profit greatly from this book of autobiographical, theological, and historical reflections on Catholicism.

Carroll sheds much light on many topics: the evolution of Catholic teachings on salvation for non-Catholics (especially Jews), freedom of religion, sexuality, and gender equality; the growing support for progressive Catholic attitudes on these matters under Pope John XXIII and during the Second Vatican Council; and the reactionary backsliding that has occurred under later popes, especially John Paul II and the current pope, Benedictus XVI. Carroll’s critical assessment (pp. 261-265, 280, 320) of Benedictus (both as Pope and as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, chief architect of the conservative Catholic reaction to Vatican II) is must reading for anyone concerned about contemporary Catholicism. For progressive atheists interested (as I am) in making common cause with Christians who share their ethical and political values, Carroll’s work is an invaluable resource.

Indeed, Practicing Catholic should be a delight for progressive Catholics themselves, who must continually struggle to move beyond the Church’s medieval views of sexuality and its sorry history of exclusivism, intolerance, intellectual authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, homophobia, child abuse, and protection of sexual predators. Not only does Carroll offer passionate criticism of these flaws, he articulates a vision of Catholicism designed to give progressive Catholics reasons for remaining in the Church despite its frequent betrayals of what is best in Christian religious and ethical ideals (see especially pp. 1-3, 258-259, 287, 306, 311-312, 320-322).

As a philosopher who specializes in both moral epistemology and the relationship between religion and morality, I am particularly interested in Carroll’s argument that theological doctrine quite properly depends on—and changes in accordance with—moral insight (pp. 77-78, 82, 118, 140, 265). Even Carroll’s scriptural reflections are worthwhile; I am intrigued, for example, by his discussion (pp. 17, 20-23, 26-27) of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22—troubling for so many believers and nonbelievers alike. Finally, the intertwining of Carroll’s own personal history (as a young Irish-American Catholic in the mid-20th century, a Paulist priest, a poet, and a liberal activist) with the history and doctrines he explores makes this book even more absorbing, and quite possibly unique. Those who wish to learn more about his interesting life would do well to read his powerful earlier memoir, An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us, which won the 1996 National Book Award.

After all of this praise it may seem almost churlish to raise serious criticisms of Carroll’s book! But Practicing Catholic is not without its flaws. In the remainder of this review I want to focus on two of them: what seem to me to be Carroll’s astonishingly superficial and even muddled treatment of the abortion issue and—more importantly—his inadequate efforts to defend the leap of faith that he describes so personally and vividly.

Carroll on Abortion

Carroll acknowledges that “abortion is not the black-and-white moral slam dunk the [Catholic] hierarchy said it was” (pp. 311-312, lamentable mixed metaphor in original). He also asserts that “the moral equation of a fertilized ovum with a fully realized person is biologically debatable,” and notes that the preeminent Catholic thinker St. Thomas Aquinas, “from whom so many theological absolutes derive, did not believe that human life began at conception” (p. 266). Yet Carroll insists that “abortion is nevertheless almost always wrong” (p. 312); and the only reason he offers is a vague appeal to “a humane affirmation of life” (p. 266). Clearly this is woefully inadequate, scarcely an argument at all. Moreover, in giving it Carroll ignores altogether an important, moderate-to-liberal option on abortion that Catholic liberals have defended for decades. Let me explain.

Among Catholic moral thinkers, the crucial issue concerning the morality of abortion has traditionally been the occurrence of “ensoulment” during fetal development. Carroll mistakenly attributes to Aquinas the view that this event takes place at birth (p. 266). But for Aquinas and other medieval theologians (supported indirectly by the 1312 Council of Vienna), the fetus receives a human soul, and thereby becomes a human person, only when it attains human shape or form—roughly, we now know, four months into pregnancy. This would mean that abortions during the first trimester (which constitute the overwhelming majority of abortions) cannot be proscribed by appeal to a fetal right to life. This is precisely the position on abortion defended by Joseph F. Donceel, S.J. (Jesuit priest) in “A Liberal Catholic’s View of Abortion” (The Problem of Abortion, 2nd edition, edited by Joel Feinberg [Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1984]) and at greater length by Daniel A. Dombrowski and Robert Deltete in A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion (Champaign-Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000). And it is arguably much more compatible with Carroll’s own Catholic liberalism and feminism than is his own pro-life position.

Carroll on Faith

To his credit, Carroll clearly takes nonbelief in God seriously and treats nonbelievers with respect (pp. 7, 314-316). But he seems ambivalent, even confused, about how best to respond to the doubts that they raise about the rationality of religious faith. One the one hand, he sometimes talks in apparently fideistic language: an open-minded, fallibilist form of religion legitimately goes beyond evidence (p. 7), and faith constitutes an “authentic way of knowing” that is on a par with critical thinking (p. 313) despite the fact that in sacramental traditions it “operates most powerfully at the prerational level of symbol and art” (p. 304, emphasis added). On the other hand, on occasion he is apparently tempted to claim a superior cognitive or evidential rationality for belief in God, as in the following passage: “God is the hypothesis we very much do need—not to explain physical events (other than creation itself) but to explain love, truth, beauty, gratitude” (p. 303; see pp. 316-317 on creation). I don’t find either position persuasive.

Carroll’s fideistic claim that evidence-transcendent faith can count as knowledge is actually inconsistent with his claim that God is unknowable (p. 315). But let’s put that aside. What I really want to know is how faith that willfully
goes beyond available evidence can be cognitively rational, and how it can constitute knowledge. I confess that I can find no clear, non-question-begging answers to these questions in Carroll’s relevant, interesting, but somewhat disjointed reflections on language, symbols, and meaning (pp. 306-310, 313-315)—though it is quite possible that I have missed something. Nor does his appeal to mystery seem to help, not even when conjoined to the dubious assertion that “[s]cience, too, is worship” (p. 316).

Carroll’s brief arguments for God’s existence based on creation, love, truth, beauty, and gratitude cry out for elaboration, but there is much reason to doubt that elaboration would make any of them persuasive. Physics gives us increasingly complex accounts of the creation of the universe, none of which (if Stephen Hawking, among other physicists, is to be trusted) requires a divine Creator. Psychology (evolutionary and otherwise) and ethology have a great deal to tell us about love. Standard philosophical accounts of the nature of truth do not say anything about God’s existence, and it is hard to see why they should. Even if beauty is objectively real (a controversial claim itself), it is not at all clear why it would not exist in a godless universe, nor why intelligent beings in such a universe would not recognize it. Finally, Carroll’s appeal to gratitude is intriguing but puzzling. Perhaps he means that the widespread feeling of gratitude or thankfulness for being alive and relatively fortunate makes no sense if there is no God; this is a topic worthy of discussion, and Robert C. Solomon, for one, takes the opposing view in Spirituality for the Skeptic: The Thoughtful Love of Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), pp. 103-106.

Carroll could easily have gone in an evidence-oriented direction when defending the rationality of belief in God. In Chapter 4 he speaks very personally of experiencing God in prayer (pp. 103-104) and comments, “I had made the leap of faith” (p. 103). Yet when he defends the rationality of faith later in the book, his own religious experience drops out of the picture. Perhaps he is mindful in those contexts that skeptics dismiss this experience—following Freud—as mere projection, and he is no longer willing to say “the hell with Freud” (p. 103). But Christian philosopher of religion John Hick, among others, provides a thoughtful answer to such skeptics: a person’s apparent experiences of God’s presence give that person good though defeasible evidence of God’s existence, though they fail to do so for those who lack such experiences (Arguments for the Existence of God [London: Macmillan, 1971] and other writings of Hick’s). In principle, even an atheist could accept this account of the reasonableness (though not of course the truth) of some instances of belief in God. In such cases the believer has evidence that the nonbeliever does not; and at least if she has carefully considered and ruled out debunking explanations of her experiences, then arguably she is justified in believing in God on the basis of those experiences.

Even if Carroll’s religious faith falls short of cognitive rationality because it is not well-grounded in evidence, it could still possess practical rationality insofar as it contributes importantly to his overall, long-term well-being or flourishing. It seems to me that, intentionally or not, he has made a powerful case that this is so. I take him seriously when he says, for example: “We maintain our loyalty to the Church because we cannot live without it. The Church gives us a language with which to speak of God, a Meaning that is God. The Church feeds us the Eucharist, keeps the story of Jesus alive in the preaching of the Word, marks our journey through life with the sacraments, and underwrites our participation in the community that transcends space and time” (p. 321). Moreover, Carroll’s faith clearly provides him with a sense of the cosmic meaningfulness of human life (p. 297 especially) and also helps him come to terms with his fears about final death (pp. 103, 297-302). These considerations seem to me support the practical rationality of that faith.

But what of the morality of Carroll’s faith? New Atheists like Richard Dawkins might have us mock such faith as a cowardly crutch. Carroll’s loyalty to the Church is certainly alien to my post-Catholic atheist sensibility, and I do not share his need for cosmic meaning and life beyond death. But I find nothing inherently contemptible about nondogmatic religious faith of this kind, especially when it includes a commitment to admirable values and avoids quietist otherworldliness. Indeed, anyone who knows much about Carroll’s personal odyssey, his passion for justice, and his outspoken opposition to the oppressive elements in Catholicism should be able to recognize that this is a man of courage and integrity.


I for one am glad—and grateful—that there are thoughtful, educated, and humane Catholics like Carroll who fight from within to bring about progressive theological and ethical change in the Church. And I readily grant his point that the Catholic tradition has sometimes been a force for good in the world, as when it is “centered on social justice, accommodation of immigrants, [and] the work of peace” (p. 3) and when it speaks on behalf of the poor (p. 321). Even as I write, brave Benedictine nuns (despite Vatican threats) are traveling the country by bus, speaking out against Republican budget plans to weaken the safety net further. I find that I identify more with progressive Christians than with New Atheists whose attitudes toward believers in God are so often as bigoted as the very kinds of reactionary religiosity that we all agree is pernicious.

Copyright ©2012 by Stephen Sullivan. The electronic version is copyright ©2012 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Stephen Sullivan. All rights reserved.

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