06/04/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

James Carroll: The Catholic Church Has To Be Rescued From Catholic Fundamentalism

James Carroll, writer and former Catholic priest, put the Church's recent scandals into context, offering an interpretation that is both critical and optimistic.

He began by arguing that the Church is now under the control of a particular kind of fundamentalism;

We're familiar with Protestant fundamentalism, but there's a Catholic fundamentalism. Only instead of treating the verses of the Bible literally, Catholic fundamentalism has a disproportionate regard for the statements of the Pope. And what we have here [in the abuse scandals] is a revelation of the limits . . . and even of the corruptions of Pope-centered Catholicism.

This emphasis on clerical power and the power of the papacy is not an old tradition, but a relatively new innovation:

You have to go back to the nineteenth century when this obsession with Papal power began to take hold in the Catholic Church. It was when the Pope lost his temporal power over the Papal States in the middle of Italy in 1870, that the bishops rallied around the Pope and gave him ultimate spiritual power. It was only then, for example, in that Council, Vatican I, [that] the infallibility of the Pope was declared to be a doctrine of the Church. Many Catholics think that's an ancient tradition. It is not. It's a modern tradition. . . . That system was a corruption of the Christian tradition.

Carroll notes that Vatican II had been a conscious move back to the older tradition:

Vatican II . . . was a step toward the democratizing of the Church. A collegiality among bishops, with the Pope understood to be the first among equals, but emphasize equals. [It was] an affirmation of the tradition of the priesthood of all believers, to put the power of the Church back where it belongs among laity, priests, and nuns, sharing with bishops in the leadership of the church.

Now the Church is led by people who have worked vigorously against Vatican II, including the Pope himself:

Cardinal Ratzinger was the chief of the people trying to roll back the changes of Vatican II. You could call him the Catholic "fundamentalist in chief," and now he's the Pope.

The emphasis on the power of bishops directly relates to the Church's current scandals:

What this all boils down to is that whenever a bishop was confronted with the choice between defending an abused child or protecting the abusive priest, the bishops inevitably chose to protect the priest--not because they approved his behavior or were indifferent to it, but because that was the way to protect this system of power.

Carroll sees that power structure cracking, even as the former Soviet Union cracked. For example, nuns broke with bishops during the debate over health care.

The nuns broke ranks with the bishops, but the nuns were acting as if the reforms of Vatican II were real. And that's what has to happen more now. Priests and lay people have to break ranks with this corrupt clerical system, also. . . . The Catholic Church has to be rescued from Catholic Fundamentalism.

Carroll disagrees with the claims that the clerical scandals will destroy the Church:

It's not the Catholic Church that's being destroyed here. It's the Catholic fundamentalist clerical culture, which has betrayed the Church in a very basic way. It's being exposed for what it is.

Cardinal Ratzinger can rebuke the predatory priests with great fury . . . but he cannot chastise the enabler bishops, because he is one of them.

The problem cannot be solved merely with the Pope stepping down:

Any bishop who would be a candidate to replace him as Pope would be equally involved with this broad tradition of clerical power protecting itself at the expense of the Catholic people, especially their children. What we need is a profound structural reformation.

A fundamental structure change is necessary:

The Church needs to change. It needs to be more democratic. It needs to be more respectful of lay people. Above all, it needs to be more respectful of women. . . . [These changes] frankly are already underway . . . It's the bishops who are lagging behind.

The church has a tradition of being responsive . . .. I predict there will be another general council of the Church. I predict it will include not just bishops, but priests and lay people. And it will address the basic structural questions that it began to take up with Vatican II--democracy; accountability; checks and balances; a power that is accountable to the people. The Catholic Church is not going to survive as the only human institution on the Earth immune from the revolutions of democracy and feminism [and] the cry for social justice within the Church. It's simply unstoppable.

Listen to the full interview to hear Carroll's full interpretation, a call for a "Catholic Mikhail Gorbachev," and his optimism for a renewed Church.

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