In August of 2018, Pope Francis visited Ireland, a country more devastated than most by the pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. During his two-day visit, the pope never mentioned the scandal. His silence marked a breaking point for James Carroll, who lays bare in his new book both the church’s devastating failings and his own resilient hope.
In The Truth at the Heart of a Lie, Carroll interweaves his own story with the history of the church’s pedophilia scandal. He has used this technique before, notably in Constantine’s Sword. In that earlier book, I found Carroll’s story intrusive, but in this book, it works well and is enlightening. It demonstrates both his honesty and the depth of his struggle.
Carroll is a life-long Catholic. Born into an Irish-American family, his father was an Air Force General in intelligence. Carroll grew up an army brat, often living the privileged life of Americans isolated on military bases, as in Wiesbaden, Germany. When his father was stationed at the Pentagon, Carroll attended the exclusive St. Anslem’s Priory school.
True to his Irish roots, Carroll was haunted by brooding and dread from an early age. He also felt from an early age the “special presence” of Jesus at his side. He describes him as his Imaginary Friend.
By far the most important event in Carroll’s religious life was the Second Vatican Council, which happened as he was studying for ordination as a Paulist priest. Vatican II shaped the rest of his life. Carroll was and remains fully committed to the reforms and promises of that Council.
After five years as a priest, he left the priesthood and “was reduced” to the lay state. “Reduced,” the technical ecclesiastical term for this process, encapsulates the point of view Carroll thinks lies at the heart of the problem: hyper-clericalism. “Clericalism” is his term; “hyper” is my modifier.
Augustine of Hippo
At the root of the pedophilia scandal/failure for Carroll is Augustine’s exegesis of the Adam and Eve story in Genesis. Augustine (354–430) interpreted this story as a sin of sexuality which put the blame on Eve as the seducer. Augustine’s interpretation makes the “fall” the original sin which was passed on to all humanity. But there were other outcomes of this interpretation: virginity and celibacy were overvalued, while marriage was undervalued; and then there is the matter of misogyny.
This is a heavy charge to lay at the feet of Eve and bad exegesis. Many supporters of Augustine would demur, and to be fair, Carroll does spread the blame to Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109). But, in my judgment as an exegete, Carroll makes a compelling case (for a modern scholar’s interpretation of Eve’s story, see Phyllis Trible’s nuanced article, “Eve,” in The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible). Carroll’s case against Augustine could be strengthened by noting the influence of Neoplatonism on Augustine’s exegesis but Carroll’s main argument holds.
In Carroll’s understanding, Augustine’s exegesis and especially its adoption by the western church, led to a nexus of problems associated with sex: celibacy and virginity vs. married life, misogyny, male only priesthood, birth control and the rejection of homosexuality. As Gary Wills has maintained, “Catholic priests are charged with maintaining The Big Crazy on sex all the time.”
Celibacy became a sign of the ontological change effected in a priest by ordination. The priest, the argument goes, is ontologically different; that is, different in his being, from all other humans. This specialness creates the set-apartness of the priesthood and the hyper-clericalism that protects the priest pedophile.
Vatican II and Its Betrayal
Carroll sees a direct line from Augustine onward. But there was a chance to change directions. At Vatican II, the bishops and the Pope had a chance to reconsider this thorny knot of interwoven problems. John XXIII had appointed a commission to consider birth control and the bishops at the Council were also set to consider the issue. John XXIII’s commission reported back in favor of change in the church’s teaching on birth control. But the newly elected Paul VI reserved the question for himself. Cardinal Leon-Joseph Suenens of Belgium on the floor the Council meeting, asked Paul VI to reconsider, saying, “[L]et us avoid a new ‘Galileo affair.’ One is enough for the Church.” But to no avail. Later Paul VI also reserved for himself the consideration on priestly celibacy. The Council never got a chance to change direction.
For Carroll, when Paul VI intervened in the Council was the moment the openness of John XXIII and the promise of the Second Vatican Council were betrayed. Subsequent Popes only deepened that betrayal.
Paul VI appointed his own commission to study birth control. Even though the commission was stacked in favor of the traditional teaching, the commission divided, with a majority in favor of a change in the church’s teaching. Paul VI overruled his own commission and issued Humanae Vitae (1968), reaffirming the so-called traditional teaching.
Hans Küng, the Swiss theologian and Council peritus (expert advisor), responded with his book, Infallibility. He argued that even though while Humanae Vitae did not meet the technical definition of infallibility, it did meet the Curia’s informal definition. My theologian colleagues at the time assured me that Küng was wrong and no claim for the infallibility of Humanae Vitae was being made. But subsequent events have proven Küng right. Following the Curia’s informal definition of infallibility as the constant teaching of the church and the popes, Benedict XVI declared the teaching against the ordination of females as determined (i.e., constant) and infallible.
An Aside: The Vatican bases its argument against the ordination of women on the claim that Jesus chose only males as apostles. This argument is riddled with mistakes. The evidence that Jesus chose any apostles at all is problematic at best. Apostles are most likely a post-resurrection group. Also, Paul knows female apostles (Rom 16:7). There is no association in the first centuries between apostle and priest. In fact, priests are remarkably absent. Furthermore, if one grants for the sake of argument that Jesus did choose apostles (which I would not grant), why assume that maleness is the crucial characteristic? Why would it not more likely be Jewish or Galilean? Once again, bad exegesis triumphs.
Parallels and Discontinuities
There are certain parallels between Carroll and my own story. We were both born and raised in traditional Catholic families, but his was Irish and mine was Kentucky English—two very different versions of Catholicism. I never had any strong sense of the presence of God or Jesus, much less of Jesus as my Imaginary Friend. But one important common thread between us was the influence of Vatican II.
Like Carroll, I bought into the reforms and promise of Vatican II hook, line, and sinker. And the Council has been the most important religious factor shaping my life. I went to graduate school to study the New Testament as a direct response to the Vatican Council. I was the first Catholic accepted into Vanderbilt’s PhD program in religious studies. I, too, feel and have felt a deep sense of personal betrayal as subsequent Popes have rolled back the Council reforms and stymied its promises. I still consider myself Catholic, but it has been a very long time since I thought of myself as Roman. But that is my story, not Carroll’s.
I find it surprising that Carroll, author of Constantine’s Sword, only in the final chapters of his book gets around to seeing that imperialism is at the heart of the nexus of issues he identifies. Clericalism is Catholicism’s version of imperialism, which distorts all modern Christianity. Ultimately, the Council’s promised “updating” was only a facile way of understanding the problem facing the council fathers. They needed to shift the church from being Roman, i.e., imperialistic, to being fully democratic. So far that has proved too heavy a lift, and not just for Catholicism.
Carroll has not given up on his beloved church. His response to Pope Francis’s failure in Ireland invokes a traditional Catholic practice: Carroll “fasts and abstains” from the sacraments, communion, and community. I understand his pain and longing and never felt it more acutely than at my son’s funeral. (see my blog post, “Burying my son.”).
But Carroll still holds hope for the Second Vatican Council. That Council’s decree on Judaism (Nostra Aetate) overturned and reformed the Church’s long-held tradition on Judaism. In Carroll’s estimation, that was a greater doctrinal reform than any other reform contemplated concerning priesthood, women, or sexual practice. The success of the reform of church teaching on Judaism points to the possibility of other reforms Carroll deems necessary and which entail a lower doctrinal hurdle.
Carroll is right about the doctrinal significance of the Vatican II decree, but I’m not sure that his hoped-for change has a chance. The Holocaust had made the church’s traditional teaching untenable and politically unacceptable. The clergy and hierarchy had to pay no real price for Nostra Aetate and the hierarchy had much to gain in political capital. Interestingly, although it had been the universal teaching of the popes, infallibility did not stand its way. But to change the celibacy requirement, the male only priesthood, and the Church’s stance on women would, from the hierarchy’s point of view, be a huge loss with no gain. Carroll thinks that the pedophilia scandal, while not comparable to the Holocaust, will have the same effect: it makes the church’s position on a male only priesthood untenable. But to date the Vatican and the bishops are not prepared to draw that conclusion. They seem to be focusing on managing, not correcting, the pedophilia problem. The canonization of Paul VI and John Paul II points away from resolution and toward a circling of the wagons.
Carroll sees the Catholic church as vital in the grand scheme of things. I suspect this is a remnant of the church-triumphant attitude he disdains. Religion and Catholicism are on the decline in the west. In the US, Catholicism dropped from 24% of the population in 2007 to 21% in 2014, the largest drop of any denomination. 13% of all US adults identify as ex-Catholics (see Masci and Smith). The rising number of ex-Catholics is approaching the declining number of avowed Catholics. Catholicism is shrinking. Where, then, would any push to change originate? I’m skeptical of any coming change.
There are still many questions to be asked about pedophilia and priesthood. How far back does the pedophilia scandal go? How deep is it buried in the church’s history? Is it distinctly modern or does it go further back? Laws against child labor only became nationwide in the 1930s and regulation against child abuse is more recent still. Concern about abuse of children is very recent. Pedophilia in the church may have darker and deeper history than we suspect (See Aries classic, Centuries of Childhood).
Who is Carrroll’s book for? Certainly, Catholics of whatever stripe: still practicing Catholics, ex-Catholics and recovering Catholics. All those will find Carroll a passionate and committed conversation partner.
Will Protestants find this book helpful? Maybe, but intra-Catholic debates and conversations dominate the book. Insofar as the Roman Church is a microcosm of Christianity at large, the book is useful. Protestants and others will gain deeper insight into why the ecumenical movement failed and who is to blame.
The influence of Augustine and Anselm pervade all forms of Christianity. The issue of Christianity’s imperial past is a deep and abiding issue for all of Christianity, an issue with which we have barely begun to struggle. Imperialism underlies the claims of all the Abrahamic religions. Carroll is concerned with his own Catholic community, but the issues he raises effect the future of all religions.
Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. New York: Vintage, 1965.
Carroll, James. Constantine’s Sword: The Church and the Jews: A History. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.
The Truth at the Heart of the Lie: How the Catholic Church Lost Its Soul. New York: Random House2021.
Darbeth Distinguished Professor Emeritus of New Testament at the Phillips Theological Seminary, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Bernard Brandon Scott is the author and editor of many books, including The Real Paul: Recovering His Radical Challenge and The Trouble with Resurrection. A charter member of the Jesus Seminar, he is chair of Westar’s newly established Christianity Seminar. He served as chair of the Bible in Ancient and Modern Media Section of the Society of Biblical Literature, as well as a member of several SBL Seminars including the Parable Seminar and Historical Jesus Seminar. He holds an A.B. from St. Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology, an M.A. from Miami University, and a Ph.D. from Vanderbilt University.
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