NPR’s Michel Martin speaks with writer James Carroll, a former Catholic priest, about his piece in The Atlantic, titled “Abolish the Priesthood.”
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I’m Michel Martin.
We’re turning now to a sensitive and painful subject for Catholics around the world – abusive conduct by clergy, priests who have been credibly accused of everything from fathering children out of wedlock to keeping nuns, not to mention children, as virtual sex slaves and using their stature and authority to cover it up. Millions of faithful believers, up to and including the pope himself, have struggled with how to address this.
Now a former priest-turned-newspaper columnist has proposed a radical solution – abolishing the priesthood. James Carroll makes this provocative argument in a new article for The Atlantic that posted this week, and it’s called “Abolish The Priesthood.” Carroll has been reflecting on and writing about the issue of clergy abuse for years, especially since leaving the priesthood in 1974. But it was only a few months ago, he says, that he stopped going to Mass. I asked Carroll if there was any particular moment that spurred that decision.
JAMES CARROLL: I came to a breaking point only last summer, and it was because of Pope Francis. Pope Francis went to Ireland, which is the ground zero of this terrible collapse of Catholic morality. And the thing that actually snapped in me was when Francis denied having heard about the so-called Magdalene laundries – those institutions run by religious women in Ireland for unwed women who are giving birth to children. And Francis claims never to have heard of it, which struck me, at first, as dishonest and then, secondly, giving him the benefit of the doubt, as ignorant to the point of grotesque denial. And that’s when I snapped. I thought, if Francis – if Pope Francis is at the grip of this clerical myopia, then there’s really no hope for this institution. It really is broken.
MARTIN: You write extensively about this. You said that clericalism, with its cult of secrecy, its theological misogyny, its sexual repressiveness and its hierarchical power based on threats of a doom-laden afterlife, is at the root of Roman Catholic dysfunction. And I think for people who aren’t aware of these terms, like, how do you – what is clericalism in your view?
CARROLL: Well, clericalism is the culture of the priesthood. The church claims that priests are beings of a different order. Ordination imposes on priests what the tradition calls an ontological change, setting priests above and beyond normal human life. That’s clericalism. And when one member of that culture is found to be grievously abusive, the culture instinctively circles the wagons around him – may not approve of him but will not publicly punish him because there’s the threat that this pyramid of power will be undone. So clericalism is the issue.
MARTIN: You know, to that point, though, I mean, you have to know that by now that there have been some, you know, scathing responses to your piece. One that comes to mind is by James Martin, who’s a Jesuit priest. He’s the editor-at-large at “America,” the Jesuit review. And he posted a piece saying that you’re conflating the priesthood with clericalism, that you’re engaging in stereotyping. And he also makes the point that it’s a minority of priests who have been found to engage in this conduct. So if the problem is as systemic as you say, then why wouldn’t it be more? I mean, as – obviously, nobody’s denying the egregiousness of the conduct. But his argument is that if clericalism is the issue, why abolish the priesthood? Is it your view that the priesthood is indistinguishable from clericalism at this point?
CARROLL: I actually revere the work of James Martin. I respect him tremendously. I’ve learned from him. I’m not surprised we disagree. But what he accuses me of conflating – the priesthood with clericalism – I’d simply invite him to explain to us why the priesthood based on the requirement of mandatory celibacy for everyone – every member of the priesthood – and the forbidding of women to become priests, why those two notes are themselves not corrupting of the priesthood itself? That’s the argument I’m making.
MARTIN: If the priesthood is abolished, what replaces it?
CARROLL: The ways in which we go forward are not altogether clear. But I’m encouraging people who are appalled by the failures of the church leadership not to leave the church but not necessarily to continue with the rituals and traditions over which ordained clergy preside. To walk away from the Catholic Church is to leave its worst impulses unchallenged and its best impulses unsupported. There are more than 100,000 schools and colleges run by the Catholic Church. There are more than 40- or 50,000 health centers run by the Catholic Church. The people who do that work around the globe are Catholics. Almost none of them are priests and bishops.
MARTIN: Finally, before I let you go today, you’ve said so for years you refuse to cede your faith to the corruptions of the institutional church, but now you’ve stopped going to Mass. May I ask you, what did you do today to connect with the divine when you would normally have been in church?
CARROLL: I’m in exile. I’m a man on the margin. I did not go to Mass. I did what many people do to be in touch with the holy. I walked along the harbor. I was quietly at prayer. I may not live to see what I’m calling for take place. I’ll tell you this. A hundred years from now, there will be a Catholic church. And I tell you something else – it won’t look at all like the church we live in now.
MARTIN: That’s James Carroll. He’s a former Catholic priest. His piece “Abolish The Priesthood” is in the June 2019 issue of the Atlantic.
Mr. Carroll, thanks so much for talking to us.
CARROLL: My privilege. Thank you.
Heard on All Things Considered