Monday, July 16, 2007

Remember how Morgoth made the orcs?

That's what you have to do to Catholicism to get James Carroll's version of the Faith. Yeah, I know--Carroll again. There are times when I think I could name this blog "James Carroll Watch," and I'd have material to last his lifetime.

Our Man in Boston is hacking away again this week, shiny pate all aflush over the lifting of the limits on the Mass of Bl. John XXIII and the CDF document on the nature of the Church.

A question to frame the discussion: Do you think Carroll read either of the documents he's railing against this week? If so, provide examples from the text of the column to support your argument.

WHEN THE likes of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, or Christopher Hitchens, citing insights of science or the rise of sectarian violence, denounce the very idea of God, fundamentalists strike back by attacking pillars on which such modern criticism stands.

"Fundamentalist" is one of the great thought substitute terms of our time. It also lets the user preen like the Pharisee in Luke 18. Replace "tax collector" with "fundamentalist," and you'll see that a passel of Catholics have a lot of repenting to do. Not just fringe leftists like Carroll--orthodox Catholics who jab at Protestant Christians, too.

I freely admit I'm not a fundamentalist. I'll never have the biblical erudition of F.F. Bruce, the inspired pen of Dorothy Sayers, the prophetic call of Francis Schaeffer, nor the self-sacrificial courage of Jim Elliott.

More's the pity.

In this mode, Pope Benedict XVI last week issued two unexpected decrees, restoring the atavistic Mass of the Council of Trent and resuscitating an outmoded Catholic exclusivism -- the notion of a pope-centered Catholicism as the only authentic way to God.

Oh, boy. The Globe's entitled to a refund, if only for the fact that he considered the Motu Proprio to be "unexpected." Only someone who is completely detached from the life of the Church would be startled by Summorum Pontificum. Everybody else has heard rumblings of this thing for the better part of a year. Do keep up.

Then again, he spends so much time amongst the Piskies (being in far more demand there than by the Catholics he still calls his co-religionists), perhaps he can be forgiven his Gilligan's Islandish culture shock.

Pseud Television's Word of the Day is "atavistic." Which sense does he mean: the reappearance of something lost, or uncivilized and impulsive?

Who cares? Being Carroll's editor is the very definition of a "light duty" job.

In these reactionary initiatives, Pope Benedict inadvertently shows that he shares a basic conviction with Dawkins et al. -- that religion is a primitive impulse, unable to withstand the challenge of contemporary thought.

Carroll never argues--he simply asserts, and it is so. "Reactionary"? "Primitive"? You can also see the stretch marks in this one--after all, the connection between the New Atheism and matters of liturgy/ecclesiology is less than obvious. In fact, Ley lines are easier to find.

But if you're suffering from Benedict Derangement Syndrome, I imagine that it all becomes obvious. The same way the panhandler at the street corner can connect the Bilderbergers to his chronic incontinence.

Exactly the same way.

Note also the diagnosis by DSL: a popular Carroll pastime. The formulation is artful, too, putting Dawkins & Co. at one pole, and the Pope at another, allowing Carroll to be the silky-sweet exemplar of moderation in the middle. A lot like lukewarm water, if you think about it.

But, as we shall see, Carroll's repulsion from the Pope forces him to gravitate toward Atheism Without Volume Control, ending up in the unenviable role of cabana boy to the god-free, a lightweight lackey for the self-described Brights.

Carroll's attempted indictment of Benedict XVI for being closed to contemporary thought is remarkably laughable, coming from one of secularism's lickspittles. It's also contradicted by the Pope's corpus, which puts Carroll's to shame. Start with this one, which shows a man willing to engage a tough-minded thinker on the other side in a true dialogue. Unlike--for the most part--Dawkins, Harris and especially Carroll, who never progresses beyond scribbling "Benedict is a fundy poopy head" with his Crayolas.

Then again, the Globe's checks keep cashing, so whatever works.

Yet, instead of feeling intimidated by secular or "scientific" criticisms of religion, a believer can insist that faith in God is a fulfillment of all that fully modern people affirm when they assent to science -- or object to violence. At the same time, a believer can advance the Dawkins-Harris-Hitchens critique to say that most articulations of traditional religion of all stripes fall far short of doing "God" justice.

The laugh out loud part of the column. All the more so because Carroll thinks he's staked out some brilliant middle ground. What he's done is give away the store to the Axis of Dawkins. According to Carroll, in the face of criticism by the secular anti-religious, the "thinking" believer's duty is to wholeheartedly agree and even take their argument further.


By the way, let's just make it clear who Carroll is agreeing with, using Sam Harris as an example. Harris is on record describing Islam--all of it--as "turning into a cult of death" and has forthrightly said that torture under certain circumstances should be official policy.

Remember Carroll getting his undies in a bunch about the Regensburg speech because it was mean to Muslims? That was awesome!

But Harris gets a free pass because...?

That's easy. Harris sometimes beats up the Church, so he's a useful tool, his other opinions notwithstanding. Any offense he gives to Muslims must be sacrificed to Carroll's grail: The Church is always and everywhere wrong. When it comes down to it, people matter to Carroll only to the extent they can advance his quest for the grail. See also, Jews, Post-1945.

The God whom atheists aggressively deny (the all-powerful, all-knowing, unmoved Mover; the God of damnation, supernatural intervention, salvation-through-appeasement, patriarchy, puritanism, war, etc.) is indeed the God enshrined in propositions of the Council of Trent, and in its liturgy.

What a happy coincidence: Carroll hates that God, too. Because that's the God the Catholic Church preaches, naturally. Except for that part about being the God of damnation, salvation through appeasement, patriarchy, puritanism and war. 3 out of 9 ain't bad in Boston.

If you're Manny Ramirez.

If you're writing about your own (however tenuous) Church, you deserve to be benched.

But this God is also one whom more and more believers, including Catholics, simply do not recognize as the God we worship.

This is about as clear as Carroll has ever stated it: I worship an unpowerful, unknowing, non-intervening PC weiner demi-deity who sounds a lot like an NPR ("patriarchy," "puritanism") guest commenter.

Well, sign me up.

No, on second thought, please don't. If I had to worship a non-omnipotent deity, I'd pick someone out of the Norse pantheon. Better parties, I could do some sailing, and we could use The Immigrant Song in the liturgy.

That, and I could run around in Viking horns with a double bladed axe, drinking Norwegian beer and taunting the Carrollites until they cry. "Thor pisses on your effeminate quasi-deity and him/her/its lily-livered adherents! Now hand over your merlot or we'll start mocking your only children!"

Plus, my beserker impersonation would be killer.

"My love for you a rolling truck/


You know what they say: Girls think sexy.

Such people regard the fact that God is unknowable as the most important thing to know about God. Traditional propositions of the creed, therefore, must be affirmed neither rigidly nor as if they are meaningless, but with thoughtful modesty about all religious language, allowing for doubt, as well as respect for different creeds -- and for no creed.

You'd have to have a heart of solid granite not to laugh out loud at this nonsense.

Carrollism apparently involves a lot of halo-burnishing and blowing kisses at the mirror. Serious, honest to God engagement with something akin to thought--not so much. If you're disposing of an almighty God who speaks through prophets, to take but two propositions of the Nicene Creed, it seems to me that you are treating the whole thing as meaningless.

I'd love to get paid the big bucks by the Globe to free-associate about Catholicism.

What makes it even funnier is that Carroll acts like he and his fellow quasi-theists act like they are the first "believers" ever to engage questions of science, belief, and the objections of honest atheists.

Um--no. Try Gaudium et Spes ("Joy and Hope", for the Latin-impaired), paragraphs 19-21, which rightfully takes Christians to the woodshed for their poor witness, among other admissions. Try the same document, paragraphs 5, 15, 33, 36, 44, 56 (to name but six) for a wrestling with the impact of science on the Church and culture.

I guess Carroll's definitively shelved that Vatican II thing.

This is not an entirely new way of being religious. One sees hints of it in the wisdom of many thinkers, from Augustine in ancient times to Nicholas of Cusa in the Renaissance to Kierkegaard in the modern era.

The only way you're going to find "hints" of Carroll's thought in these three men is if you spend two hours huffing on the tailpipe of '65 Corvette before cracking the books and using a lot of ellipses.

But, in fact, the contemporary religious imagination has been transformed by understanding born of science. Once a believer has learned to think historically and critically, it is impossible any longer to think mythically.

The first sentence is "doy", more or less. Serious believers have to take science into account. See GeS above. But Carroll shows the downside of what happens when you open a shrine to it.

Pope Benedict, in last week's denigration of Christian traditions that lack the unbroken "apostolic succession" of Catholicism, for example, was seeking to protect the "deposit of faith," those core beliefs that were established by the Apostles themselves. But such literalist reading of apostolic succession goes out the window when one learns that none of the actual Apostles thought that they themselves were establishing a "church" in our sense, independent of Judaism.

Careful of the whiplash on this one. Carroll goes from genuflecting before the idols of science to biblical exegesis. Wha--?

Also, and far more important: Carroll has just slyly leaked the greatest secret in the history of mankind:


How else could Carroll have learned that "none of the Apostles thought that they themselves were establishing a "church" in our sense, independent of Judaism" save by going back in time to interview them himself?

"Uh, Simon?"

"Yes, Mark?"

"The annoying guy's back again, with another question."

"You mean that weirdo from last week who left with some gnostic babble about 'unacceptably high Christology' and 'atonement nonsense'"?

"That's the one."

"I'd rather be crucified upside down than talk to him again."

"He says it's 'just one question.'"

"'Two questions' about the Master took five hours last time and he still left all ticked off! And I've never seen anyone so upset about the whole 'this rock' incident in my life. Send him to Matthais--this crap is something the rookie should handle."

"Matthais saw him and ran off saying 'Gotta go heal somebody.' Verbatim."

"Clever. [Mutters] I knew I should have voted for Barsabbas."

"Maybe I could just relay your answer and say you're 'not available' for further discussion."

"Hmm. Sounds good. Been meaning to get to Antioch anyway. I'll start packing now. Fine--anything to get rid of him quicker."

"'Did you really intend to form a community independent of Judaism?'"

"[Long, bleak-staring pause.] Do you think 'no' will get him out of our hair for good?"

Similarly, the New Testament is "inspired," but what does that mean for appeals to "apostolic" authority when one learns that its 27 books were not "canonized" until three centuries after Jesus?

For a self-professed devotee of reason, his logic could use some work. What does the final gathering of the books have to do with their value as inspired authorities?

Once we realize that doctrines of orthodoxy evolved over time, we stop treating them as timeless.

Only if you regard orthodoxy as culturally conditioned play-dough to be shaped as the whims of the time dictate. Other than that, spot on.

Indeed, once we understand ourselves as belonging to one religious tradition among many, we lose the innocent ability to regard it as absolute.

[Pause for medical attention necessitated by derisive snort.]

Ah, good--the septum's back in place.

What? What kind of 'reasoning' gets you to "if there's more than one, none of them can be right"?

Once our internal geography recognizes that, however much we are a center, we are not the only one, we have no choice but to affirm the positions of others not as "marginal to our centers," in a phrase of theologian David Tracy, "but as centers of their own."

I've warned you before about Carroll and his diuretic name-dropping. Perhaps Tracy is as fuzzy-headed as Carroll, but methinks there's an acre or two of context missing. Perhaps not, but be on notice. I have a sneaking suspicion that Carroll jots down names at seminars, keeps the programs and some notes and that's the extent of his familiarity with their thought.

To the extent there's a thought here, it appears to be that an incurious, shrugging relativism is the order of the day. Tolerance for all--save "Christian fundamentalists" very broadly defined. They're just totally backwards, where not utterly evil.

Faced with such difficult recognitions, religious people can retreat into fundamentalism or throw out religious faith altogether. Or we can quite deliberately embrace what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur

Like I said--diuretic. You're scraping names off your wingtips all day with this guy.

called a "second naivete."

Give him credit for a first: the "false trichotomy."

This implies a movement through criticism to a renewed appetite for the sacred tradition out of which we come, even while implying that we are alive to its meaning in a radically different way.

In other words, a big, big game of "Let's Pretend." Like when kids put on their parents clothes and say they're grownups.

Pope Benedict is attempting to restore, by fiat, the first naivete of "one true church." In an age of global pluralism, this is simply not tenable.

Mmm-kay, Mr. Mackie. Would be nice if you somehow got around to defining what the hell the "first naivete" is. I would accuse Carroll of hiding the fact the Church said the same thing about himself at what his generation regards as The Only Valid Ecumenical Council In History, but it's become pretty obvious in my read of him that he has no grasp whatsoever on what was discussed at Vatican II, so I'm inclined to give him a pass.

The Council of Trent, whose Mass and theology (including its anti-Judaism)

Besides the falsity, note that Carroll is once again only talking about pre-1945 Jews. When he develops a comparable concern for, say, the Netanya Passover Massacre, that he does for the liberalizing of the Mass of Bl. John XXIII, drop me a line.

Benedict wants to re establish,

Carroll spake, and it was so.

was summoned about the time Copernicus published his "On the Revolutions of Heavenly Bodies" -- the beginning of the scientific age. The Roman Catholic Church made a terrible mistake in rejecting Copernicus,

When did the Church reject Copernicus?

one from which it has only lately been recovering. Pope Benedict is repeating that mistake, as Dawkins and company think religious people are bound to do. But believers need not follow. Indeed, many of us, including Catholics, have moved on from such thinking, if you can call it thinking.

Carroll never lets you forget he's a card-carrying "thinking Catholic," ever grateful to his underpotent god for making him better than the other kinds of Catholics.

As a wise man once said: he has his reward.

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