An Ex-Priest Calls for Vatican Reforms to Stem a Church Revolt

updated 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/15/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

For more than 50 million Catholics in America, the Church has long been both a moral compass and a spiritual anchorage. Increasingly, however, liberal Catholics are challenging the Vatican's position on many issues: its refusal to ordain women, the questions of birth control, abortion, homosexuality, clerical celibacy, the use of condoms in AIDS prevention. While acknowledging these rifts, Church hierarchy has held firm in its long-held doctrines, and this spring U.S. bishops hired a public relations firm to promote their antiabortion campaign.

Among those arguing that it's time for the Church to reassess its positions is novelist James Carroll, 47. A former Paulist priest, Carroll typifies many modern faithful who find themselves torn between devotion to their religion's spiritual foundations and disaffection with its doctrines. He became an activist antiwar protester in the '60s while a chaplain at Boston University and quit the priesthood in 1974 to become a full-time novelist. He has since written seven books, including the best-selling political novel Mortal Friends. This fall he became a writer-in-residence at Boston's Emerson College. Married since 1977 to author Alexandra Marshall, Carroll lives with his wife and two children, Elizabeth, 10, and Patrick, 8, in a brick town house on Beacon Hill. It was there that he spoke to then Boston bureau chief Dirk Mathison about the mounting friction between the Church and its followers and within the Catholic hierarchy itself.

How strong is the progressive movement within the Church today?

I think there's an amazingly vital element within the Church, not just within this country but through Europe and Latin America. There are millions of Catholics who are not waiting for a reformist Pope, but who are asserting their commitment to the Church and their demand for reform. On Ash Wednesday an ad calling for reform in the Church ran in the New York Times. It was signed by more than 4,500 people. The same group, Call to Action, is still gathering signatures and is aiming for 100,000. I'll be surprised if they don't make it.

What lies at the heart of the turmoil within the Church?

The conflict is between those who think change is promising and hopeful and others who view it as corrupting and decadent. For example, the entire structure of international politics has shifted in recent months. Sadly, among those holding out against more democracy in their own institution is the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.

What role does celibacy play for young men considering the priesthood?

Celibacy once had great power as a symbol of the priest's devotion to his people. Now, unfortunately, it smacks more of patriarchy and suspicion of women, and that has to drive away exactly the kind of young men we want as priests. But celibacy is not the main liberal complaint. Authoritarianism is.

Why is the Church hierarchy afraid of change?

Two reasons. The first is that most bishops and Pope John Paul II are trying to preserve their own power at the expense of the Church, and I believe that's corrupt. The second reason is that they are prisoners of an outmoded and false theology. When these men proclaim that women shouldn't be ordained as priests because none of the 12 apostles were women. I have no doubt they are sincere. It's the most ridiculous notion many of us have ever heard, of course, but it is consistent with their theology.

Is it possible for the Pope to reverse teachings handed down for generations?

Let me give you an example of just that. When the Black Plague swept Europe. Pope Clement VI ordered for the first time that corpses of plague victims be dissected to find the cause of the disease. Until then, dissection was regarded as blasphemy, but the Pope's unprecedented order was, as I see it, the beginning of modern medicine.

Then why doesn't the Pope change the rules?

I think what we're seeing is the rigidity of men who know they've got it wrong. They know, for example, that as soon as they allow the use of condoms, even to prevent the spread of AIDS, then the whole facade of their rejection of birth control will collapse.

Won't Catholics lose respect for the Pope if age-old rules are suddenly altered?

Let's say the Pope gave a speech tomorrow in which he acknowledged that we face a major crisis from AIDS and overpopulation and that the prohibition against condoms is no longer appropriate. He would be heralded in much the same way Gorbachev was for acknowledging what everybody already knew—that communism had failed. I believe that's all liberal Catholics are asking, that Church leaders simply acknowledge the changes that have already taken place within the Church.

Can Catholics remain members of the Church without following all of its rules?

Obviously, millions do, which is something that drives bishops crazy. You often hear them say that the Church is not a cafeteria in which you take what you want and leave the rest. But Jesus, in giving us the Eucharist and in his many references to feasting, represented the Church as a banquet. And at a banquet, you eat what you want.

If faithful Catholics feel they can break the rules, why press so hard for change?

The tragedy right now is that Church leaders are drawing such hard lines on these peripheral issues. Sex and the life-styles of the clergy are unimportant compared with the great questions the Church exists to answer: Does God exist? Do we survive death? How do we love each other? The danger is that once Catholics become disillusioned over small things, they will lose their grasp on the central teachings of the Church.

Why do so many Catholics choose to remain with the Church?

Our faith enables us to live hopefully in a painfully finite world, and we cherish that. Many Catholics would argue that life is so unsettling—politically, personally and economically—that the Church should be a rare source of stability. That longing is what the bishops are appealing to and why many Catholics continue to fear change.

Do you believe the Church will change?

Yes, history will change the Church. It will change simply because there is no choice. Sooner or later, women will become priests, priests will probably be allowed to marry, and the prohibition on birth control will be lifted.

What's important here is that Catholics remember that the Church is 2,000 years old. The Church survives, despite the rhetoric, mainly because it has a genius for change.

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