Liberal and Catholic: 12 Questions for James Carville

James Carville is a New Orleans-based political pundit and media personality who is a major figure in the Democratic Party. Nicknamed "the Ragin' Cajun," he rose to national fame as the chief political strategist of then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign in 1992. He was a co-host of CNN's Crossfire until its final broadcast in June 2005, when he began his current role on CNN's news program The Situation Room. As of 2009, he has hosted a weekly program on XM Radio with Luke Russert called 60/20 Sports. He has taught political science at Tulane University since 2009. In 2014, he also joined Fox News Channel as a contributor.

Mr. Carville is a lifelong Catholic and his wife, the Republican political consultant Mary Matalin, is a convert to Catholicism. He holds B.A. and J.D. degrees from Louisiana State University and is a graduate of Ascension Catholic High School in Donaldsville, La. On July 9, I interviewed Mr. Carville by telephone about the intersection of his faith and politics. The following transcript has been edited for content and length.

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What makes you feel at home in the Catholic Church?

It’s the way I’ve always been. I grew up in a French-dominated Catholic part of the country, I was an altar boy, I went to Catholic school, I have a cousin who is a priest—it’s part of my DNA. It’s kind of hard to separate me from the church, to try to say where one starts and the other stops.

Who are your role models in the faith, either living or dead?

Pope Francis for sure. I’m also a big fan of John XXIII. I actually thought Pope Paul VI was the most tragic figure in the modern church, like Lyndon Johnson was a very tragic figure in politics in some ways. Pope Leo XIII is another one. Growing up, I learned to respect St. Francis of Assisi and all of the usual people. From what little I know, St. Augustine’s influence on the church was enormous. That’s about it.

How has your faith evolved or changed over the years?

You know, I was very intense as a young guy and I lost some contact with the church, but then as I got older I re-established that contact. What I really like is having a framework to think about things. But I also understand that the church has made some pretty big mistakes. I didn’t go to Rome until I was in my early 40s, and when you’re there for five minutes, you kind of understand the Reformation. I mean, man, people have a point when they say “those Catholics got pretty far away.” But I think, in some ways, that kind of journey is oddly enough sort of cathartic, because then you understand some of the wisdom too. It’s like when you grow up thinking your parents are omniscient and then you discover one day that your parents are human like all the rest of the people. I think the same thing is true of an intense cradle Catholic like me in how I relate to the church. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Some people say there’s the “smaller, purer church” and we don’t need these cafeteria Catholics or these doubting Thomases. But hey, I think they’re part of the whole thing too.

How do you pray?

Like a lot of people, I pray for a sick relative or that kind of thing, but I don’t pray to make my next flight connection at the airport. I find prayers before sports contests to be insensitive and kind of demeaning, at least when someone prays to beat the other team or something like that. I like the creed because it makes me think. I still recite the Confiteor in Latin, but I like it in English too, because it’s pretty humbling. Hail Mary is a great prayer, succinct and to the point. At Sunday mass, I like to read the passage from the gospels and think about it. The reason these prayers have been around for a long time is that they’re good. But I guess the creed is the one I think about the most.

How does Catholicism influence your approach to being a husband and father?

You know, family was such a huge part of my life growing up and it was such a part of the faith that I almost find the two to be intertwined. You know, I say this not knowing what tomorrow will bring, but there’s relatively no divorce in my family. I understand life is complicated and I’m not arguing against divorce laws or anything, but faith and family go together in the culture I grew up in. It gives you a real respect for the elderly, respect for the infirm, and respect for every human life as precious—I think that’s pretty essential to the faith.

You are considered a political liberal on economic issues, favoring a progressive tax rate. Where do you feel the most congruence between Catholicism and your politics?

I find it in the moral basis of Catholicism to “do unto others.” It’s hardly a uniquely Catholic thing, but it’s definitely a part of the faith that all life is to be respected as you respect your own life. And it’s part of the faith that there’s some gift and virtue in poverty. Today it seems like some people think God shines on you when you’re rich because it means you’re holy, but the church doesn’t teach you that. I’m sure there are some guys in Grand Rapids who will tell you that, but not the church. I always find it offensive when people say God showers riches on you if you’re good. The pope doesn’t say that. I do a lot of work in Argentina, so I know a lot of people that Pope Francis knows, and people loved him when he was their cardinal, and some of these people are pretty secular. He had a remarkable reputation down there, so I was really disposed to like him even before he became pope.

Where do you feel the most tension between your faith and politics?

As you’d expect, sexual issues. The church is way more into that stuff than Jesus was. But I’ve always thought the most uncomfortable person in Christianity, even to some extent in Catholicism, is Jesus. I think about that a lot and there’s some tension there. And it’s not a bad thing, you know what I mean? It helps me be forgiving of difficult people who are not as fortunate as I am, given the kind of background I have—the family structure, the financial gains and the way I’ve been able to provide for my kids. You know, sometimes when I’m in a Walmart I’ll see a mom yank a child, and it’s someone who’s frustrated and obviously not that rich. Part of me says I would never do that to my children, but then I tell myself to walk a mile in her shoes. You know, the air conditioning is broken in the car, the husband is away or abusive, and God knows what else.

Faith is something that’s made me less quick to judge. Every time I go to Sunday mass, more often than not, it helps me be less judgmental. So much of modern religion has become a lot of judgment on people and I do that sometimes myself. But when I think about it, that’s when my faith kicks in. You’ve got to think about what other people are going through.

On what current political issues do the church and American liberals find themselves most clearly aligned?

Family and medical leave, immigration, progressive taxation, supplemental nutrition assistance programs, Medicaid expansion, affordable health care—it’s a lot. I mean, wow, think about Medicaid expansion. The idea that a child with a cleft palate or diabetes can’t receive medical attention for lack of money is about as anti-Catholic as you can get.

On what current political issues do the church and American liberals find themselves most clearly divided?

Gay marriage and probably abortion, although on these issues there are a lot of liberals who don’t understand the church. All they do is complain that “the pope hasn’t changed on abortion or gay marriage.” Well, he’s not going to change. That’s not the way it works, that’s not the deal, and they don’t understand it. But the pope saying we talk too much about that stuff—to me, that’s bold. That’s bold. One advantage of growing up with the church is that you understand the faith a little bit. A lot of people who comment on the church just don’t understand the way it works.

What are your thoughts on Pope Francis?

I’m crazy about him. I think he’s a great guy. Like I said before, I know people who know him and they think the world of him. You know, I actually do think and choose to believe that the Holy Spirit had something to do with those guys picking him. I think he’s just what the church needs. He’s remarkably and understandably like a regular guy. He’s a humble guy, I think he sets the right tone, and I like him a lot.

Any predictions for the future of our country?

Well, I think people who have bet against this country have always lost, and we have some remarkable young people in this country. It’s just going to be a different country and we have to adapt to it. When I was growing up, we had the advantage of vanquishing two of our biggest competitors, the Japanese and the Germans, and the Chinese were under this archaic brutal system. Those three things are no longer in place now. So we live in a different world and the makeup of the country is changing, as it always does. And why is that a bad thing? I’m not sure it is a bad thing at all. I choose to believe it’s a good thing in some ways. When people say this country’s not like it used to be, they’re right. It’s not the same and, by the way, we’re not going back to the way it used to be. The church is also not like it used to be, even though it probably evolves more slowly than most things.

Any final thoughts?

From growing up in Catholic schools and everything else, I’ve had really positive experiences with the church. I think in a lot of places in the church, there’s real intellectual depth. I like the fact the church plays such a big part in our culture, especially in New Orleans where everyone knows the archbishop. But like I said before, the church is like your parents in how you relate to it. You grow up thinking the church is omnipotent and always has the answers, and then one day you find out that’s not true in every respect. But that helps in some ways. At first you get mad when someone tells you the Gospel of John wasn’t really written by the apostle John. That makes you furious when you realize John wasn’t going around taking notes! But after a while, you realize it’s really not that important to you, even though it’s the kind of stuff that drives you nuts. Why get upset about it? There’s no reason. You know, I don’t need to know whether St. Peter was out appointing bishops and stuff. I don’t need that because it’s not necessary. It’s faith, so you’ve got to understand that you can’t explain everything away. If it was that easy, it wouldn’t be faith.

Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 5 months ago
Does "liberal" Catholic mean politically liberal? As I see it, there is a whole sea of Catholics who are deeply rooted in social justice, but do not fit the politically liberal label. They are rarely interviewed (or understood) by mainstream media or even their fellow Catholics. Tom Cornell (Catholic Worker, deacon at his Church), Sister Megan Rice (anti-war activist serving prison time for protesting nuclear arms). P.S. If you wanted to interview a "media" Catholic from the left, I think that Phil Donahue would have been a better choice.
Sean Salai, S.J.
3 years 5 months ago

Beth,

Thanks for your ideas. I only have a couple more weeks here for my summer assignment, but I'm working up a few more interviews in addition to other stuff. Hopefully some of it will be helpful.

God bless,

Sean Salai, SJ

Michael Barberi
3 years 5 months ago
Labels such as 'liberal' and 'conservative' are often used pejoratively. Most of the time, the issues appear as a contrast between far-left and far-right attitudes, not the opinions of Americans who occupy the wide middle who are considered liberal and conservative. Those who disagree with the sexual teachings of the RCC are often labeled as 'liberal'. However, most Catholics who consider themselves 'conservative' often disagree with many of hierarchy's teachings on sexual issues. A good example is the issue of abortion. If the question is a general one with no qualifiers, such as: Do you believe that abortion is morally wrong, most Catholics would say "yes". However, if the question is: Do you think it is always morally wrong to terminate a pregnancy to save the life of the mother (e.g., to save one life, rather than to let two die, the mother and fetus), most Catholics would say "no".
Tim O'Leary
3 years 5 months ago
Thanks for these interviews, Fr. Sean. It's helpful to see the spectrum of thought. The Church seems to have a strong hold on cradle Catholics, even when they succumb to the non-Catholic beliefs of the dominant culture. It was always thus, from Roman times, through the slow-conversion of the Northern European barbarians and then the Reformation, which brought the relativistic seed into the culture, and then the Communist/socialist influences with doctrinaire secularism. I don't like the way James Carville helped keep abortion going. He made at least one choice I can endorse - Mary Matalin - a convert to the fullness of the faith.
Sandi Sinor
3 years 5 months ago
I guess the rule the new editor established banning the use of the words "liberal" and "conservative" in reference to Catholics or Catholicism turned out to be non-workable, as many predicted.
Sean Salai, S.J.
3 years 4 months ago

Sandi,

Thanks for reading. Actually I think the rule applies to Catholicism -- i.e. to not labeling someone a "liberal" Catholic or "conservative" Catholic because of that person's stance on doctrinal or ecclesial issues -- rather than to public policy. The point is not to apply secular political labels to Catholicism, conflating secular politics with church politics in the way we identify people.

Using these words in reference to secular politics is another thing. When my interviews with Ramesh Ponnuru and James Carville use the terms "conservative" and "liberal," I am using these words (which are the way these men identify themselves, not the way I identify them) in regard to their self-selected positions on certain secular political issues. I'm not using them in reference to their positions on Catholic religious matters. As Ramesh Ponnuru himself pointed out in our "Conservative and Catholic" interview that complements this one, he might be conservative in his politics and Catholic in his religion, but he resists the label of "conservative Catholic" because he finds it unhelpful. By the same token, James Carville may describe himself as a Catholic and as a political liberal on certain issues, but he doesn't describe himself as a "liberal Catholic."

I think that's the essence of our editorial policy, which seeks to preserve a distinction between the way we talk about secular politics and the way we talk about the church.

I hope that's helpful.

God bless,

Sean Salai, S.J.

Michael Barberi
3 years 5 months ago
Fr. Salai, The title of the article is: Liberal and Catholic: 12 Questions for James Carville. The choice of the words "Liberal and Catholic" together implied to me a connection. Granted that liberal in the political sense does not mean liberal in the religious or Catholic sense, it is perplexing to me why these words were used in the first place. What is the point with identifying a person as "liberal and Catholic"? Was it to imply that such a person has a different theological position compared to someone that is "Conservative and Catholic"? Over the past 40 years, the word 'liberal' has been used frequently within the theological community and in the words of the hierarchy, inclusive popes JP II and Benedict XVI, in connection with other words such as dissenters and revisionists, and 'liberalism' with moral relativism and individualism. In my opinion, such words used in this manner are perforative and divisive. As my previous comment said, there are many conservative Catholics in the political sense, who are not really conservative as in the orthodox theological sense. From your comment, I assume you agree. Then again, maybe I missed something. God bless.
Beth Cioffoletti
3 years 5 months ago
Dogma is important (and guardian of mystery, as Flannery O'Connor said). So, in some sense, I could call myself a conservative Catholic. Yet I identify much more with the so-called Catholic Left (social justice, the Catholic Workers, Pax Christi) than the so-called Catholic Right (the Knights of Columbus, the Latin Mass). I agree with Michael, that theologically we are all on the same page - right, left, center, whatever. It is the theology that unites us. I'm fine with the Catholic Right, but I think that over the last 3 decades they have been predominate in both leadership and parish roles, causing many of us on the Left to go "under ground". With Francis, there is the faintest hint that we are again part of a whole Catholic identity.
Tim O'Leary
3 years 5 months ago
I think I understand the point of the policy not to conflate a political nomenclature with a religious one. I prefer to use orthodox (meaning being faithful to the Traditional and present teaching) and dissident (meaning objecting to present teaching). Keep in mind that the word dissident is a positive and complementary term for those who opposed the Soviet Union or the Chinese government. I would like to think myself a dissident opponent of much of the reigning political administration in the great US of A, especially its abortion and anti-religious policies and some of its economic policies, especially of the Obama administration. On the other hand, dissident assumes activist opposition, so I might not deserve the term. I would not use the dissident term for those who have private reservations about a particular doctrine (say on free will, the exact meaning of the Real Presence, the role of women, contraception or capital punishment), and certainly not for those who complain about governance, (mishandling of the child abuse, financials, etc.). But the label rightly applies to those who campaign for the overthrow of a teaching, which includes blogging and other forms of protesting. I understand that people can be dissident on some doctrines and not others but it is amazing how persistent opposition on one specific doctrinal issue can metastasize to other areas over time (e.g. going from contraception in marriage to abortion for rare cases, all the way to abortion on demand and the blessing of gay marriage, etc). A direct opposition to the very way the Church determines doctrinal positions would suffice, since it affects all the rest of the teaching.
Robert Hugelmeyer
3 years 4 months ago
First let me say the interviewer missed most of what I would think are the most important questions. Carvel picks and choses the tenets he wishes to follow or agree with and the interviewer never challenged his personal stance with regard to abortion, same sex marriage, etc. How can he support candidates for office who support these intrinsically evil behaviors. Catholic teaching is clear on these issues. There's so much more to discuss that was not asked it leaves the impression that what the liberal left stands for is acceptable to the Catholic Church's Magisterium. What a snow job by this Left Leaning Jesuit.
Sandi Sinor
3 years 4 months ago
It really is funny how we all see the same thing differently, depending on our own perspective. It seems to me that Fr. Salai is actually a Right Leaning Jesuit, who interviews a progressive now and then in a transparent attempt to seem balanced. Not the only example, but gushing over an Opus Dei priest as "super convert maker"? How "right" leaning can you get? Bet you liked that interview. The latest is an interview with an EWTN reporter. If you look at all the email interviews he did, they are pretty lopsided toward the self-styled "faithful to the magisterium" type Catholics. Makes Tim O very happy probably, just as America's overall tilt to the right is doing - at least as far as Catholic religious matters are presented. No more "left leaning" Jesuits left at America it would seem.
Sean Salai, S.J.
3 years 4 months ago

Dear Robert and Sandi,

Thanks very much for reading. I can only say in reply that I identify myself as a Catholic, not as a "right-leaning" or "left-leaning" Jesuit. If there's any essential bias in my journalism, it's the preference for objectivity of my secular training as a reporter who wrote A1 stories for daily newspapers before entering religious life. I am a professional journalist, not a Jesuit doing journalism on the side. My first newsroom editors trained me to be as fair and balanced as possible in covering different perspectives, showing me how to let people speak their minds honestly and respectfully without using my own ideological bias to censor or distort what they say. So if people of good will have something to tell the American church, and they trust me enough to help them say it in America, then I'm honored to do so. For me, it's really that simple.

Of course, the fact that I respect my interview subjects enough to let them speak their minds does not mean I endorse everything they say. It also does not mean that all of their perspectives are equal. I believe our readers are smart enough to figure out and evaluate those things on their own. Regardless of whether I agree with my interviewees on every point, I believe the important thing is that I always try to treat them with charity and respect as fellow children of God. Although I'm not perfect at it, I also try my best to understand and learn from the different perspectives I hear, and to avoid approaching them as hostile statements to be analyzed for "left-leaning" or "right-leaning" influences. The point of my journalism is dialogue, not inquisition or refutation of heresy. In dialogue, I believe it's possible to respectfully hear and try to understand someone else's perspective without presuming the worst about it.

I hope that's helpful in clarifying who I am. If you disagree with my approach, I certainly respect that. But I do want to emphasize that my willingness to listen to different perspectives in the church, even when those perspectives do not necessarily agree with my own, does not proceed from a "liberal" or "conservative" agenda. In fact, I often learn a lot from perspectives that are new to me, gaining insights I would not receive if I viewed people who disagree with me as enemies to be humiliated and labeled for thinking differently. When I die, I don't believe God will ask me if my journalism matched the eccelesiology of the National Catholic Register or the National Catholic Reporter, but he might like to know if it proceeded from a genuine love of neighbor. And that's the only interview question that really matters to me in the end.

All the Best,

Sean Salai, SJ

Sandi Sinor
3 years 4 months ago
You are making a valiant effort, and your series has been interesting. I have not read all of the interviews but did read several all the way through, and skimmed most.. You do seem to try to write with a charitable heart. Stay open - you might surprise yourself someday. It would be good for you to look into some contemporary Catholic spiritual writers for inspiration in your journalistic endeavours - such as Richard Rohr, OFM, Fr. Ron Rolheiser, Sr. Joan Chittester, Sr. Ilia Delio, OFM, or Thomas Keating. Unfortunately you can't interview Henri Nouwen or the amazing Jesuit, Anthony DeMello. Maybe some female theologians such as Sr. Sandra Schneiders, IFM, Lisa Fullam at Santa Clara (a good Jesuit university!), or Cathleen Kaveny (now at Boston College, formerly at Notre Dame). Maybe a couple of other good interview-ees would be Jesuit John O"Malley (historian at Georgetown), Fr. Donald Cozzens, Peter Steinfels, Michael Leach, or, if you want the interview to be really interesting, Garry Wills. Broaden your horizons a bit! You clearly make an effort to be open-minded in your interview questions, as a good journalist should. Yet your "right" leanings, even though a Jesuit (once thought to be uniformly left-leaning) still show through. I wondered if perhaps I was mistaken in seeing that "leaning" fairly strongly in this series (in spite of your very good and much appreciated efforts to be balanced), so I did some research, and did find evidence for the conclusion I had reached in reading these interviews - basically the publications you have written for, and the books which include articles/chapters you have written. Your educational background is also revealing. Peace!
Sean Salai, S.J.
3 years 4 months ago

Thanks Sandi. I interviewed Richard Rohr last week and that one will be published online in a few days. The text looks pretty good to me.

Sean Salai, SJ

Sandi Sinor
3 years 4 months ago
I look forward to reading the interview. Richard Rohr is the reason I'm still Catholic. I would have given up years ago without his books and tapes. Whenever I start to feel despair about the Catholic church, I return to Richard Rohr and he gives me hope again.
Mike Van Vranken
3 years 4 months ago
I agree with Beth. I consider myself a politically conservative Catholic who longs for more support for Social Justice issues, including health care for everyone, taking care of retired Americans, welcoming those at our Southern borders and more. What makes me conservative, in my mind, is that I'm convinced the government should play no role at all. It's our responsibility as Christians to do these things. To shirk that responsibility and turn it over to a civil government has always seemed morally wrong to me. That little boy had five loaves and two fish and he placed them in the hands of the Master and Jesus fed everyone. All we need is to be like that little boy. Thank you Sean for the interview. Well done!

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