A novelist and poet born in the late 1940s, whose Irish-American Catholic parents named him James Carroll, summed up his childhood with the refrain, “I was a Catholic boy/ Redeemed through pain/ And not through joy.”
I thought of that classic punk-rock Jim Carroll Band lyric, from the title track of their 1980 album “Catholic Boy,” as I read “Abolish the Priesthood,” the cover story in The Atlantic by James Carroll, an ex-priest born a few years prior to the late musician with whom he shares a name.
Both Jim Carroll (best known for his 1978 memoir The Basketball Diaries) and James Carroll critique the church that shaped them. But whereas the lyrics of “Catholic Boy” cling to the hope of redemption, James Carroll’s article gives no hint that we are all, in fact, sinners in need of salvation; he argues that the only thing lay Catholics need to be saved from is Catholicism itself.
“Abolish the Priesthood” begins as a cri de coeur against the clericalism that he blames for the church’s sex abuse crisis. As the author recounts a litany of media revelations of criminal actions by priests and religious in the United States and Europe, he highlights the hypocrisy of churchmen who made their victims’ lives a living hell. A quote he cites from a victim who testified before the Pennsylvania grand jury sets the tone: “This is the murder of a soul.”
James Carroll’s article gives no hint that we are all sinners in need of salvation; he argues that the only thing lay Catholics need to be saved from is Catholicism itself.
With the problem thus stated, the article settles into its real agenda, which, as its title suggests, is to throw out the baby with the baptismal water. James Carroll, who was a Paulist father from 1969 to 1974, has in his sights “the priesthood itself and its theological underpinnings.”
“The very priesthood is toxic, and I see now that my own service was, too,” he writes. In his ministerial work for the church, he came to see himself as part of a system that upheld “the twin pillars of clericalism—the Church’s misogynist exclusion of women from the priesthood and its requirement of celibacy for priests.”
Although James Carroll is of the hippie generation, he is clearly going for a punk-rock aesthetic. He strikes a chord akin to the anarchist slogan “no gods, no masters,” mocking the dogmatic pronouncements of the early church that echo down to the present day: “Councils defined a single set of beliefs as orthodox, and everything else as heresy.”
“Church conservatives” are the problem, James Carroll says. He dreams of “a robust overthrow of power that would unseat them and their ilk.” In this brave new world, “the communal experience of the Mass” would remain, but “it [would] not need to be celebrated by a member of some sacerdotal caste.”
Although James Carroll is of the hippie generation, he is clearly going for a punk-rock aesthetic.
What, I wonder, would Jim Carroll the rocker, a reformed heroin addict who died of a heart attack in 2009, make of all this? On the one hand, Jim, like the protagonist of his final roman à clef The Petting Zoo, “had only the barest modicum of faith remaining by the age of 15 or so—that spectral scrap which all Catholics sustain until death, despite their most vehement protestations.”
Yet Jim Carroll adored the mystery and the ritual aspects of Catholic worship, and he grieved the loss of the Latin liturgy of his childhood. In his middle age (and perhaps later), he often attended daily Mass—though opting not to receive Communion for fear of disappointment. “I always think I’m going to find the ideal priest,” he wrote, “but they all end up with booze on their breath, like when I was a kid.”
But there was still something more about Catholicism that resonated with Jim Carroll, something that spoke to his personal muse. He felt, in his words, that “Catholicism and punk rock were very much alike. What could be more punk rock than the stations of the Cross where this guy’s getting whipped and has to wear a crown of thorns and weeps into a veil and leaves his image behind and then gets crucified and rises up?”
The analogy speaks to me personally.
I am not a cradle Catholic. My parents, who divorced when I was five, are Jewish; I was raised in that faith and, as a small child, was molested by a janitor at the temple we attended. As a young adult, suffering from suicidal thoughts due to undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder, I sought solace in the New York City rock world—that is, until a dramatic conversion to Christianity and, ultimately, Catholicism upended my way of life. (And yes, like both Carrolls, I have penned a book about my faith journey.)
Before my conversion, I identified with the kind of rebellious spirit that prompts James Carroll to fantasize about tearing down authority structures.
Before my conversion, I identified with the kind of rebellious spirit that prompts James Carroll to fantasize about tearing down authority structures. The authorities I knew as a child—such as the rabbi who refused to believe my story of abuse or my father who moved to a far-away state—disappointed me, leaving me with spiritual and psychological wounds.
What sparked my journey to Catholicism was a passage in a novel by G. K. Chesterton that was recommended to me by a rock musician. In The Man Who Was Thursday, I encountered an argument that turned my way of thinking on its head. A character who styles himself a poet of law and order argues against an anarchist poet that “revolt in the abstract is—revolting. It’s mere vomiting.” Rather, he insists, “the most poetical thing in the world is not being sick.”
That passage reached me just at the time when I had had enough of existential nausea. It led me to long to know the poetry of not being sick.
Ultimately, after several years of fighting the prospect of surrendering my life to a God and Master, I found that poetry in Jesus Christ crucified and risen. A few years later, after failing to find a Protestant community that felt like home, I surrendered further. It was then that I finally found Jesus’ crucified and risen body and blood where it had always been waiting for me—in the Catholic Church.
I imagine that James Carroll, although wanting to sympathize with me as a woman and an abuse survivor, may dismiss my encounter with Christ in the Eucharist as pious sentiment. But however much the laicized cleric may claim that “the Church is an in-the-flesh connection” to Jesus, I cannot find in his vision of a desacralized church the nearness of Christ’s own flesh.
Jim Carroll the punk poet, in an interview during the last decade of his life, confessed, “I can’t stand the politics of the Church.” Yet, to the end, he remained “fascinated” with “Christ’s blood as a metaphor for this kind of homeopathic balm of redemption.”
I agree with James Carroll on one thing: The church is wounded. And, with his rocker namesake, I maintain that the only cure is the “homeopathic balm” brought to us at every altar through the hands of a man we rightly want to be “the ideal priest.”