Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Vichy Catholic

by C. J. Doyle


This article is about James Carroll, a Boston-based columnist who insists that he is a Catholic but has risen to prominence through his repeated attacks on the Church.

Larger Work

Catholic World Report

Publisher & Date

Ignatius Press, March 2000

Over the two millennia of Catholicism, apostasy has taken many forms. Sometimes it has entailed formal conversion, for reasons spiritual or material, to another religion. Often it has been a pro forma attempt at physical self preservation, as in the case of the early Christians who burned incense to the genius of the Emperor, or the British Catholics who acknowledged the Queen’s supremacy by law established. In the last two centuries, Catholics have witnessed the quiet loss of faith of those who follow a fashionable skepticism, preferring Darwin and Spinoza to Augustine and Aquinas. Occasionally, some ex-Catholics, like the historian Will Durant (who was reconciled to the Church on his deathbed), could write with admiration, even affection, about Catholicism.

Things are different today. There is a new generation of apostates who repudiate the authority of the Church and the doctrines of the faith, who reject Christian morality, and who embrace all of the calumnies heaped upon the Church, but who remain nominally Catholic. Their market value, public influence, and social and professional rewards are contingent upon their ability to maintain at least the pretense of Catholicism. Collaborating with the enemies of the Church, they have become a kind of Vichy Catholic.

Frances Kissling, the putatively Catholic front for the abortion industry, is the most shameless example of this genre. John Cornwell, the assassin of Pope Pius XII’s reputation, is another. Surging to prominence in this ignoble category however, is author, ex-priest, Boston Globe columnist, and Harvard lecturer James Carroll, who combines a visceral hostility to the papacy with a respectability to which Frances Kissling could never aspire. Unlike the others, Carroll has a regular forum in a major American newspaper, and in the country’s premiere institution of higher learning, based from which he can carry on his relentless polemic against the Faith.

Relentless attacks

Since 1992, Carroll—who is also the author of nine novels and a collection of poems—has produced nearly 60 op-ed columns in the Globe criticizing the Church, almost certainly establishing the track record for anti-Catholic outbursts in one of the nation’s top dozen newspapers. His attacks on the Church have also appeared in the pages of the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, American Prospect, and Boston Phoenix (the last being an alternative newspaper known for its homosexual advocacy and explicit sex ads).

Carroll’s recurring them is the essential malignancy of the orthodox Catholic Faith or “calcified, totalitarian Catholicism,” as he describes it in his 1996 autobiography, An American Requiem. For Carroll, the Church is one of history’s principal causative agents of social evil: poverty and overpopulation in the Third World; violence in Northern Ireland; war in the Balkans; the oppression of women; historic persecutions of pagans, Jews, and Muslims; and even the rise of Nazism, can all be attributed to Catholicism. The papacy, “the crumbling edifice of monarchical Counter-Reformation Catholicism,” is, as the embodiment and guarantor of the traditional faith, the chief obstacle to Carroll’s de-Christianizing notion of reform.

As a convenient target of opportunity, Pope Pius XII is, unsurprisingly, the subject of Carroll’s hackneyed criticisms. Carroll characterizes Pius XII as “a narcissistic, power-hungry manipulator,” and the “avatar of papal absolutism” in an October 1999 review of John Cornwell’s book, Hitler’s Pope in the Atlantic Monthly. He goes on to say that the “modern ideology of papal power . . . helped make the hatred of the Jews so lethal in this century. . . .”

It is the Petrine office itself, however, which most exercises Carroll’s spleen. Regurgitating the myth of The Deputy again in an April 7, 1997 New Yorker article entitled “The Silence,” Carroll asserts that “the doctrine of infallibility is like a virus that paralyzes the body of the Church.”

The current occupant of the Chair of St. Peter has become, far more than any of his predecessors, the primary focus of Carroll’s rancor. One of his first Globe columns in 1992 was a salute to Irish singer Sinead O’Connor for tearing up a picture of Pope John Paul II on the nationwide television broadcast, Saturday Night Live. Carroll called the Pope “the emblem of sexist patriarchy,” who has imposed a “Roman captivity” on the Church, making it “the foremost enemy of women.”

Carroll was even less inhibited in a 1995 Boston Phoenix article, “The Pope Is Wrong,” whose subtitle refers to the Vicar of Christ as “a narrow-minded man obsessed with sexual issues and hypnotized with celebrity.” Carroll goes on to describe John Paul as a “disaster” who has “disgraced the Church” and has become “the chief subjugator of women.” The author characterizes himself as a Catholic who is a dissenter from a “messianic pope’s omnivorous certitudes.”

Upwardly mobile

James Carroll, 57, is the son of the late Air Force Lieutenant General Joseph F. Carroll, who was the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, a top advisor to former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, and a key figure in the US Air Force bombing campaign in Vietnam. Before entering the service, Joseph Carroll had been an agent in the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and a confidant of legendary FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover.

Born in Chicago, James Carroll went to high school in Germany, attended Georgetown University, and eventually entered St. Paul’s College, the Paulist seminary in Washington, to train for the priesthood. At St. Paul’s, according to his autobiography, Carroll learned about biblical historical criticism, embraced as a priestly ideal the Jesuit radical Daniel Berrigan, read Hans K√ľng (whom he later believed ought to have been made pope) and discovered the therapeutic value of shouting obscene curses, out of earshot, at his religious superiors. Conflicted over what he described as the “doom of celibacy,” Carroll relates how he spent the evening before entering the seminary roaming the streets of New York in an unsuccessful quest for a prostitute. Carroll would later describe his life as a priest as that of “an avowed eunuch in a narrow bed alone.”

Ordained in 1969, Carroll spent the next five years as the Catholic chaplain at Boston University, where he participated in illegal protests in support of Communist victory in Vietnam. Forced out as chaplain in 1974 after the nun with whom he worked “celebrated” Mass in his absence, Carroll would later admit that he counseled Catholic students to use contraceptives, and regularly concelebrated Mass with an Anglican minister. After abandoning his orders and his vocation, Carroll would marry outside the Church before he was laicized; he mentions in his autobiography that he thus incurred the penalty of excommunication—a fact which has not deterred him from regularly identifying himself as a member of the Catholic Church.

Carroll would claim he left the priesthood because of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical reaffirming traditional Catholic opposition to artificial birth control, saying the Pope was “in the grip of a savage Catholic neurosis about sex.” Yet Humanae Vitae was issued in 1968, a year before Carroll was ordained. An April 1997 Boston Globe article on Carroll offered a different explanation for his decision to leave the priesthood, saying that he was unwilling to give up social activism—although he was deeply involved in social activism throughout his brief priestly career. Whatever actually motivated him to leave the priesthood, the decision evidently brought upward social mobility, in the form of a home on Boston’s exclusive Beacon Hill, a summer cottage on Cape Cod, positions at the Boston Globe and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and an education for his children at the elite, historically Protestant Milton Academy.

“Something obscene”

Although Carroll still asserts that he is a dissenting Catholic, his religious views and beliefs might be more accurately categorized as high-church Unitarian. In his book and in his Globe columns, Carroll tells us that the Virgin birth was an “impossibility,” that the nativity narratives and the Resurrection were mythic, and that Our Lord never considered himself divine. Carroll even recoils from the public display of the cross, calling its display in Bavarian classrooms “an exclusionary symbol.” Quoted in the Harvard University Gazette regarding the controversy over the papal cross that stands at Auschwitz, Carroll said that when he saw that cross, “I felt like I was in the presence of something obscene.” In perhaps his most vile remark about the Faith, he once described the Virgin Mary, in a 1995 Globe column, as “the mascot of her gender’s subjugation.”

Carroll’s lack of fidelity to Catholic truth is matched, and possibly exceeded, by his lack of respect for historical truth—as is evident from the misadventures that characterize his writing when he recounts episodes from Church history. In both his autobiography and his newspaper column, Carroll claims that Pope John XXIII accepted as accurate the slanders against Pius XII contained in Rolf Hochhuth’s play The Deputy. Later he would admit that this report—for which there is no substantive evidence —is based on a story that was “possibly apocryphal.”

In his 1997 New Yorker article, Carroll asserted that the First Vatican Council defined papal infallibility to bolster a Pope who had just been stripped of his temporal sovereignty over the papal states. Yet as every student of European and ecclesiastical history knows, infallibility was proclaimed just before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, which resulted in the evacuation of Rome by its French garrison, leading to the subsequent seizure of the Eternal City by the army of the Kingdom of Italy. Pope Pius IX had not lost his temporal power—he was still the ruler of Rome—on July 18, 1870, when the First Dogmatic Constitution in the Church of Christ was passed by the Ecumenical Council and confirmed by the Supreme Pontiff.

An even more troubling example of Carroll’s sense of accuracy and journalistic ethics is his willingness to malign the reputations of those who are no longer able to defend themselves. Alluding to a recent biography of Boston’s Cardinal William O’Connell, Carroll states that the prelate was a homosexual. An ordinary reader would infer from Carroll’s remark that the biography had provided evidence for that charge. Yet the biographer, James O’Toole—who wrote critically of O’Connell in his work (Militant and Triumphant)—actually raised and rejected the charge, pointing out that its source was a corrupt ex-priest who had been cashiered by Cardinal O’Connell.

Similarly, without citing a scintilla of evidence, Carroll blandly suggests in An American Requiem that the late Cardinal Francis Spellman of New York was a pederast. For Carroll, it seems, history is something to be manipulated, revised, and distorted, to give substance to his bigoted resentments against the Church and its “repressive, deceit ridden culture of celibate clericalism.” James Carroll’s dissent from Catholic moral teaching evidently includes an unusual reading of the Eighth Commandment.

Fast and loose

Indeed, Carroll seems to have a propensity for simply making things up as he goes along. In a 1995 Boston Globe column, Carroll excoriated the Croatian Catholic hierarchy for allegedly failing to condemn atrocities committed by their own side during the recent warfare in the Balkans. Yet Cardinal Franjo Kuharic of Zagreb had told Croatian fighters in 1992: “If a Serb burns your house, protect his house; if a Serb kills your father, protect his father.” And in 1993, Cardinal Kuharic criticized the attacks made by some Bosnian Croats against Muslims, saying they were “responsible for all the damage done to the international standing of Croatia. . . .”

In a 1994 Globe column, in which he claims that the murder of abortionists “logically follows from the Pope’s own moral absolutism on abortion,” Carroll suggests that the Church is not serious in its opposition to abortion because she fails to invoke the penalty of excommunication for those who procure an abortion. Yet the Code of Canon Law (1398) states: “A person who procures a successful abortion incurs an automatic (latae sententiae) excommunication.”

It was once said of the Bolshevik Revolution that it allowed mediocrities to become important. One would find it hard to imagine that a Catholic of such mundane talents as an author, such tedious predictability as a columnist, and such crude prejudice, amateurish ability, and callous and reckless disregard for the truth as an historical essayist, would achieve Carroll’s degree of celebrity and professional standing—were he not wholly subservient to the dominant secular culture. Certainly no faithful Catholic would be accorded a weekly column in the Globe, and given free rein to write regularly on religious issues.

While James Carroll postures as a dissenter and onetime anti-war activist, his life has been one of bourgeois conformism. He marched against the war in Vietnam when it was in vogue to do so. He left the priesthood and religious life when thousands of others did. He safely supported liberal politics while moving in the Boston-Cambridge nexus of publishing, journalism, and higher education. Now he bashes the Church from the prosperous security of the Boston Globe. A child of privilege, Carroll is as much a part of the establishment as his father was while serving in the Pentagon.

In considering the strange case of James Carroll, marked by so much hypocrisy and pretension, there is one thing, at least, that can be said about previous generations of apostates. They had the integrity to leave.

C. Joseph Doyle is the Executive Director of the Catholic Action League of Massachusetts.

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