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Toward a New Catholic Church by James Carroll (Houghton Mifflin 2002) $8.95
a review
by William Cleary

James Carroll as Anonymous Unitarian

The second biggest blunder in the life of star theologian Karl Rahner was using the phrase "anonymous Christians" to describe devout Hindus, Muslems or Jews. (His very worst blunder, he'd no doubt admit, was falling insanely in love with an heiress who already had a Benedictine prior as prime devotee.) The anonymous Christians in question were not honored with Rahner's ascription and told the world so. Still, to give the great man his due, it was illuminative for Christians: it meant they were as good as us.
        James Carroll in his new book Toward a New Catholic Church aims at setting up a five-part reformation of Catholicism, but readers may detect in him an anonymous Unitarian. The Unitarians (whose liberal creed was once said to be "the fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of man, and the neighborhood of Boston") claim connections to reformers burned at the stake by the church in the Middle Ages, but in historical fact, emerged from Harvard-bred Congregationalists who doubted first the Trinity (thus were "unitarian") and then questioned almost everything else. You don't even have to believe in a "God" to belong. Its official name is Unitarian Universalism since in l961 it joined with the Universalists (who hold "universal" salvation).
        Discursus: the Unitarian approach is not as far out as one might at first think. Among its "seven commitments" is toleration of every other member's spirituality (so there are Christian and even Catholic Unitarians) as well as total acceptance of the democratic method. One of Carroll's most insightful chapters is entitled "The Holiness of Democracy."
        Meanwhile Toward a New Catholic Church is a paperback that eminently deserves attention. It is really just the last 70 pages of Carroll's bulky tome Constantine's Sword expanded and updated. His grasp of history and theology is spectacular, and his vision for reform of the church is brilliant. The new book will be useful for reform-minded Catholics, pointing out in detail and footnote the path the Church might take in really becoming itself: that is, a living embodiment of the Gospel.
        Carroll's book calls out for a new ecumenical council, but there is despair in the author's crafted reasoning. He calls out for what must be but can't be. The Vatican will never include in the next Council "Protestants and Jews, and people of other faiths or no faith, and emphatically women" - unless the pope becomes Unitarian too. It will not take place, as Carroll day-dreams, in Boston (because that's where the clergy scandals began) or Krakow (near the scandal of Auschwitz). At "Vatican III" there may be a window-dressing as at Vatican II of "observers" (the women and the reformers), but the ancient church in its leadership and hierarchy doesn't really want to be catholic, not in any ordinary sense.
         "Catholic": could any word be more precious? To be universal in acceptance and tolerance, to be globally minded in a borderless world, to have a vision of the planet that is reverent of everything, everything alive, everything created or, as Webster puts it, to be "all-inclusive, having broad interest or understanding:" that's catholic. It's a worthy modern-day challenge: to learn from pagans (like native Americans) that the world and its cosmic environment are sacred, to learn from Confucians that social structure is sacred, to learn from Abrahamic religions that a divine being is on our side, to reverence the hesitations of mystics and skeptics and agnostics and religio-atheists: that is the dream of a new Catholicism, and Carroll fits right in. But the old Catholicism it ain't.
         Page 87 is pure UUism: There he looks to Vatican III to give the church "a new Christology, celebrating a Jesus whose saving act is the disclosure of the divine love available to all, (which) will enable the church at last to embrace a pluralism of belief and worship, of religion and no-religion, that honors God by defining God as beyond every human effort to express God." Many a thinker and mystic has been drop-kicked out of the Church for saying less. but these days the Vatican's thought police are too busy with the bailing buckets to excommunicate just another loose cannon.
         But perhaps our author is out already. In his column in the Boston Globe for Dec. 17 - written long after finishing this book -- Carroll confesses that he has too long been in denial about "the church as such," and that his denial is ending, that he has to admit he now finds the Church is "in an essential way an institution of decadence," and all the worst slanders he has heard against her over the years "true." He says he finds its alleged heroism and holiness "an illusion," and speaks of "the emptiness of the thing (he) thought sacred." Strong language, but a bracing demonstration of the beauties of honest speech. Despite the great pain of doing so, Carroll speaks his true mind and his true heart.. Many a Unitarian has done so, in similar pain, before him. #

         (William Cleary bcleary412@aol.com is author of The Lively Garden Prayer Book and other books of spirituality: see www.clearyworks.com.)

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