Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, April 2009
January was a month awash in books concerning the philosophy of ethics, religion, and skepticism, and searching for “the truth.” Included were John Stewart Mill’s On Liberty, Michael Shermer’s Why People Believe in Weird Things and The Science of Good and Evil, all part of the class reading assignments, as well as Vince Stanger’s The New Atheist, reviewed on this site. So, when John Carroll’s Practicing Catholic arrived, hope grew eternal that this was to be a book of purpose and strength of belief. It is.
As one of three Jewish students at St. Louis University’s Parks College of Aeronautics (now Parks College of Engineering), a highly respected Jesuit institution, courses in Christian Community, Catholic Marriage and other offerings were required, unless one joined the R.O.T.C. Catholic life, its history, and its theology became real in those years.
Carroll, a former priest of the order of Paulist Fathers, creates his own trilogy of history. This is a reading of Carroll’s autobiography, the history of the Roman Catholic Church in the Vatican and the United States, and the history of the Irish-American Catholic. It is the history of the Church versus America through the eyes of a believer.
It takes a bit to catch the flow of Carroll’s thoughts, but by the second chapter, “God of my youth,” the flow and cadence will ease. At times, it feels like Carroll is attempting to find a priestly flow when explaining the Church’s writing and scripture, where the reader needs to interpret the meaning. However, when Carroll is referring to history, his writings flow easily and he is spot on.
The teachings of St. Thomas More through the teachings of Pope Benedict XVI, from John Kennedy’s “Americanism” to Carroll’s own reaffirmation of his faith, to the referenced time line of the Church from 1896 to 2008—all are examined and appear to be accurate with, of course, a Catholic twist.
Carroll follows a path that finds religious meaning in his life. His parents Mary and Joseph providing holiness, his running to a Paulist Father’s recruiter providing direction, even the music of Bob Dylan providing community actualization—all added to the importance of Catholicism to him.
Carroll seems to make some assumptions: that the reader is Catholic, has a general understanding of Latin and of the Vatican edicts, and knows to which version of the Christian bibles he refers. In this case, most likely the St. Joseph Edition of the New American Bible. Pre-knowledge is important in reading this book.
This is also a well-documented text, though there are some who would question the value of first-person experiences, some of the endnotes, and Carroll’s personal interpretations of the holy texts that will awaken some skeptics. John Kennedy’s 1960 Greater Houston Ministerial Association speech on religion is but one example. Carroll makes it appear that the Church sanctioned the speech. It did not.
Yet, for a reader interested in religion and how it affects the history of the United States, this is a wonderful examination. Stories of the leaders of the American Catholic Church, the conflicts of Americanism with Church teaching, the conflicts of the American Church and the Vatican, and the reaffirmation of one man’s spiritual quest will cause one to pause and think of his or her own travels down these same roads. And Carroll does not hesitate to discuss the not-so-positive side of the Churches more recent history, something greatly appreciated.
This is a book meant for Catholics, both the devout and those who are questioning their faith. It is for the religious historian to understand the impact and importance of “Americanism” on the Church in the U.S. and the Vatican. It is for non-Catholics who want to understand the ecumenical value of understanding other Christians. And it is for the non-believer who wants to understand his neighbors.
This is an exercise of self-examination, of Carroll reaffirming his belief. To paraphrase the late Congresswoman from Texas, Barbara Jordon, Carroll’s belief in the Church is whole, it is complete and no argument will turn him from the faith.
David Rosman is a award winning editor, writer, professional speaker, and college instructor in Communication, Ethics, Business and Politics