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Spotlight Report

  James Carroll  

Reading for reform


THE CRISIS in the Catholic Church has broad relevance -- and not just for Catholics. Will the church survive as an engine for progressive social change, a moral voice for the poor, an alternative vision to free market capitalism?

As world Christianity falls increasingly under the sway of anti-intellectual fundamentalism, will the collapse of Catholic authority drive the church in that direction? At a time when religious sources of mass violence make clear the need for inter-religious dialogue and intra-religious self-criticism, will the traumatized Catholic Church be capable of meeting such challenges? The world has never needed an engaged, creative, confident Catholicism more.

And looked at from within the church, the stakes of the crisis are equally high. The last time the church was tested like this was during the Protestant Reformation, and its response, alas, was marked by defensiveness and rigidity. A reprise of the so-called Counter-Reformation will build walls not only against the democratic reforms necessary to empower the laity, but against equal rights for women and, most gravely, against a new vision of human sexuality. With all of this at stake, the church simply must rise to the challenge of the present crisis.

If I might address those of my readers who are Catholics, what can you do? The widespread grass-roots determination to bring about change is this year's great hope. The grass roots, therefore, must be nurtured and cultivated, which in this instance means being informed and educated. Which means you. Perhaps the most important thing a Catholic can do is to devote the traditional summer's reading project to this problem. Therefore, here are some books that I presume to recommend:

"Why I Am a Catholic" by Garry Wills. This new book will be in the stores soon. It is a powerful work of personal reflection and history that honors the genius of Catholicism, while criticizing the ways Vatican-centered papalism has betrayed it. This book contains an especially useful analysis of the permanent relevance of Vatican II, and a moving meditation on the Creed. Wills, whose recent books include "Papal Sin" and "St. Augustine," is simply the most astute Catholic writer in America today. His love for the church is exemplary, his reforming vision is practical. This book could not come at a better time.

"The Catholic Church: A Short History" by Hans Kung. Published last year, this indispensable book shows that major change is nothing new for the church -- against those who believe that changelessness is somehow essential to Catholicism. Kung, a Swiss priest, is the greatest reforming Catholic thinker of modern times, and the bravest. A leader of Vatican II and one of those who inspired Pope John XXIII, he has been a dissenter in the church of John Paul II, but this accessible book shows the depth of his commitment. The last section, "The Catholic Church -- Present and Future," is especially useful. (Other relevant Kung titles are "Credo: The Apostles' Creed Explained for Today," "Why I Am Still A Christian" and "Infallible? An Unresolved Enquiry.")

"On Naming the Present: God, Hermeneutics, and the Church" by David Tracy. Tracy, a priest on the faculty at the University of Chicago, is the most important Catholic theologian writing in English, and this book, published in 1994, shows why. The context within which humans think and believe has changed radically -- the Holocaust, pluralism, the radical ambiguity of contemporary life -- and Tracy considers what that change does to the institutional, intellectual, and mystical elements of the faith. The section entitled "Roman Catholic Identity" shows how a traditional Catholic notion of social justice not only admits of change, but requires it. Tracy is a subtle thinker, but reading him is like listening to a wise friend, and every literate Catholic deserves the challenge and pleasure of his work. (Other titles: "Blessed Rage for Order" and "The Analogical Imagination.")

"Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews: A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity" by Paula Fredriksen (1999). This leading scholar of ancient Christianity, Jewish herself, makes Jesus freshly available. The single most important change required of Christians is to recover a sense of the permanent Jewishness of Jesus, who preached nothing but the God of Israel. A Christianity that understands that is not only necessarily more respectful of Judaism, ending anti-Semitism, but is able to leave behind the triumphal absolutism -- the church as the "only way" -- that is the first cause of the hierarchy's hubris, which itself has caused the Catholic scandal.

These books can prepare members of the church, and those who care about it, to take responsibility for reform and change. For Catholics, this can be the most positive moment of our lifetimes, and it can be something good for the world as well. Happy reading.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 6/4/2002.
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