Since 9/11, James Carroll has used his column in the Boston Globe to examine America's response to the attacks. A former Paulist priest and a fierce opponent of the Vietnam War as a youth, Carroll's writings are unsparingly critical of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Though decidedly liberal, Carroll uses history and theology to explore the moral and spiritual underpinnings of our foreign policy. The result has been some of the most honest, interesting, and alarming writing on the war on terror available. His post 9/11 columns have been collected in a new book, "Crusade." We talked with him recently about the past three years and what's to come.
In "Crusade," you quote Thomas Mann saying the First World War forced him to "rethink his fundamental assumptions." What are the fundamental assumptions of this war?
American virtue--the assumption that our motives are beyond reproach. The United States doesn't regard itself as capable of evil acts. Therefore, we don't feel obliged to be self-critical or self-reflective, and we don't observe the safeguards that are necessary for human behavior if abuses are going to be avoided, like the treatment of prisoners in Abu Ghraib.
You say that moral certainty is not good theology.
In the Christian tradition, the fact that the Messiah is coming again is really shorthand for saying that the kingdom is incomplete, unfinished, radically uncertain. There's an inevitable modesty that comes that. It doesn't matter, really, whether you're a Jew who's expecting the Messiah for the first time, or a Christian expecting the Messiah for the second time. These are not empty, pious categories, these are profoundly significant theological affirmations. And they all point in the same direction, which is toward the need for self-criticism, the permanent need for repentance.
One of the president's mistakes, you say, was characterizing the war on terrorism as a crusade. You write that the original crusades changed the theology of the Christian church at the time.
The seven or eight crusades launched after 1096 were mostly wars against Islam. They institutionalized violence as a sacred act--that one way to fulfill the will of God is by killing in God's name. Crusaders were promised "plenary indulgence" if they died in the act of battle, that is, they were promised immediate access to heaven. We condescend toward Islamic believers who describe the reward for death in jihad as immediate access to heaven. Well, that idea took hold in Christianity too, in the crusades.
The theological underpinning of this notion, which we see in the theology of St. Anselm, who asked, 'Why did God become a man?' His answer was that God became a man precisely to die a violent death on the cross. It's not an accident that St. Anselm's "Cur Deus Homo" appears within two years of the launching of the first crusade.
The Second Vatican Council de-emphasized the cross, and moved away from understanding the Mass as a sacrifice. It reclaimed the tradition that the Mass is a banquet, a celebration. Good Friday is not the liturgical high point of the year anymore-it was when I was a child.
Has the pope said anything that showed he is aware of these currents or worried about them?
On the one hand, John Paul II is profoundly skeptical of war. He opposed the Gulf War in 1991. He opposed the NATO air war against Serbia over Kosovo and he opposed the Iraq War. I regard that as part of the Second Vatican Council's vision. John XXIII's encyclical Pacem en Terris is a real repudiation of the war-friendly theology of Pius XII, who firmly allied himself with the consensus that it's better to be dead than red. John XXIII moves the church away from that, toward life. It's a recovery of a profoundly Biblical, one could say Jewish, affirmation "l'chaim." The meaning of Jesus is not in death, it's in life.
There are other ways in which I think the pope is profoundly rooted in a medieval Christology, and is quite at home with the theological significance of suffering. He carries his own suffering as a kind of sacrament, which I don't presume to criticize, but I do think there is a kind of pious misappropriation of suffering that is an old problem in Latin Christianity and we should leave it behind.
My opposition didn't depend on there not being weapons of mass destruction because I believed what the inspectors were saying up to the start of the American bombing campaign. [Chief U.N. arms inspector] Hans Blix and Scott Ritter, a former inspector, were emphatically saying that the inspections regime showed ample promise of containing Hussein. War is an extreme act, our allies were saying, and the present situation in no way justifies it.
Are you surprised at the public's response to the war? As someone who spoke out against Vietnam, do you wonder where the outrage is?
I would take it back to 9/11. I think Americans spent three or four decades, since Vietnam certainly, feeling profoundly guilty about our role in the world. Not just the wars, but the cost of our affluence to impoverished people. There are a billion people in the world who are relatively well off, but there are five billion who are desperately poor. Americans are decent people and I think we feel the burdens of these inequities quite deeply.
In 9/11 something new happened-we got to feel like the victim. And despite the trauma of the event, there was a kind of national relief. We were released from our unconscious feelings of guilt and were allowed, like other people, as we imagine it, to strike out without criticizing ourselves. So we immediately launched the war against Afghanistan, with overwhelming public approval. If we looked critically at the Bush policies, we would have to feel deeply shamed by our acceptance of them, and I don't think people are ready to do it yet. The Democrats don't want to talk about it either, which accounts for Kerry's inability to be significant in his criticism of the war.
My own sense is different. I think a firm, open, direct, moral reckoning will be welcomed. That means the leader needs to participate in that repentance. The only way a leader can enable a population to achieve a moral reckoning is by acknowledging his or her part in it. There's nothing I accuse the Bush administration of that I can't accuse myself of in some way. Because after all, everything they've done in my name, with my support. This is the meaning of democracy.
If we do that, what then should be done about al Qaeda and the other groups?
Let me back up to 9/11. If we had pursued al Qaeda in a strictly defined context of law enforcement, we would be much farther along in dismantling al Qaeda, and we would also have given much less reason to young Arab and Muslim men to identify with al Qaeda. When I say law enforcement, I'm not saying something weak or ineffectual. I'm talking about a massive, unprecedented, internationally organized act of law enforcement. That's different than war.
When you enforce the law, for example, you are rigorously required to observe the connection between means and ends. Procedures in law enforcement are of absolute importance, you are not allowed to go after people who've broken rules by breaking more rules. The protection of the law itself is part of what law enforcement does. When you go to war, all of that goes out the window.
How would you repair any damage we might have done?
We need to repudiate the language of war. We ought to announce that we have embarked on a new phase of enforcing international law. We should again sign the treaty that Bush unsigned establishing the International Criminal Court, and the world's campaign against terrorism should be managed through that.
Let me switch again back to Catholicism and the presidential election. Do you feel like Catholicism is being politicized by the campaigns?
No, I don't. When people gather at the table at the Eucharist in a parish, nobody in the place cares about the politics. We go to the table together with a full sense that we're very different from each other. I go to Mass on the road a lot. My progressive Catholic attitudes are of no significance to the priest who gives me communion, I can tell you that. This small minority of bishops who've tried to make an issue of whether and how John Kerry goes to communion are really out of step with the Church. They're out of step with their fellow bishops. They're being exploited by the Republican Party.
This is not Roman Catholic religion. Someone like me can revere the pope, even as I disagree with him. There is something fantastic about this body of believers who put all that stuff aside when it comes time to pray together and to give thanks. Membership is not defined by a political statement. We recite the Nicene Creed, which is the language of metaphor, have you noticed? We say, "I believe in God, light of light, true God of true God." That means something to you and it means something to me. It doesn't matter if we're in the same ballpark about what it means or not.
Does that apply to 'I believe in the resurrection of the body'?
Yes it does, it does. It means something different to people living in the 20th century than it meant to St. Paul. We hear a lot of talk about the Catholic Church as if there's only one meaning to every fact, affirmation and sacrament and that's just not true. Every word is imprecise--that's what so ridiculous about trying to nail down doctrinal formulations. Once you're using language, you're involved inevitably with imprecision. The Catholic tradition is full of awareness of that. Which is why we give emphasis to sacraments over words, to bread and wine over sermons.
So the rise of an organized Catholic political right doesn't bother you--the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast, say, or the targeting of Catholics by Republicans?
I hate the political abuse of religion. There's a grotesque tradition in the United States of politicians exploiting religion. Lyndon Johnson ended his speeches about escalation in Vietnam by asking us to pray for him. George W. Bush, of course, does it instinctively. It is infuriating. But I also hate the way nonreligious people blame all these bad things on God. Don't blame George Bush's policies on God. Don't blame the abuses that are done in God's name on God. This isn't God we're talking about.
You said recently that if you were the Holy Ghost, your best wish for the Catholic church would be-
--the election of a liberal Catholic as president of the United States. Absolutely.
Can you say why?
It would be good for the whole Church to have on the world stage a man who's not ashamed to be a Vatican II Catholic. There's a good, solid Catholic renewal going on now I would say. There's a lifeblood in the Voice of the Faithful, and the feminists. John Kerry is a serious Catholic. I watch this guy in church. It will be a real tragic irony if conservative Catholics keep him from being elected.