Religion
2:20 pm
Wed December 18, 2013

In Francis' First Year, A 'Radical Pope' Seeks To Save His Church

Originally published on Wed December 18, 2013 2:55 pm

"Who am I to judge?" With those five words, Pope Francis "stepped away from the disapproving tone, the explicit moralizing typical of popes and bishops," writes columnist James Carroll. Francis made that statement in July, in response to a reporter's question about the status of gay priests in the Church. In a new article about Francis in The New Yorker, Carroll describes the pope as having "unilaterally declared a kind of truce in the culture wars that have divided the Vatican and much of the world."

Carroll was a seminarian and a priest during another great period of change — Vatican II, which, under the leadership of Pope John XXIII, led to reforms that modernized the church. As a priest from 1969 to 1974, he served as Boston University's Catholic chaplain. He left the priesthood in part over his disagreements with the leadership after the death of Pope John and the beginning of what Carroll describes as a counterrevolution. He's now an author and a columnist for The Boston Globe. His New Yorker article is called "Who Am I to Judge? A Radical Pope's First Year."

"It's not new for popes to be critical of the free market economy, and it's not new for popes to be concerned about the plight of the poor," Carroll tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "But with Pope Francis there's a centrality, a passion and an urgent insistence that's unique that we haven't seen before."


Interview Highlights

On the significance of "Who am I to judge?"

[The Pope said] "Who am I to judge?" in response to a question about gay members of the Catholic priesthood in an airplane on his way back from World Youth Day in Brazil last summer. He was asked about gay priests and his response was, "Who am I to judge?" A resounding repudiation of a basic assumption of Catholic life, which is: The pope is there to judge.

"Who am I to judge?" You're the pope! That's who you are! It was an astonishing stepping away from the judgmental, authoritarian, imperative-tone-of-voice way in which authority has been exercised by popes — with one exception — going back a couple of hundred years. The exception, of course, is John XXIII, who was pope only from 1958 to 1963. But apart from John XXIII, popes have exercised authority by command.

On the lifestyle Francis has chosen during his first year as pope

Pope Francis ... in that wonderful phrase "Who am I to judge?" is exercising authority by invitation, by words of welcome and by inviting people to imitate the way he lives and the way he behaves. So, his choices of lifestyle — the fact that he doesn't live in the apostolic palace, the traditional residence of popes. He lives in a small, two-room apartment, effectively in the hostel in which the Vatican welcomes visitors. He has turned away from the regalia, the Renaissance style of the papacy. He declines to wear the traditional red slip-ons and wears his old, somewhat worn black shoes.

All of this has touched the imaginations of Catholics and many other people, clearly, and the thing that is moving about it is he initiates change at this level without attacking anybody. He has not named antagonists, he has not criticized other bishops who live like princes. He is basically making changes with a spirit of humility and welcome to other people, and that has touched people very, very deeply, I would say.

On communion as a "barrier"

Communion has been treated as food for those who are not hungry: food for the well-fed, food for the well-behaved. Popes and bishops have used the sacrament of the Eucharist, the mass, as a kind of boundary marker. You're in if you obey all the rules, and you're out if you don't. If you're not a Catholic, if you're a Protestant not in communion with the papacy, if you're a divorced and remarried Catholic, if you're using birth control, if you've committed any of the long list of sins that have been emphasized over the years, don't go to communion. ...

The word excommunication refers to being outside of communion. Pope Francis speaks in a very different way. He said, quite explicitly, the Church is not a toll house; we're not interested in having a barrier here that has to be raised only for those who are worthy. No, communion is for people who are hungry. ... It's for those who are not whole so that they can become whole.

On the tendency to oversimplify "conservative" and "liberal" Catholics

There's a cultural divide between the developing world and what we call "the West," or northern countries, but we shouldn't be too categorical when we say that, for example, Catholics of Africa or Latin America or Asia are conservative as opposed to the liberal or more secular Catholics of Europe or North America. I think that's really oversimple. Basic matters of human life are quite alike.

There are plenty of gay people throughout the developing world. If they're put upon and made to feel judged and at risk — and we know in some countries they're gravely at risk ... their problem isn't going to go away just because it's ordered to go away. So if the church broadly changes its stance on gay people, looks at gay people as Pope Francis invited us to do, the way God would — what does God see? — that will have an effect on other matters of sexuality.

On the church's stance on contraceptives

Nobody has been more vigorous in wishing for a change in the Church's position on contraception, namely the use of condoms, than leaders of the church in Africa, where AIDS has been such a savage killer of men and women. The AIDS crisis alone in Africa alone has been made worse, far worse, by those Catholics who have insisted on the immorality of condom use. You can bet that there are vast numbers of Catholics in Africa who would welcome a change in the church's position on that.

On Francis' commitment to the poor

Just this week, according to the Times and other places, [he] has replaced some very conservative senior figures in the curia with more moderate figures. His intervention seems to be the occasion for the resignation of the German bishop who was living a very lavish lifestyle, spending millions of dollars on his place of residence and the way he lived and so forth. ...

He has made it clear that he's going to measure his behavior as pope and his preaching and teaching as pope against the real effect on the lives of the poorest of the poor.

On the way the pope has handled the authority crisis in the church

The authority structure of the Catholic Church has been crumbling around all of us Catholics for a solid decade and a half. I'm thinking, of course, about the priestly sex abuse scandal. I'm thinking of, in Rome, the way the Vatican itself has been exposed as complicit in crimes of money laundering, perhaps in collusion with criminal elements; the way in which the authority structure of the church itself has been in radical collapse in relationship to some basic teachings like contraception, divorce and remarriage and so on. ...

So when this man became pope, he looked around and saw, in an image of his own, something he warned of, a house of cards that was shaken and maybe in a state of collapse. So it's not only that his conservative, traditional assertions of Catholic positions on hot-button issues has been in some way left behind; it's also that he has been, as I see it, responding to the actuality of the life of the church.

After all, thousands and thousands of Catholic priests, we know now, around the world have been abusing children in the most grotesque of ways in violation of trust and of the meaning of the Gospel that is impossible to articulate fully and appropriately. We know that almost all of the bishops of the world supported them instead of the children. This has led to a catastrophic moral situation for Roman Catholicism. This pope has responded to it, in my view. That's the most important element of his "radical" character is that he's responding to a crisis that preceded him in papacy.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, James Carroll, profiles Pope Francis in the current issue of the New Yorker, in an article titled "Who Am I to Judge: A Radical Pope's First Year." Carroll describes the pope as having unilaterally declared a kind of truce in the culture wars that have divided the Vatican and much of the world.

We're going to talk about Carroll's profile of Pope Francis and discuss Carroll's experiences as a seminarian and priest during another period of great change, Vatican II, which under the leadership of Pope John XXIII led to reforms that modernized the church. Carroll was a priest from 1969 to '74 and served as Boston University's Catholic chaplain. He left the priesthood in part over his disagreements with the leadership after the death of Pope John and the beginning of what Carroll describes as a counter-revolution.

Carroll is a columnist for the Boston Globe and the author of 10 novels and eight books of nonfiction, including several about the Catholic Church. James Carroll, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'd like to talk with you about the difference a pope can make in the daily lives of the laity of Catholics. Give us an example of something that Pope Francis has said or done so far that you think has made a big difference in daily life for Catholics.

JAMES CARROLL: Well, the most dramatic instance that I'm aware of actually the New Yorker chose to use as the title of the article I was privileged to publish, who am I to judge, in response to a question about gay members of the Catholic priesthood in an airplane on his way back from World Youth Day in Brazil last summer.

He was asked about gay priests, and his response was who am I to judge, a resounding repudiation of a basic assumption of Catholic life, which is the pope is there to judge. Who am I to judge, you're the pope, that's who you are. And it was an astonishing stepping away from the judgmental authoritarian imperative tone of voice, way in which authority has been exercised by popes, with one exception, the exception of course is John XXIII, who was pope only from 1958 to 1963.

But apart from John XXIII, popes have exercised authority by command. Pope Francis encapsuled in that wonderful phrase, who am I to judge, is exercising authority by invitation, by words of welcome and by inviting people to imitate the way he lives and the way he behaves. So his choices of lifestyle, the fact that he doesn't live in the apostolic palace, the traditional residence of popes, he lives in a small, two-room apartment in effectively the hostel that the Vatican - in which the Vatican welcomes visitors.

He has turned away from the regalia of the renaissance style of the papacy. He declines to wear the traditional red slip-ons and wears his old, somewhat worn, black shoes. All of this has touched the imaginations of Catholics and many other people, clearly. And the thing that's moving about it is he initiates change at this level without attacking anybody.

He has not, you know, named antagonists. He has not criticized other bishops who live like princes. He is basically making changes with a spirit of humility and welcome to other people, and that has touched people very, very deeply, I would say.

GROSS: Didn't he kind of fire a bishop or a cardinal who had had, like, a gazillion-dollar bathtub installed?

CARROLL: It's true, he's exercised authority. He's actually just this week, according to the Times and other places, has replaced some very conservative senior figures in the curiae with more moderate figures. He did replace - or he was - his intervention seems to have been the occasion for the resignation of the German bishop, who was living a very lavish lifestyle, spending millions of dollars on his place of residence and the way he lived and so forth.

So I don't mean to be understood as saying he isn't exercising authority, but the German bishop is a case in point. He didn't demonize the man, and he didn't say anything in public to embarrass him. And he has made it clear that he's going to measure his behavior as pope and his preaching and teaching as pope against the real effect on the lives of the poorest of the poor.

GROSS: He said something about Communion. He said about Communion that it's not a reward for being good, it's a sacrament of healing to help people. What do you think he means there, and what does that change in terms of the laity and their relationship to, you know, receiving Communion?

CARROLL: Well, you're making a pointed reference to something that was in the apostolic exhortation, as they call it, that was published last month, The Joy of the Gospel, in which he talked about the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist, Communion, in a very different way from the way in his predecessors and other prelates have been talking about it. Communion has been treated as food for those who are not hungry, food for the well-fed, food for the well-behaved.

Popes and bishops have used the sacrament of the Eucharist, the mass, as a kind of boundary marker. You're in if you obey all the rules, and you're out if you don't. If you're not a Catholic, if you're a Protestant not in communion with the papacy, if you're a divorced and remarried Catholic, if you're using birth control, if you've committed any of the long list of sins that have been emphasized over the years, don't go to Communion, don't go to Communion.

The word excommunication refers to being outside of Communion. Pope Francis speaks in a very different way. He said quite explicitly the church is not a toll house. It's - we're not interested in having a barrier here that has to be raised only for those who are worthy. No, Communion is for people who are hungry. This food is for the hungry, is for those who are not whole so that they can become whole.

GROSS: Pope Francis has put an emphasis on helping the poor, and you might think, well, that's an obvious thing to put an emphasis on if you're pope, but it's actually turned out to be kind of controversial. What's controversial about it?

CARROLL: Well, in his apostolic exhortation, as they called it, that was published last month, The Joy of the Gospel, he's savagely critical of what you might call the neo-liberal economic structure of the world economy, this way in which we've organized the finances of the planet that rewards a very small minority of people extremely well and absolutely devastates the vast population of human beings.

And he is - he's been accused of being a Marxist. He's been accused of being an extremist in his economic critique. He would insist that basically he's looking at the bottom-line effect of the way the world economy is organized on the people who are at the bottom of it. And it's not so much an economic argument he's making; it's a matter of right and wrong.

And basically all he's saying is this many people devastated, impoverished at the bottom of the world's pyramid, it's simply unacceptable, and we must change the way the world economy is organized. It's a very profound but very simple critique, reducing economics to a matter of right and wrong.

GROSS: And one of the things he said last month was in this system, which tends to devour everything which stands in the way of increased profits, whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market, which becomes the only rule. And I think that's when Rush Limbaugh called him - called his analysis pure Marxism.

So what's the difference between the emphasis he's putting on the poor and the emphasis that his two predecessors, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict, put on the poor?

CARROLL: Well, and the pope before them, Paul XI. It's not new for popes to be critical of the free market economy, and it's not new for popes to be concerned about the plight of the poor. But with Pope Francis there's a centrality, a passion and an urgent insistence that's unique, that we haven't seen before. He's made it a matter of his own life choices. He himself was the bishop of the poor when he was the cardinal archbishop of Buenos Aires, spent a lot of time in the most deprived and impoverished parts of the city, has made it an urgent part of his life as a priest for a couple of decades at least, was therefore very much a Jesuit, very much a man of Latin America, of both the Jesuits and the Church of Latin America have been in a way tormented into a new position on the rights of poor people as a central concern of Christianity.

So this pope has put it at the dead center of his papacy and of the life of faith.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Carroll. He profiles Pope Francis' first year in the current edition of the New Yorker. Carroll is a former priest who's now a columnist for the Boston Globe. He's written several books about the Catholic Church. Let's take a shorts break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is James Carroll. He profiles Pope Francis' first year in the current issue of the New Yorker. Carroll was a priest from 1969 to '74, serving as Boston University's Catholic chaplain. He's published 10 novels and eight works of nonfiction, including several books about the Catholic Church. He's a columnist for the Boston Globe.

When Pope Francis was Cardinal Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, he was not considered an especially innovative figure in the church. He was seen, I think, as being kind of conservative and opposed gay marriage and the ordination of women, certainly abortion. He was very critical of legalizing gay marriage in Buenos Aires. He really stood in opposition to that movement.

Do you have any sense of what changed?

CARROLL: Well, in addition to being that conservative prelate that you just described, he was also already a quite radical man of the poor. When he became the bishop of Buenos Aires in the early '90s, he declined to move into the bishop's palace. He sold the bishop's limousine and began to travel by streetcar. He lived a simple life, and he made the life of the poor of Buenos Aires the center of his ministry.

So there's that aspect of his - both his personality and his religious commitment that has shown itself for a couple of decades. But the other thing, of course, that's changed is that the authority structure of the Catholic Church has been crumbling around all of us Catholics for a solid decade and a half. I'm thinking of course of the priestly sex abuse scandal.

I'm thinking of, in Rome, the way in which the Vatican itself has been exposed as complicit in crimes of money laundering, perhaps in collusion with criminal elements; the way in which the authority structure of the church itself has been in radical collapse in relationship to some basic teachings like contraception, divorce and remarriage and so on; gay marriage, the latest of these questions.

So when this man became pope, he looked around and saw in an image of his own, something he warned of, a house of cards that was shaken and maybe in a state of collapse. So it's not only that his conservative, traditional assertions of Catholic positions on hot-button issues has been in some way left behind, it's also that he has been, as I see it, responding to the actuality of the life of the church.

After all, thousands and thousands of Catholic priests, we know now, around the world, have been abusing children in the most grotesque of ways, of violation of trust and of the meaning of the gospel that is impossible to articulate fully and appropriately. And we know that almost all of the bishops of the world supported them instead of the children.

This has led to a catastrophic moral situation for Roman Catholicism. This pope has responded to it, in my view. That's what the most important element of his - let's call it radical character is that he's responding to a crisis that preceded him in the papacy. And in my view, again this is debatable, I acknowledge, but this - the scale of this crisis was made palpable by nothing more than the fact that Pope Benedict took the radical action himself of resigning the papacy.

And that was the prelude to Bergoglio's arrival in it. So it's not only that he has instincts that are merciful and humane and generous, it's also that he is responding to a situation that cries out for change.

GROSS: As we were saying, Pope Francis has put such a strong emphasis on working with the poor and on trying to equalize things for people around the world. But at the same time, early in his life in the church, back in the '70s when he was the provincial superior for Argentina, responsible for supervising all Jesuit schools, parishes and missions, and this was from 1973 to 1979, he didn't stand with the priests who were involved with liberation theology.

And liberation theology was a movement that started in Latin America to work with the poor and to stand against the dictatorships and the military juntas that were so prevalent in South America then. And so, like, what was his position back then toward the priests who were involved in liberation theology and working directly with the poor?

CARROLL: Well, it's a hugely important question, and there's no absolutely clear answer on it, in my view, having read what's possible to have read and interviewed people about it. But one of the striking things about Pope Francis is he acknowledges himself as a sinner, as someone, as he puts it, who's made many, many errors and has learned the hard way from the mistakes he made in the past.

And I think he's explicitly talking about his failures to stand up openly and critically to the junta in Argentina. He's criticized for not having done that. And he behaved in ways as a, in his own word, authoritarian religious superior that had the effect, whether he intended it or not, I don't think he did, had the effect of putting at risk priests who worked for him, a couple of priests in particular who were Jesuits working with the poor in Argentina, in Buenos Aires, who when they got in conflict with their religious superior, Bergoglio was the provincial superior, as you said, when they got in conflict with him, apparently the junta used that as a pretext for arresting them and torturing them.

And they were arrested with others who were murdered. The junta murdered tens of thousands of people. The leadership of the Catholic Church was divided. Many bishops supported the junta. Some very few spoke out against it, and Bergoglio was one of those silent ones in the middle.

When he says to interviewers, as he does now, as he has done on a number of occasions this year, that he made many mistakes, that he regrets them, that he regards himself as having sinned, I believe this is what he's talking about.

GROSS: Yes, and some people say what he's doing now is in part atonement for what he neglected to do in the past.

CARROLL: It may be, it may be. It's speculative to say that, but it makes sense to me.

GROSS: Liberation theology was controversial in the church under Pope John Paul II. Even though he stood against communist authoritarianism and dictatorships, he did not stand with the liberation theology priests in Latin America. What was the distinction that he made?

CARROLL: Well, the most important thing to have in mind is that this is all pre-1989. This is...

GROSS: But 1989, you mean there was still a Soviet Union.

CARROLL: Yes, by 1989 - yes, the Cold War was still very, very much on, and Central and Latin America were regarded as a big battlefield between the forces of the West and forces of the East. You know that the United States itself was involved in savage wars in Central America. People were basically forced to choose sides. You were either with the communists, or you're with the forces of democracy, with the United States.

And liberation theology was regarded with suspicion by those who were most paranoid about the Soviet Union, including, because of his own biographical experience, Pope John Paul II, who was - who was politically engaged as a resistor to the Soviet empire in Poland but was refusing to allow the church to be politically engaged on behalf of the poor in Latin America.

And many people think that his issue was the politics of liberation theology. That wasn't it. It was that liberation theology was cast by many people, including leaders in the United States of America, as pro-Soviet, pro-communist. And Bergoglio was in the middle of all that, and the priests he was disciplining were, in my view, heroic figures, standing with the poor.

And the Jesuits themselves were going through a terrible crisis of identity over this and finally threw in with the poor, with the church defining itself as justice and, as we know, a number of Jesuits paid for their commitment with their lives. But it's very important in reviewing these events and Bergoglio's part in them to understand the context.

And it was this profound anti-Soviet, anti-communist paranoia that was the main defining element of the conflict.

GROSS: James Carroll will be back in the second half of the show. His profile of Pope Francis, titled "Who Am I to Judge: A Radical Pope's First Year," is in the current edition of the New Yorker. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with James Carroll. He profiles Pope John Francis in the current edition of The New Yorker in an article titled "Who Am I to Judge? A Radical Pope's First Year." Carroll was a priest from 1969 to 1974, and served as Boston University's Catholic chaplain. He's now a columnist for The Boston Globe. He's written 10 novels and eight books of nonfiction, including several about the Catholic Church.

Your family actually had an audience with the pope. So in talking about Pope Francis and whether he's going to be transformational or not, I'd like to get to the audience your family had with the pope. Not many people have that opportunity. And I'd love to hear what that was like and how you got that audience in the first place. This was what, in 1960?

CARROLL: It was in 1960. My mom and dad were Irish-Americans. This was like going to heaven. My dad was a senior Air Force officer in Europe at the time and because of his seniority, we were given the honor of a private audience with Pope John XXIII. My mom, my dad, my four brothers, my grandmother and me, we were ushered into the pope's - it seemed to me like a sort of private library, may even have been referred to that way. It was a room with red velvet, I want to say wallpaper, but it wasn't paper, red velvet material on the walls. There was a small elevated platform at one end with an elaborate, as I recall, a gold leaf chair that looks slightly like a throne. We were lined up. In came this very small roly-poly figure in white, Pope John XXIII. This was 1960, so it was before the Revolutionary Council he initiated in 1962.

But nevertheless, Pope John was already a different kind of pope. And we saw it immediately when he threw his hands up and cried out, bravo, bravo. And what was obvious to my mother and dad certainly, and to me, was that he was saluting my parents for having a properly big Catholic family, five boys. And he greeted my parents with great warmth. And then he came to each one of us in turn. And when he came to me, he pulled me down to him; I was tall, he was short. He put his face next to mine. I felt the rub of his whiskers and he spoke to me, just to me. He said something into my ear. I had no idea what it was, not even sure what language it was, Italian, Latin, Italian, probably. The point for me is that something about him, his warmth, his deep humanity was palpable. Something about him made me feel embraced by more than just a human being. It was a very holy experience. I've described it in the past as feeling like I was embraced by God.

And that was a defining, pivotal experience for me. I know what it is to be changed by a pope because I let go of my first boyhood dream, which was to follow my dad into the Air Force, and not so much long after that I entered the seminary to train to become a Catholic priest.

GROSS: I think you were in the seminary studying for the priesthood when Vatican II began, which really shook up the church and made it much more open. What changes did Vatican II make in the lives of seminarians like yourself and then in the lives of priest, like the priest you became?

CARROLL: I was privileged to spend my whole seminary time during the years of the council. So my job as a seminarian was to take in the theological, philosophical and yes, political changes that were unfolding day by day and week by week and it was an unbelievably exhilarating experience. The most basic example I can think of is that when the council fathers told us that we could no longer believe or say or preach that, quote, "the Jews killed Jesus," it was, of course, a relief at a very basic level because we were closely attuned in the early '60s, the years of Anne Frank, of "The Deputy," the play about Pius XII, of the trial of Adolf Eichmann. We were closely attuned to the legacy of the Holocaust. And we knew if only implicitly that church teachings about the Jewish people had been somehow implicated in what happened in Germany.

And so for the council fathers to take that on quite directly, no more saying Christ killers, two things happened. One, the beginning of a slow but profoundly transforming change in the way we thought about the Jewish people and Jesus himself, who was Jewish, of course, but also a change in the way we had to understand the Scriptures. We could no longer read the Scriptures literally because the Scriptures, read literally, do say that, quote, "the Jews killed Jesus." A single change that has transformed the meaning of the Christian faith in my lifetime and against 2,000 years of tradition, the Vatican Council said no, it hasn't. Well, that's a small example of a very large transformation.

GROSS: So, in other words, the church was saying not only aren't Jews - not only shouldn't Jews be held responsible for the killing of Christ, but also, their religion is legitimate.

CARROLL: Exactly right. For 2,000 years, the church had been arguing that the Jewish religion was obsolete and that the Jews had been replaced.

GROSS: The Jews blew it by not becoming Christians.

CARROLL: Yes. Well, Jews had said no to Jesus, therefore, God said no to Jews.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CARROLL: It was that simple. And the council said no to that. Another example, I grew up believing that there was, quote, "no salvation" outside the church. I used to go to sleep anguished for my friend Dickey Babb(ph) who lived down the street from me because he was a protestant and I knew he was going to go to hell. It drove me nuts. The Second Vatican Council threw that over in a flash and said that salvation is a matter of following one's conscience, and that all people, including people of no faith, are capable of, quote, "salvation" because they are adhering to the dictates of conscience, to use the council's phrase.

Another revolutionary change in the ideas, basic ideas, of Christian belief, that God loves all people and that all people are offered salvation. Well, that's the ground of tolerance, of respect, of human rights. It's the ground of saying that all people are equal to one another because if they're equal in the eyes of God, which is a new idea in the Catholic Church, then they're equal, wholly equal. This is the Catholic Church embrace of basic principles of human rights, what we might call the basic principles of liberal democracy, that every person is just as good as every other person.

GROSS: OK. So you were lucky enough to be a seminarian during Vatican II and then become a priest while all of this change, all this reform, is happening in the Catholic Church. You're very excited about that. But then things start turning the other way and becoming more conservative again.

CARROLL: Well, it shows how deep these changes went into the church that the church then had a huge second thought about it. And we shouldn't get too hung up about this second thought, it's lasted decades. But it shows how deep into the life and the imagination of the church these changes went.

GROSS: Well, what precipitated that second thought? Was it...

CARROLL: Well, Pope John XXIII died in 1963.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

CARROLL: The council concluded in 1965. The first large signal of the second thought came in 1968, when Pope Paul VI, to the surprise of all Catholics, I would say, issued a reaffirmation of the church's traditional condemnation of birth control, despite the fact that the commission that John XXIII had established to study the question, and that Paul VI had continued, was almost unanimous. Dozens of people, including bishops and priests and laypeople, dozens of people voting almost unanimously to change the teaching so that birth control would've been permitted. When Paul VI issued that encyclical in '68, Humanae Vitae, it was like a door slamming on the Second Vatican Council. And the Catholic people lost confidence in the authority of the hierarchy of the church, which is obvious by the simple fact that the vast majority of Catholic people do not obey the church's prohibition of birth control. So from then on, this authority problem began to reassert itself. And the more bishops and popes, including the successors to Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, the more they sell their authority hollowed out, the more they emphasized it, which was a self-destructive and ultimately a failing strategy, which came to an end when Benedict himself resigned from the papacy. That was the - in my view, that was the signal end of this reaction to the changes that had begun in the early '60s.

GROSS: Of course, really, the aberration was the changes in the early '60s. That lasted a couple of years. Everything before and everything after was kind of consistent with the no change policy, right?

CARROLL: Well, officially yes, Terry. But not unofficially because look at - I mean I was talking earlier about the pope saluting our large Catholic family. That changed. Large Catholic families are not typical anymore. Catholic people make their own decisions of conscience. The Catholic people took the changes of the Vatican Council to heart. There has been no more, effectively no more, teaching of the Christ killer slander. There has been a profound embrace of personal responsibility by Catholic people, even though it's put them in conflict with the hierarchy. The Catholic people have refused. Many Catholics, of course, have just left the church in disgust at the hypocrisies of authority, especially over the priestly sex abuse scandal. But many Catholics have chosen to stay faithful to this church, even though they separate themselves from the way in which authority is exercised.

I'd say that the council has had a profound effect on the life of the church. The hierarchy is now in the position of having to catch up with it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is James Carroll, and he profiles Pope Francis and his first year in the current edition of The New Yorker. Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more.

This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is James Carroll, who profiles Pope Francis in the current issue of The New Yorker. Carroll was a priest from 1969 to '74, and served as Boston University's Catholic chaplain. He's now a columnist for The Boston Globe. He's published 10 novels and eight works of nonfiction, including several books about the Catholic Church.

So getting back to your years as a priest, you're in the seminary during the beginning of Vatican II. But most of your years in the priesthood are after - I guess is kind of midway that...

CARROLL: Yes. I...

GROSS: Yeah.

CARROLL: I was ordained in '69, and I left the priesthood in 1974. It's more complicated for me than I left the priesthood because Vatican II wasn't being fulfilled. But that was certainly an element of it. I saw the reaction begin to set in.

GROSS: Well, tell us about that part of it, that part of the element.

CARROLL: Well, I was a Catholic chaplain at Boston University, where in the throes of what was called in those days the sexual revolution. The question to me wasn't whether the young people I was counseling should be using birth control or not. Of course they should be using birth control. And I actually got in trouble with my religious superiors, the archbishop of Boston, because I was reported for encouraging students who were sexually active to use birth control.

GROSS: Was there a punishment for that?

CARROLL: Well, you know, I was not punishable in a way. I mean these were the anti-war years. These were the years in which, you know, I discovered that I didn't have an authority problem. I had an authority solution. My solution was to say what I thought. And what can I say Terry, my dad was an Air Force general during the throes of the Vietnam War. I was conscripted almost against my will into the Catholic anti-war movement. Going up against my father on the war was a far more threatening and difficult issue than taking on the church on birth control. Birth control was a no-brainer to me in terms of human responsibility. So it's hard for me to put into words the deep coming together of all of these elements. In my own personal life I just was embodying the tensions and the conflicts that are all held under the shorthand now of the '60s. I walked away from the '60s a different person. And, of course, it required me to leave the Catholic priesthood because of the kind of authority I was expected to exercise on behalf of the church, condemning things I didn't believe should be condemned.

But the other thing, the ironic thing, is that the only way for me to be a Catholic was to leave the priesthood because...

GROSS: What do you mean by that?

CARROLL: ...as a Catholic layperson I could make my own choices in conscience as the council had taught me to do. As a Catholic layperson, I could follow my conscience. I didn't have to preach or teach something I didn't believe. And that's why the arrival of Pope Francis for people like me is such a signal of hope. This is truly what we have been waiting for for decades.

GROSS: You describe yourself as a dissenting Catholic. How has your churchgoing experience as a dissenting Catholic changed since the arrival of Pope Francis?

CARROLL: Well, you know, it's really hilarious to get the sense that so many...

GROSS: ...dissenting Catholic changed since the arrival of Pope Francis.

CARROLL: Well, you know, it's really hilarious to get the sense that so many people in church authority are exhaling for the first time in decades and saying this is actually what we believe. I interviewed a Jesuit who put it that way to me: I became a priest to preach the merciful love of God, and finally that's what I get to do.

There is this experience that is talked about in the Catholic press and among Catholics called the Francis effect: people relaxing in their faith, in a way, whether we're gay people or divorced people or people who don't buy the church's teachings on matters of sexual morality, whether we're people who are deeply wounded and still enraged about the priestly sex abuse scandal, we are the church.

And we've been made to feel for decades like there's been something wrong with us. And it's quite clear now with Pope Francis that we're just fine. In fact, he's glad we're still here. And you know what, Terry? I am so glad I didn't bail out on this thing.

GROSS: You mean that you remained a Catholic even if you...

CARROLL: Yeah. Yeah.

GROSS: ...remained a dissenting one.

CARROLL: I mean, I would feel a little foolish right now if I'd be saying, you know, jeez, maybe there's something to this after all. Although I think a lot of people I know are saying that. But - and it's interesting to me that the figure of the pope has such power over the - not just the imagination of Catholics, but the broader imagination of people.

Lo and behold, the man in this position matters. It's partly a matter of, you know, in Western civilization, there are very few structures of culture that go as deeply into the Western imagination as the figure of the pope. It is, after all, an icon we've had with us since the early centuries of the first millennium, and it's very striking to me that it still carries such weight.

GROSS: So, Pope Francis is basically standing against the culture wars and the emphasis on homosexuality and abortion and birth control. But I'm wondering if you think that there might be more of a war within the church now about whether to uphold the old principles or open up again to reform. And I'm asking this particularly because I think the Catholic Church in parts of Africa and even in parts of Latin America are very conservative. And they're probably really opposed to any kind of reform on homosexuality and, you know, maybe on birth control. I don't know - I don't know enough to say, but I know that a lot of the leadership in the churches in those countries are very conservative.

CARROLL: It's true. There's a cultural divide between the developing world and what we call the West or the northern countries, but we shouldn't be too categorical when we say that, for example, Catholics of Africa or Latin America or Asia are conservative, as opposed to the liberal or more secular Catholics of Europe or North America.

No, I don't - I think that's really over-simple. Basic matters of human life are quite alike. There are plenty of gay people throughout the developing world. If they're put upon and made to feel judged and at risk - and we know in some countries they are gravely at risk - still, their problem isn't going to go away just because it's ordered to go away.

So if the church broadly changes its stance on gay people, looks at gay people as Pope Francis invited us to do, the way God would, what does God see, that will have an effect on other matters of sexuality. Look, nobody has been more vigorous in wishing for a change in the church's position on contraception, namely, the use of condoms, than leaders of the church in Africa, where AIDS has been such a savage killer of men and women. The AIDS crisis in Africa alone has been made worse, far worse, by those Catholics who have insisted on the immorality of condom use. You can bet that there are vast numbers of Catholics in Africa who would welcome a change in the church's position on that.

GROSS: James Carroll, thank you so much for talking with us.

CARROLL: It's been my pleasure.

GROSS: James Carroll profiles Pope Francis in the current edition of the New Yorker. You'll find a link to the profile on our website: freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by Michele Rosewoman that combines traditional Cuban music and Yoruban devotional chants with modern jazz. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.