James Carroll’s Historical Revisionism
Pope John Paul II, in his Encyclical Letter Redemptor Hominis, reminded us that "the various critical attitudes attacking ab intra, internally, the Church, her institutions and structures, and ecclesiastics and their activities...was certainly due to various causes and we are furthermore sure that it was not always without sincere love for the Church. Undoubtedly one of the tendencies it displayed was to overcome what has been called triumphalism, about which there was frequent discussion during the Council. While it is right that, in accordance with the example of her Master, who is ‘humble in heart,’ the Church also should have humility as her foundation, that she should have a critical sense with regard to all that goes to make up her human character and activity, and that she should always be very demanding on herself, nevertheless criticism too should have its just limits. Otherwise it ceases to be constructive and does not reveal truth, love and thankfulness for the grace in which we become sharers principally and fully in and through the Church. Furthermore such criticism does not express an attitude of service but rather a wish to direct the opinion of others in accordance with one’s own, which is at times spread abroad in too thoughtless a manner" (RH, No. 4).
Mr. James Carroll should reflect very carefully upon these words. For in his zeal to promote a Christian faith which offends no one, his criticism of the Church has exceeded any "just limits" and has degenerated into historical revisionism and bad logic. In an editorial for The Boston Globe, he writes, "The dispute over whether it is appropriate, in public, to say ‘Happy Holidays’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas’ puts me in mind of Cardinal Richard Cushing. He was my boss when I was Catholic Chaplain at Boston University, and I loved him. In the early 1950's, Cushing forced one of the great changes in Catholic theology by excommunicating Father Leonard Feeney for preaching on Boston Common that ‘there is no salvation outside the Catholic Church.’ As is true of today’s exclusivist claims for a Christian meaning of ‘the holidays,’ there was an undercurrent of antisemitism in Feeney’s exclusivist claim for Catholicism. An inch below all Christian triumphalism is special contempt for Jews who reject the idea that Jesus is the saving Messiah. Robust assertions of the one meaning of the winter celebration are a version of the claim that there is only one way to God. Jews may not accept that, but how dare they forbid the dominant Christian culture from celebrating its dominance."
First of all, the Church has never taught that membership in the Church is required of all men under all circumstances. Therefore, it is dishonest for Mr. Carroll to assert that Cardinal Cushing "forced one of the great changes in Catholic theology." In a letter of the Holy Office to Archbishop Cushing dated August 8, 1949, the Holy Office explained that, "The infallible dictum which teaches us that outside the Church there is no salvation, is among the truths that the Church has always taught and will always teach. But this dogma is to be understood as the Church itself understands it. For our Savior did not leave it to private judgment to explain what is contained in the deposit of faith, but to the doctrinal authority of the Church....Of those helps to salvation that are ordered to the last end only by divine decree, not by intrinsic necessity, God, in his infinite mercy, willed that such effects of those helps as are necessary to salvation can, in certain circumstances, be obtained when the helps are used only in desire or longing. We see this clearly stated in the Council of Trent about the sacrament of regeneration and about the sacrament of penance The same, in due proportion, should be said of the Church insofar as it is a general help to salvation. To gain eternal salvation it is not always required that a person be incorporated in fact as a member of the Church, but it is required that he belong to it at least in desire and longing."
The teaching of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that "God has bound salvation to the sacrament of Baptism, but he himself is not bound by his sacraments" (No. 1257) does not represent a "change" in the perennial teaching of the Church. For example, Peter Lombard (1095-1160), taught that Christ has not made his grace dependent on the sacraments: "Ad excellentiam potestatis Christi pertinet quod ipse potuit effectum sacramentorum sine exteriori sacramento conferre" (Sent. IV d I c 5). But this does not suggest that we should ignore the great importance of the sacramental path to salvation in the Church which is the Mystical Body of the Incarnate Son of God and which He founded as a means for our salvation. Such an attitude would be disastrous.
Weaving a story as fascinating and intricate as The Da Vinci Code (and just as idiotic), Mr. Carroll continues with his fiction: "Why was Cardinal Cushing the one to force this change? Cushing’s sister Dolly, an MTA toll taker, was married to Dick Pearlstein, who, with his father Louis, ran the haberdashery that was on the way to being Boston’s best men’s store, which it remains. Cardinal Cushing was often in the Pearlstein home, and he had ample occasion to experience his brother-in-law’s innate goodness. There came to be no question for Cushing as to whether his sister’s beloved husband was beloved of God. That Dick Pearlstein was Jewish - a ‘non-Catholic’ - ceased to have decisive meaning, and Cushing began to take Feeney’s ‘orthodox’ preaching as an insult to his own family. An abstract principle of theology was upended by the sort of cross-group interaction that had become common in America."
What a lovely story about American pluralism overcoming the ugly "bigotry" and "rigid fanaticism" of the Church with love and a message of "tolerance." Problem is, not a shred of it is true except for the fact that Fr. Leonard Feeney had indeed reduced the doctrine of Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus - "Outside the Church there is no salvation" - to the absurd. In fact, Fr. Feeney and his followers had also mistranslated the Latin. For when the Latin Word "extra" is combined with a preposition, it is properly translated as "without." This is significant because, as Pope John Paul II reminded us in his best selling book "Crossing the threshold of Hope": "The Council speaks of membership in the Church for Christians and of being related to the Church for non-Christian believers in God, for people of goodwill (cf. Lumen Gentium 15-16). Both these dimensions are important for salvation, and each one possesses varying levels. People are saved through the Church, they are saved in the Church, but they always are saved by the grace of Christ. Besides formal membership in the Church, the sphere of salvation can also include other forms of relation to the Church....This is the authentic meaning of the well-known statement ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation.’ It would be difficult to deny that this doctrine is extremely open. It cannot be accused of an ecclesiological exclusivism. Those who rebel against claims allegedly made by the Catholic Church probably do not have an adequate understanding of this teaching." (pp. 140-141).
How do we know this story is false? Well, once again, the Church had never taught Fr. Feeney’s interpretation of the dogma Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus. And then we have the word of Joseph Dever, the well-known novelist and one-time feature writer for the Boston Sunday Herald. In his book "Cushing of Boston: A Candid Portrait," Mr. Dever writes that, "In any event, Cushing’s failure to get the Red Hat in 1946 had nothing to do with the Feeney affair, since ‘the contumacious Irishman,’ as Evelyn Waugh once called the latter, did not become defiant of ecclesiastical authority until the early fifties. When we asked Cardinal Cushing about the Feeney case, he threw up his hands in wry alarm and exclaimed: ‘I had nothing to do with it!’" (p. 143).
So much for Mr. Carroll’s fictionalized account of the Fr. Leonard Feeney affair and his claim that this unhappy episode served as some sort of catalyst for a change in Church teaching. What of Mr. Carroll’s belief that we should jettison the words "Merry Christmas" at this time of year and replace this Christian greeting with "Happy Holidays," since the former represents a form of "Christian triumphalism" and "special contempt for Jews who reject the idea that Jesus is the saving Messiah"? It is Mr. Carroll’s contention that the greeting "Merry Christmas" is just another example of a "dominant Christian culture..celebrating its dominance."
If this be true, why then does he advocate the use of "Happy Holidays" as an alternative? After all, by his own admission, "The word means holy." To which he adds, "I recognize in the derided word ‘holidays’ a welcome signal of respect for everyone." Really? What about atheists who feel dominated and excluded by others who wish them a "holy day"? Shouldn’t we respect their feelings as well? And while we’re at it, perhaps we should re-fashion those signs at the zoo which read "Caution: Man-eating lion." After all, lions eat women as well don’t they? I could continue. But you get the idea.
This is a predominantly Christian nation. Therefore, most of us are going to acknowledge our Lord during this season in which we honor His birth. If Mr. Carroll has a problem with this, perhaps he should relocate to a Muslim country where there is so much more respect for diversity and religious freedom.
Paul Anthony Melanson