Jonah Raskin : Lay Monk Tolbert McCarroll on the Pope, the Church, and the Crisis in Catholicism

Brother Toby at Starcross Community.

Interview with Brother Toby:
Author, heretic, and spiritual 
pilgrim at Starcross Community

“The Catholic Church today is an absolute monarchy and an absolute patriarchy that puts you right back in the Medieval Ages.” — Tolbert McCarroll

By Jonah Raskin | The Rag Blog | March 18, 2013

Tolbert McCarroll — better known to friends and family members as Brother Toby — would make a strange and wonderful Pope. Better yet, he’d make a passionate anti-Pope — a one man wrecking crew to batter down orthodoxy, patriarchy, and centuries old dogma.

Born in 1931 and raised in a poor, white, Catholic family in Picayune, Mississippi, he’s been a lifelong Catholic and a soul mate to obstreperous priests such as Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and nuns such as Mary Moylan, all of whom famously burned draft cards in Catonsville, Ohio, to protest the War in Vietnam.

Ever since the 1960s, Brother Toby has aimed to beat swords and B-52s into plowshares, to serve as a gadfly to the comfortable, and to comfort those afflicted with AIDS, HIV, and PTSD. He’s adopted six children and written 10 books including Seasons, A Winter Walk, and Thinking With the Heart.

Now, at the age of 82, he’s a lay monk at Starcross, a rural California monastic order that draws its spiritual nourishment from the original teachings of Jesus Christ. Like the early Christians, Brother Toby is wedded to the simple life close to the earth and in harmony with the seasons and all living creatures.

From Starcross in California to the Vatican in Italy, it’s a long way — some 6,270 miles. But when a new Pope is selected, it feels to Brother Toby as though geographical distances collapse. Along with the sisters at Starcross — Marti Aggeler and Julie DeRossi — and the billion or so Catholics around the world, he trains his eyes and ears on the Conclave – albeit with a certain skepticism. As the Cardinals began to meet, he wrote a letter to followers urging them to wear simple clothes and remain undistracted by the gaudy spectacle in Rome.

Jonah Raskin: What do you make of Pope Francis I?

Brother Toby: He’s the first Jesuit ever to be elected Pope. On matters of doctrine, he’s conservative. He fought against Argentina’s liberalization of gay rights legislation and strongly condemned gays adopting children. He’s also strongly opposed to abortion and euthanasia, but he may be looking for middle ground on issues like birth control.

What’s his reputation in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he was the archbishop?

His personal lifestyle is radically different from that of the Vatican bureaucrats. He didn’t live in the archbishop’s Palace in Buenos Aires, but in a small rented apartment. Moreover, he didn’t use his chauffeured limousine, but took public transportation — he cooks for himself, too.

What about his first appearance as Pope in St. Peter’s Square?

The scene was like the Super Bowl gone wild until he came out as a simple, and, indeed, humble man asking for the crowd’s blessing before giving his traditional blessing to the city and the world. Choosing the name “Francis” after the beloved “poor man of Assisi” fits in with his image. What does the future hold? That’s hard to say.

Would you go out on a limb and make a prediction?

I don’t think he’ll do a lot to solve the painful problems facing the Catholic Church, though the tone at the Vatican will probably be gentler.

A Jesuit friend once said that the Roman Catholic Church had been “a truant in the school of history.” Will Pope Francis I be less truant? 

I hope so. I have never heard his name connected with sexual abuse. That’s a good sign.

Is there anyone you would want for pope?

There’s Gene Robinson, an Episcopal Bishop. He’s openly gay; I’d cast a ballot for him.

How would you characterize the Catholic Church today?

It’s an absolute monarchy and an absolute patriarchy that puts you right back in the Medieval Ages. You can’t have a monarchy like it and accept global responsibility for building a good world.

How do you remember the Popes who have reigned in your own lifetime?

Pius XII shipped Jews off to concentration camps right under his own window. John XXIII was a nice fellow and so was Paul VI. You would have liked to have him over for dinner. John Paul I was Pope for 30 days; he had a heart attack, though conspiracy theorists say he was done in. John Paul II, a superstar and extremely conservative, saw the world as a fight between evil communism and good Christianity. Benedict XVI — known as “God’s Rottweiler” — got rid of the people who wanted to change the church and let it return to the dry, barren ground it is today.

When I think of Catholicism I think of guilt and confession. Is there more than that?

We do make a virtue of guilt, don’t we? Thomas Merton, a wonderful monastic writer, said that any spiritual book had to be autobiographical to be authentic. The confessional has an important place in spirituality. Finding the sacred in nature — that’s a vital part of Catholicism, too.

Has the Catholic Church in America made positive contributions to our society?

It has always been at its best in times of persecution and at its worst when it has had the upper hand. When I was a boy in Mississippi the Ku Klux Klan broke into the chapel we attended and smashed the furniture. Catholics were on the KKK hate list after blacks and Jews. Everyone I knew was left leaning and a Roosevelt democrat.

Brother Toby and friend.

Your parents were church-going Catholics?

My mother was French Catholic. My father was from Arkansas. When he first came to Mississippi he saw a crowd of white men shooting into the corpse of a black man. He asked them why? No one had an answer for him. In the 1930s, a major concern of his was justice for the nine African-American men known as “the Scottsboro Boys” who were charged with raping two white women.

Where did your mother stand on racial issues?

When a black family moved into our neighborhood — after we moved to Oregon — white neighbors assumed she would be afraid of black people and would want them out. Instead, she befriended them.

What happened to Catholics like them?

After World War II and the economic boom, everything changed in the world of Catholicism. It wasn’t just a church for the poor and for immigrants anymore. Catholics moved up in the world and forgot their humble origins. We even had a Catholic president.

I have friends who stopped attending church after they lost a mother, a father, a close friend.

That’s a common phenomenon. One of my colleagues never got over the death of a three-year old child. We’ve had kids with AIDS here at Starcross who died terrible deaths. If there’s a God and he’s good — why does he allow evil? That’s a tough question to answer. And why do bad things happen to good people? That’s another one. Buddhists say that the only sure thing is suffering. I think that’s a helpful way to look at the world.

You’re a Buddhist Catholic, aren’t you?

I’m writing a piece now about Palm Sunday and I’m starting with a quotation from the Dalai Lama who said, “Our prime purpose in this life is to help others. If you can’t help at least don’t hurt.”

These same friends of mine who were born Catholic often attend church on Easter Sunday, but not on any regular basis. The Pope doesn’t own the Church. It’s their church, too, and they have as much of a right to be there as anyone else. Maybe they like the incense or the singing of the psalms. If it’s their heritage they shouldn’t give it up.

You started Starcross in 1968 in San Francisco, didn’t you?

We couldn’t have picked a better year to begin. We knew we were in a period of radical change. It became a crazy environment and I’m glad we came through it. I remember a discussion with a nun who wanted to bring a camel into Grace Cathedral. That was typical of the atmosphere at the time. Finally, she agreed to bring in kids with balloons rather than a camel and have them release the balloons. Predictably, the balloons stayed under the ceiling for a long time.

Why the name Starcross?

It’s from the I Ching: or Book of Changes; there’s a pictogram that looks like a cross and a star. The cross represents suffering and the star represents hope. There has to be balance.

I’ve been to mass at St. Mary Cathedral in San Francisco for Easter Sunday. I’m always surprised when I see women taking a leading role in the ritual itself. I thought that women weren’t allowed to do that.

Women can be lectors. They’re allowed to read from the Bible and they can perform the Eucharist if no men are available.

Are there any women who are Catholic priests anywhere in the world?

A small number of women claimed they were ordained in secret in Poland in a concentration camp. The Vatican has never recognized them.

The Church is so very intensely male.

If there’s a break from the past it will be around the issue of women who, after thousands of years, still don’t have a full voice in the church.

Catholicism is in an acute crisis now isn’t it? I’m thinking of the scandals and cover-ups of sexual abuse.

Sexual abuse goes on and on, though there is less now than there used to be. There is no real transparency in the Church. The underlying principle is “protect the institution.” When the Cardinals gather in Rome it’s like a meeting of the board of directors of a major corporation, say, U.S. Steel.

It’s still bizarre to me — especially with sexually transmitted diseases — that the Church is against birth control.

It’s crazy. We combat AIDS at Starcross and the Church says we can’t use condoms. There are priests who don’t even know what a condom is.

You were once married and had a sex life. You have an advantage over most priests.

I’m a celibate now; I have been since my wife died. Celibacy has to be voluntary. You can’t force it on people. Becoming a priest is a very lonely process. Other priests are supposed to be one’s family, but they don’t meet the emotional needs that a real family provides.

Priests hear the most intimate confessions; they’re inextricably connected to parishioners, but they’re also often ill-equipped to meet the needs of their communities.

Priests are underdeveloped in many basic human ways. They don’t understand a lot of things. Like the priest who complained not long ago to a mother whose kids came to mass with dirty fingernails. She had six kids; he might have praised her for getting them to church, not berated her about a little dirt.

What other trends do you see in the church today?

I see a lot of people, including gays, who want to be Catholics, but who are profoundly dissatisfied with the Church and with its priests. It’s difficult for them to find a spiritual home. There’s mass defection all over Europe and across America, too. At Starcross, we made a total break. We’re separate from the Church and receive no financial support whatsoever from it.

How does Starcross survive financially?

We grow olives that we make into excellent olive oil. A tractor is at work in the orchard right now. It’s the time of year to add manure. At Christmas, we make and sell wreaths.

Do you have any final words of wisdom?

Never let the Church interfere with your religion.

[Jonah Raskin, a professor emeritus at Sonoma State University and a frequent contributor to The Rag Blog, is the author of Rock ‘n’ Roll Women: Portraits of a Generation and Storm City: Ten Prayerful Poems. Read more articles by Jonah Raskin on The Rag Blog.]

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1 Response to Jonah Raskin : Lay Monk Tolbert McCarroll on the Pope, the Church, and the Crisis in Catholicism

  1. Patricia Payne. ... says:

    Wonderful to know SANITY is alive and active at Starcross, with Tolbert leading the WAY…
    Educated by Dominicans I am grateful to have been taught by women who instilled the importance of ones “individual conscience”.. in hindsight religous “sufraggettes”
    Some of Tolbert’s wise words came to me via Virtues Project cards, and now I know who he is, thank you Jonah Raskin, this interview with Tolbert, is Inspiring and us all who hear of him…and his work.

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