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JAMES CARROLL

I failed Barbara Walters

Barbara Walters’s recent announcement of her retirement brought back awkward memories for me. Once, as she recounted on “The View” last week, she asked Vladimir Putin point blank if he’d ever ordered anyone to be killed. (“Nyet,” came the cold reply.) In my case, Walters’s line of questioning was gentler, but no less insistent. Indeed, in 1972, Walters forced a reckoning with the absurdity of my own position as a dissenting young Catholic priest.

At that time, Walters’s daytime television show was called “Not For Women Only.” A sharp defensiveness was implicit in the name, hinting at the disadvantage facing an ambitious woman journalist in those days. As a chaplain at Boston University, I was an unlikely panelist. But I’d made other television appearances as a spokesman against the Vietnam War and assumed Walters’s show, too, would offer such a platform. Wrong.

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Instead, “Not For Women Only” that week was given over to discussing the season’s hot book, “Open Marriage,” and the related issue of the benefits of marital infidelity. The other panelists were the book’s authors, Nena and George O’Neill, along with a divorce lawyer and a psychiatrist. The show aired five mornings a week, but all the segments were taped in one long session. At the regular breaks, the other panelists went to dressing rooms to change clothes, a different outfit for each day’s show. In my black suit, I stayed on the set. In those days, I rarely wore the Roman collar. My attire — if memory serves, it was a black turtleneck shirt — can’t have pleased the producer, who needed the complete clerical costume for dramatic effect.

As the week’s topics rolled out — sexual freedom, lifting the taboo on divorce, the stifling Puritanical ethic — it became apparent that my appointed role was to be the naysaying Catholic moralist. The show’s interest depended on my playing the closed-minded foil to the other more “open” panelists. In fact, I had no case to make for the era’s sexual revolution — at BU, I saw how so-called “liberation” put girls at a disadvantage — but I was disinclined to be the finger-wagging priest on whom Barbara Walters was counting.

So when my panelists extolled, say, the advantages of premarital sex, Walters would turn to me with something like, “But Father Carroll, the Catholic Church totally condemns sex outside of marriage, right?” To which I would reply with something like, “Let’s back up a bit. The Catholic Church teaches that sex must always be an expression of love — the starting point of morality. The basic principle, therefore . . . , ” I pronounced as calmly as I could, “. . . is that the church opposes sex outside of love.”

I can still recall Walters’s glare, as if I were a former KGB chief avoiding her question. When she pushed back, I held my ground. “Love, not law,” I kept repeating, “that’s the basic principle.” Et cetera. I didn’t see myself as a rogue Catholic; my dogged efforts to shift the discussion reflected the new morality infusing the spirit of Vatican II. But in truth, my “open marriage” colleagues showed how readily the new morality could be made to appear ridiculous.

The next Monday afternoon, I was summoned to the office of the archdiocesan chancellor, an outraged monsignor. The cardinal, I was told, was fielding complaints about a priest who had violated Catholic teaching on television. I explained that I had done no such thing — having never, for example, advocated extramarital sex; I’d simply refused to condemn it.

I can still recall her glare, as if I were a former KGB chief avoiding her question.

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But the cardinal, it seemed, was as vexed with me as Walters had been — an odd pairing. My dressing-down concluded with the direct order that I was never again to discuss sexual morality on TV. Of course, I promised to obey. But then I warned that I would nevertheless appear on “Not For Women Only” every day of the coming week. Patiently explaining about videotape — drawing even greater fury from the monsignor — I didn’t know whether to laugh or weep.

At the time, I bristled at Walters and her show for doing what television does — that is, banish nuance and push people into preconceived roles. In retrospect, she helped, by making the contradictions in my situation glaringly evident.

Meanwhile, in the decades since Walters probed early-’70s sexual morality on national TV, a more authentic kind of liberation, a movement toward gender equality, has begun to triumph. The advancement of girls and women has emerged as a barometer of the planet’s hope. Barbara Walters has been a tribune of that hope, whose benefit has indeed been not for women only.

James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.
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