RIP David Carr: A struggling Catholic voice at The New York Times is gone

If you closely followed the career of media critic David Carr, then you knew that he was a practicing Catholic, yet he also made it clear that he wasn't sure if he was a faithful Catholic. For many readers -- fans and critics -- this made him the perfect New York Times Catholic.

Former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote about some of this in a GetReligion post back in 2011 and, in one of her first bylines at The Washington Post, she produced a quick piece on the religion-angle in Carr's death. Try to ignore this, from the new Post piece:

New York Times journalist David Carr, who died Thursday, had a complicated relationship with religion. In his 2009 book “The Night of the Gun,” Carr wrote about his father’s faith compared with his own.
“My father is a man who swears frequently goes to church every day, and lives his towering faith,” Carr wrote. “I am a man who swears frequently, goes to church every Sunday, and lives in search of faith. He is a man who believes that I am not dead because nuns prayed for me. I am a man who believes that is as good an explanation as any.”

A kind of brass-tacks, but vague, faith shows up again in the most famous passage from that book, in which Carr rips into his own life, exposing a man so hooked on drugs that he would place his own children at risk. How many of you have already seen a piece today in which the following passage -- with good cause -- is featured?

This is from the Times obituary, as the Carr is out trying to score a fix:

... Tonight I had company. I certainly couldn’t bring the twins in. Even in the gang I ran with, coming through the doors of the dope house swinging two occupied baby buckets was not done. Sitting there in the gloom of the front seat, the car making settling noises against the chill, I decided that my teeny twin girls would be safe, that God would look after them while I did not.” ...

That obit, as is the norm, ends with a few lines about the family of the deceased. Those interested in religion news over the past quarter century will be disappointed that the Times team missed one crucial fact here.

Mr. Carr lived in Montclair, N.J. His survivors include his wife, Jill Rooney Carr, international operations manager for Shake Shack; his daughters, Maddie, Erin and Meagan; and several siblings, Jim, John Jr., Joe, Missy and Lisa.
“I now inhabit a life I don’t deserve,” Mr. Carr wrote at the conclusion of “The Night of the Gun,” “but we all walk this earth feeling we are frauds. The trick is to be grateful and hope the caper doesn’t end any time soon.”

In the world of religion news, and post-Vatican II Catholicism, it would be good to note that Carr's brother John was, in fact, a former seminarian and a major newsmaker in his own right. He was, for example, a hero for modern Catholic progressives -- arguably, one of the most important behind-the-scenes Catholics in American politics.

That was captured in the top of this inside-Beltway piece in the Post back in 2012:

For the typical American Catholic, seeing Cardinal Tim Dolan, the country’s top bishop, give the closing prayer at the GOP convention was the big political event of the summer. But for Catholics who know how the church really operates in Washington, something far more significant went down last week: John Carr retired.
For the past quarter-century, Carr has been the most important policy adviser to the country’s Catholic bishops, their Karl Rove on everything from health care to clergy sex abuse. He describes himself as “a 62-year-old, white, round, church bureaucrat,” but Carr’s career is a road map for how Catholicism and politics have mixed in Washington for a generation.

The "Karl Rove" for the bishops? That's a very strange choice of words. There was a reason that Catholic liberals sweated as the bishops searched for John Carr's replacement.

Does all of this say something about David Carr's religious pilgrimage and the importance of his family ties? I would say, "yes."

Those searching, today, for the religion ghosts in the story of Carr's life and career should head straight to Sarah's new Post piece, which sifts through some fascinating material from an NPR interview by Terry "Fresh Air" Gross, the queen of NPR spirituality. This passage will start you off, with some of Sarah's background material:

Carr has been pretty open about his former drug and alcohol addictions, revealing a conversation he had with former executive editor Bill Keller about his memoir. "You know what, we don't hire nuns. We have no problem with your book," Keller told him. Gross finds a way to ask him about his faith, though she prefaces it by saying "This question will probably get too personal." At about minute 28, she asks, "For a lot of people who are giving up an addiction, they're encouraged to find a higher power ... where it's a religion or something else that will function in that way. Was there such a thing for you?" Carr says he's in the middle of a struggle with religion.

Here are some of the key quotes from that confessional session with Gross:

I'm a churchgoing Catholic, and I do that as a matter of, it's good to stand with my family. It's good that I didn't have to come up with my own creation myth for my children. It's a wonderful ... community. It's not really where I find God. The accommodation I've reached is a very jury-rigged one, which is: All along the way, in [substance abuse] recovery, I've been helped without getting into specifics of names, by all of these strangers who get in a room and do a form of group-talk therapy and live by certain rules in their life — and one of the rules is that you help everyone who needs help. And I think to myself: Well, that seems remarkable. Not only is that not a general human impulse, but it's not an impulse of mine. And yet, I found myself doing that over and over again. Am I, underneath all things, just a really wonderful, giving person? Or is there a force greater than myself that is leading me to act in ways that are altruistic and not self-interested and lead to the greater good? That's sort of as far as I've gotten with the higher power thing. I'm kind of a pirate, kind of a thug. I've done terrible things, and yet I'm for the most part able to be a decent person. ... I think something else is working on me.

And then:

One of the things I'm doing is praying, which seems like an uncomfortable, unnatural activity for me. It's to whom, to what, about what? I have a prayer in my wallet that I'm saying. (chuckling) I feel like a complete fraud while I'm doing it, but it's the act of acknowledging that there may be something else out there. I haven't really thought it through, but I think the behavior and the activity will lead to something good. Anything that gets me into a place of something less than self-obsession and gets me into a place of some humility, not even acknowledging a higher power but that other people exist and they're not here as an extension of my world. Part of the reason I got into journalism is I love the stories of other people.

What prayer was that? Keep reading.

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