The Good of the Church

PHILIP F. LAWLER

Governor James Michael Curley wanted a lottery. It was the spring of 1935, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was facing a budget crunch, and Curley saw the lottery as a painless alternative to tax hikes.

At the State House on Boston's historic Beacon Hill, most legislators agreed. Debate had been perfunctory. Support for the proposal was overwhelming; passage of the enabling legislation seemed assured.

Then on May 20, Cardinal William O'Connell weighed in. "I am opposed to a state lottery," announced the powerful head of the Boston archdiocese. A lottery would bring "out-and-out gambling" to Massachusetts, he said, and this would be "a tremendous source of corruption and demoralization."

Within twenty-four hours the lottery was dead.

On May 21 the House of Representatives – where majority support for the measure had previously been unquestioned – voted 187-40 against the legislation. Prior to the vote, one lawmaker after another took the rostrum to explain that when he had spoken earlier in favor of the lottery, he had not fully considered the implications. Governor Curley admitted that he could not withstand the political juggernaut and dropped his plan. The most prominent Boston politician who kept fighting for the initiative was tagged with the dismissive nickname "Sweepstakes" Kelly. The idea of a state lottery would not be taken seriously again in Massachusetts for nearly thirty-five years.

That display of Cardinal O'Connell's clout was dramatic, but not terribly unusual. The cardinal had single-handedly turned the political tide against child-labor restrictions that he saw as tinged with "Bolshevism." He later crushed a move to legalize the distribution of information about birth control. When politicians asked what "Number 1" thought of a proposal, they were referring not to the governor or the mayor, but to the cardinal.

In 1937, Curley was again the victim of the cardinal's influence. Running to regain his post as Mayor of Boston, he faced spirited opposition from Maurice Tobin. On election day, the Tobin forces placed a front-page ad in the Boston Post, quoting Cardinal O'Connell's lament: "The walls are raised against honest men in public life." The ad was framed to suggest that the cardinal was endorsing Tobin, and despite frantic last-minute protests from Curley's supporters, O'Connell did nothing to discourage that impression. Tobin rolled up a comfortable margin of victory.

The political power that Cardinal O'Connell enjoyed was not merely the product of his formidable personality. His stature reflected the public dominance of a robust community that, after generations as a scorned minority, had grown to become the single most important social influence in Boston. Soon Catholics would account for the majority of voters in Massachusetts.

Among those Catholics, about 80 percent attended Mass every week and heard the doctrine of the Church proclaimed in sermons regularly. Many attended parochial schools, where their attitudes toward the world were shaped by the Sisters of St. Joseph and other religious orders. When the Holy Name Society organized a parade, 10,000 men marched through the streets of downtown Boston. A growing number attended Catholic colleges; Boston College and Holy Cross were attracting some of the brightest young men from the families of Irish and Italian immigrants. Lay Catholics joined the Knights of Columbus, the Women's Sodality, and the Altar Guild. They met their future spouses at CYO dances and Newman Club social hours. They identified themselves readily as Catholics, and on religious matters they identified Cardinal O'Connell as their leader.

Cardinal William O'Connell
1859-1944

In 1948 Catholics became a majority in the lower house of the state legislature; in 1958 they captured the upper house as well. Moreover, Catholic social influence was still on the rise. When Cardinal O'Connell died in 1944, he left his successor with 323 parishes: ninety-eight more than O'Connell had inherited when he took the reins of the archdiocese in 1907. Boston's new Catholic leader, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Richard Cushing, quickly embarked on an even more aggressive building campaign, in Boston and out into the distant suburbs, throwing up new Catholic churches and rectories, new schools and hospitals.

The engine of Catholic growth was running smoothly. Catholic parents had large families and sent their children to parochial schools. From there, the religious orders attracted enough young women to supply teachers for the next generation, and the seminary drew enough young men to staff the parishes. When Cardinal Cushing announced that he hoped someday to ordain one hundred new priests for the Boston archdiocese in a single year – a level that no diocese in the world had ever reached – his ambition did not seem unrealistic. As the number of annual ordinations crept up through the '60s and '70s and into the '80s, it seemed to be only a matter of time before it broke into the three-figure category. By every available measure the Church was still rapidly growing, and Catholic influence in the Boston area was still increasing.

And now?

In 2006, the Catholic proportion of the population within the geographical area covered by the archdiocese dipped below 50 percent for the first time in since World War I. Among those Catholics about 35 percent now attend Mass in any given week; the number who attend every Sunday (as required by Church law) is much lower.

The Boston archdiocese has sharply contracted, giving back the gains of the past generation. There are 298 parishes in the archdiocese today: twenty-five fewer than Cardinal Cushing inherited in 1944. More than sixty parishes have been closed since 2002, as part of an unprecedented "reconfiguration" designed to ease a steadily mounting deficit in the archdiocesan budget. The palatial residence built for Cardinal O'Connell has been sold, along with the adjoining grounds. Twenty parish church buildings have already been sold, and a dozen more will soon go on the market. Still the deficit looms, and unless there is some unexpected reversal of current trends more parishes will be closed within the next decade.

There are more Catholics in Greater Boston (in absolute terms) than there were a generation ago. But the affluent young Catholics of the early twenty-first century have not been visiting their parishes often enough, or tossing enough money in the collection baskets, to pay the heating bills on churches that their working-class ancestors sacrificed to build.

Nor are they sending their sons to the seminary or their daughters to the convents. In 2006 just five men were ordained to the priesthood for the Boston archdiocese: one-twentieth of the figure that Cardinal Cushing had set as his goal. Even if every parish could pay its own bills, the archdiocese would necessarily not have enough priests to staff them. The corps of clergy is aging as well as shrinking. Elderly priests are being asked to postpone retirement; there are not enough younger priests to replace them. And this problem is quickly becoming acute; in 2004 there were 130 parishes with a pastor above the age of seventy.

Since most of them are not regularly practicing their faith, or supporting their faith, it would be unrealistic to expect today's Catholics to identify with the teachings of their faith – especially when those teachings clash with the norms of popular culture. (Younger priests have been cautioned by their seminary instructors to avoid preaching about doctrine, particularly controversial doctrine, and so perhaps many Catholics do not even know what the Church teaches.) Sure enough, Catholics divorce and remarry, obtain abortions and sterilizations, use birth control and in vitro fertilization techniques, all at rates indistinguishable from those of their non-Catholic neighbors.

In the mid-twentieth century Catholics had established their own distinct culture in Boston. That culture molded their attitudes toward social and political life, and since Catholics were a majority, their cultural influence thoroughly shaped the society in which they lived. Now somehow that Catholic culture has dissipated.

In the mid-twentieth century Catholics had established their own distinct culture in Boston. That culture molded their attitudes toward social and political life, and since Catholics were a majority, their cultural influence thoroughly shaped the society in which they lived. Now somehow that Catholic culture has dissipated.

Although they are no longer an absolute majority, Catholic voters still command by far the largest religious bloc among voters in Massachusetts. Yet the state's Congressional delegation in Washington is rock-solid in support of legal abortion. Self-identified Catholics still constitute a majority of the politicians in both chambers of the state legislature. Yet in recent months the legislature has repeatedly passed bills that the Catholic bishops opposed – in more than one case, without a single dissenting vote.

The collapse of Catholic influence was most painfully evident in 2004, when Massachusetts became the only state in the Union to give homosexual partnerships the full legal status of marriages. To be sure, the decision in favor of same-sex marriage was made by the state's highest court, but it took effect only after a legislature dominated by self-described Catholics acquiesced in the decision.

What happened?

How did the Catholic faith, which had built up its public influence so steadily during the twentieth century, lose all that influence within the span of a generation? That is the question this book seeks to answer.

The most obvious answer is that the sex-abuse scandal that shook the Boston archdiocese in 2002 sapped the credibility of the Catholic hierarchy. The faithful, according to this explanation, would no longer follow the orders issued by bishops who had allowed their priests to prey on altar boys.

That theory seems compelling at first glance. There can be no doubt that the prestige of Catholicism has suffered enormously as a result of the scandal. But as an explanation of how the Church lost public influence, the theory fails in two respects. First, the decline in Catholic clout was underway long before the first shocking stories of sexual abuse hit the headlines. Second, the sex-abuse crisis hit several other cities before it struck Boston. If the scandal itself could cause a major shift in political alignments, we should have seen the same changes in other communities. But the "People's Republic of Massachusetts" is unique.

Clerical abuse was not a factor in the presidential election of 1972, when Massachusetts was the only state in the Union to cast its electoral votes for George McGovern, a candidate too liberal to suit the voters of the other forty-nine states. The scandal still had not touched public consciousness in 1986, when Massachusetts voters decisively rejected two proposed constitutional amendments: one that would have allowed restrictions on abortion and another that would have authorized public aid to parochial schools. Before the first stories on priestly pedophilia crept into the headlines, Massachusetts had already completed its transformation from a bastion of social conservatism to the most liberal state in the nation, with the Catholic community of Boston in the vanguard.

It has become commonplace to say that the sex-abuse scandal that has shaken the foundations of American Catholicism first erupted in Boston in 2002. That too is inaccurate. The first hints of an emerging scandal had been dropped more than fifteen years earlier, and other dioceses had already been hit by devastating lawsuits before the focus of national attention shifted to Boston.

In 1985 the US bishops received a confidential report on sexual abuse by clerics, warning them that there was "simply too much at stake for the Church" for the hierarchy to ignore the issue. It was 1998 when the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, was ordered to pay an $18 million legal judgment brought on by the multiple molestations of the former priest Gilbert Gauthe. That same year a Texas jury ordered the Dallas diocese to pay over $100 million (later reduced to $31 million) to the victims of another former priest, Rudy Kos. Even in Massachusetts, the revelations about disgraced priests like John Geoghan and Paul Shanley in the Boston archdiocese had been preceded, nearly a full decade earlier, by the trial of James Porter, a defrocked priest who had molested dozens of children while serving in the adjacent Fall River diocese.

Still it is true that 2002 was a watershed year. During that year American Catholics shuddered over one ugly revelation after another, as the breadth and the depth of the scandal became ever more devastatingly apparent. And as the tragedy unfolded that year, Boston occupied center stage.

In one sense it was almost happenstance that gave Boston this central role. A Massachusetts judge was the first to order the public release of Church records that had previously been confidential, thereby providing the public with undeniable evidence of priests' misconduct and bishops' complicity. When other dioceses were later exposed to the same scrutiny, the results were depressingly similar. After those first staggering disclosures in Boston, the revelations elsewhere sounded familiar, and therefore less shocking. But since the pattern of corruption that was first exposed in Boston has subsequently come to light in other cities, it is not unreasonable to fear that the collapse of a traditional Catholic culture, now so evident in Boston, may be coming soon to other American cities.

In Boston, too, the crisis took on added drama because a powerful prelate became the target of public outrage about the scandal; ultimately Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in disgrace. Although many other American bishops have subsequently been forced to step down because of revelations about their own behavior, to date Cardinal Law is the only one who has been ousted because of a failure to curb other clerics' misconduct.

Cardinal Bernard Francis Law

Once the cardinal had resigned, and reporters at the Boston Globe had pocketed their Pulitzer Prize awards for the investigative series that led to his downfall, public interest in the scandal began to evaporate. The tawdry facts of the case were too painful; readers tired of the story, and wanted closure. Cardinal Law's resignation provided a convenient sort of punctuation, and the public gaze turned to other subjects.

The cardinal stepped down, and the headlines gradually stopped. So it would not be unnatural to conclude that this one man, Bernard Law, was the source of the problem. But that conclusion is wrong. In hastily accepting it, most observers have missed the opportunity to probe deeper into the real reasons for the tragedy that has shaken the Catholic Church.

Convenient though it may be to cast Cardinal Law as the leading villain in the nationwide drama of sexual abuse, that characterization is grossly unfair. The cardinal was steadfast in upholding Church teachings, and critics of those teachings were fond of depicting him as a stern, unyielding dogmatist, impervious to human feelings. But those of us who saw him at work in Boston – who knew about the countless late-night hours he devoted to visiting the sick, the hundreds of unexpected phone calls he made to comfort the bereaved, his willingness to let paperwork pile up on his desk while he helped a troubled soul work through a personal problem – could never recognize him as the callous tyrant depicted in so many headline stories.

Furthermore, if Cardinal Law had been unusually malicious, or uniquely incompetent in handling the crisis, then his behavior should have been markedly different from that of other American Catholic bishops. It was not. He did what other bishops had done, were doing, and would do. All those bishops who had shirked their responsibility were guilty, but Law's guilt was exposed first.

In fact, in retrospect the resignation of an influential cardinal is the only aspect of the story that makes Boston's role unique. The dimensions of the scandal in Boston are not especially remarkable; other dioceses have shown the same pattern of protecting predatory priests and ignoring the suffering of their victims. But the response to the crisis, in a region where the Church was already suffering from dwindling attendance at Mass and widespread indifference to Catholic teachings, makes Boston's experience a fascinating case study.

To understand the impact of the sex-abuse crisis, one must first understand the nature of the scandal – or rather, to be more accurate, of three scandals that emerged simultaneously. Yes, there are three scandals – closely intertwined, but easily distinguishable – that have combined to ravage American Catholicism at the dawn of the twenty-first century. For the sake of convenience we can conflate these three problems, making use of a single rubric, the "sex-abuse crisis," as I do throughout this book. But at the outset it is important to distinguish among them.

The first scandal is the sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests. The depravity of the priests' behavior, the betrayal of a fundamental trust that had been placed in them, the corruption of innocence: all these factors made their crime repellent, and the public exposure of their hypocrisy understandably caused a nationwide sensation. Still, as difficult as it is to overstate the harm done by these priests, it is necessary to keep their crimes in some perspective.

Although the absolute number of priests engaged in this vile activity was shocking, the predators composed only a very small percentage of the priests serving in the US. Their sins, loathsome as they were, are still understandable. Anyone who accepts the Christian understanding of Original Sin realizes that all of us are capable of the most degrading, vile transgressions. And while we expect priests to adhere to a higher code of ethical behavior, every Catholic moralist knows the principle Corruptio optimi pessima est: the corruption of the best is the worst of all. Furthermore, Church leaders have finally recognized the scandal of clerical abuse and taken aggressive action to remove predators from the priesthood. From all available indications, the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests is much less widespread today than it was ten or twenty years ago.

When they gathered in Dallas in June of 2002 to devise a nationwide response to the sex-abuse scandal, the American bishops devoted their attention exclusively to the first of these three interrelated scandals. Efforts by a few isolated bishops to recognize the other important dimensions of the scandal – the influence of homosexuality and the negligence of bishops – were quickly rejected.

The second scandal is the prevalence of homosexuality among Catholic priests. When the first stories about clerical misconduct began to emerge, ordinary Catholics began asking questions about the sexual predilections of American priests, and they naively continued to ask those questions, no matter how frequently they were told – not quite accurately – that the issue under discussion was pedophilia rather than homosexuality. The answers to their persistent questions suggested that the number of Catholic priests with homosexual inclinations was far out of proportion to the number of homosexuals in society at large. Moreover, there was circumstantial evidence that homosexual priests formed an influential clique that actively discouraged priests from exposing their colleagues' peccadilloes. The existence of such a "lavender mafia" could help to explain why Church officials failed to discipline priests who molested children.

When leaders of the US bishops' conference traveled to Rome in April 2002 to discuss the crisis with top Vatican officials, they acknowledged the importance of grappling with the influence of homosexuality, especially in the seminaries, where the habits and attitudes of future priests are formed. But even before they left Rome, the American bishops were backing away from that recognition, retreating in the face of critics who would not countenance any criticism of homosexual priests. The question of homosexual influence soon was removed from the agenda of the American hierarchy, and in their later public statements the leaders of the US bishops' conference actually sought to deny what they had acknowledged during those talks in Rome, arguing, against all available evidence, that the sex-abuse crisis could not be attributed primarily to homosexual priests.

The third scandal is the abdication of authority – or worse, the complicity – of American bishops when they were confronted with the evidence of clerical abuse. The bishops could have, and should have, ensured that a priest who molested children or traduced adolescents would not have the opportunity to commit that crime again. Instead, as the dreary public revelations of the last decade have shown, scores of American bishops chose to ignore complaints about abuse, to conceal the evidence that was brought to their attention, and to give predatory priests one opportunity after another.

The first aspect of the scandal, the sexual abuse of children, has been acknowledged and addressed. The second aspect, the rampant homosexuality among Catholic priests, has been acknowledged but not addressed, and later even denied. As a result the homosexual influence within the American clergy is even stronger today than it was before the sex-abuse scandal erupted. But the third aspect of the scandal has never even been acknowledged by American Church leaders.

While a small minority of American priests has been involved in sexual abuse, a clear majority of bishops was party to the cover-up. The priests who have been found guilty of sexual abuse have been removed from ministry, but the bishops who betrayed their own sacred trust by countenancing sexual abuse remain in office. Whereas the misconduct by priests has been acknowledged and addressed, the administrative malfeasance of American bishops has still not been acknowledged – at least not by the bishops themselves – and not remedied. For all those reasons the third scandal, the scandal of episcopal misconduct, is today the most serious of all.

When they gathered in Dallas in June of 2002 to devise a nationwide response to the sex-abuse scandal, the American bishops devoted their attention exclusively to the first of these three interrelated scandals. Efforts by a few isolated bishops to recognize the other important dimensions of the scandal – the influence of homosexuality and the negligence of bishops – were quickly rejected. Consequently the policies that the bishops established, promising prompt suspension of any priest credibly accused of molesting a child, did nothing to restore public trust in the hierarchy itself. Bishops who showed an icy insensitivity to the suffering of young victims and who lied repeatedly to conceal their own guilt remain in power today. Even those bishops who were themselves caught up in compromising sexual activity have been allowed to resign quietly, preserved from public criticism by their colleagues – or have even been allowed to remain in office despite clear evidence of personal wrongdoing.

In short the US bishops have responded to these crises by protecting each other. But why have they done so? Why has there been no move – not even by a reforming minority – to root out the corruption that has been so clearly exposed in the American hierarchy?

For that matter, when they first encountered the evidence that priests were abusing children and corrupting adolescents, why did so many bishops fail to take prompt and decisive action? What possible incentive did they have to cover up the evidence of such appalling crimes?

Certainly there is nothing in the teaching or traditional discipline of the Catholic Church to justify such a lackadaisical response to clerical abuse. Catholic morality is notoriously strict in regard to sexual sins. And very few passages in the Gospels are as strongly worded as the one in which Jesus condemns those who corrupt innocent youth: "It would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea" (Luke 17:2).

So the question persists: Why did Church leaders ignore the clear message of the Gospel, the undeniable thrust of Catholic moral teaching, and the institutional wisdom that had been collected over 2,000 years and codified in Church law?

For centuries Church leaders acted on that understanding. St. Basil, a fourth-century pioneer of monasticism in the Eastern Church, ruled that any monk who molested young men should be monitored for the rest of his life to ensure that he never had the opportunity to repeat his crimes. St. Peter Damien wrote in his Book of Gomorra (1096): "We conclude that just as the sacrilegious violator of a virgin is deposed by law, so the prostitutor of a spiritual son must be barred from his ecclesiastical office by every means possible."

The Code of Canon Law, the Church's internal legislation, reflects the wisdom that the Church has accumulated through twenty centuries of observing human frailty; the Code sets out a procedure to be followed when priests were accused of sexual abuse and stipulates harsh penalties for those who are found guilty. But in practice the American bishops almost never invoked the provisions of canon law in recent years; they handled the priests' transgressions informally – even when the same priests were accused again and again.

In some ways it would seem easier to explain this remarkable failure of leaders by starting with the premise that the American bishops were moral monsters: that they had no interest at all in the welfare of young people or the teaching of the faith. But even that extreme hypothesis does not afford a satisfactory explanation. If a bishop were motivated by nothing but the basest sort of cynical self-interest, he would still have every incentive to remove a priest who threatened to molest children. That priest was likely to create problems; a purely selfish bishop would want to be rid of him.

So the question persists: Why did Church leaders ignore the clear message of the Gospel, the undeniable thrust of Catholic moral teaching, and the institutional wisdom that had been collected over 2,000 years and codified in Church law?

The few prelates who have bothered to explain their conduct have said that they thought were acting for the good of the Church. Now at first glance, that explanation is simply incredible. How could "the good of the Church" possibly be served by the exploitation of children, by betrayal and lies? The Catholic Church sees herself as the mystical Body of Christ; how could it be helpful to the body to ignore a cancerous growth within?

Clearly, any bishop who tolerated abusive priests, covering up the evidence of their crimes, was guided by a very strange, unhealthy understanding of his own pastoral responsibilities. These prelates were, at best, protecting the public reputation of Catholicism. But the engine of the Church runs on God's grace, not on public acclaim; the Church has been most vigorous at times when the faith was held in contempt and even openly persecuted. The Body of Christ does not need a clumsy public-relations campaign. As St. Augustine tersely put it, "God does not need my lie."

The effort to keep ugly secrets from public view would make more sense if the Church saw herself as a purely human institution, depending on public support for her strength. If some isolated scandal arose within a local branch of the Rotary Club, we might all agree to keep the matter quiet, to preserve the club's image. Rotarians are good people, after all, and their clubs do a great deal of good work within the communities. If they ever lost their reputation for these good works, the Rotary Clubs would be doomed, because they have no other source of strength.

Not so with the Catholic Church. Anyone who embraces the faith – or even understands Catholicism from an outsider's perspective – knows that the Church relies on Christ, and models herself after a Savior who died in ignominy. Faithful Catholics should never allow superficial concerns about public perception to trump an unmistakably clear moral imperative. Yet many American bishops did exactly that.

Nor were they alone in doing it. Scores of the priests who have now been convicted as molesters were known to the police years ago, but never formally charged with any crime. Police and prosecutors sloughed off their own responsibilities many times, accepting a bishop's promise that the offending cleric would be "taken care of" and agreeing to keep the case quiet. These law-enforcement officials evidently believed, as the bishops believed, that pressing charges would not be good for the Church; and since the Church was a pillar of the community, it followed that prosecution would not be good for the community.

How did public officials come to such an understanding? They learned it, I will argue, from their pastors, and ultimately from their bishops. For more than a generation, the American hierarchy has done its best to convey the impression that the Church is a noble civic institution – that the demands of Catholicism will never clash with the claims of a democratic government. (You might say that this argument is the ecclesiastical equivalent of Charles Wilson's belief that "what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.") When Church-state conflicts did arise, many Catholic leaders were quite willing to sacrifice the claims of their faith in order to minimize the conflict and preserve their privileged status as community leaders.

In the 1950s, an Archbishop of Boston discouraged a priest from his energetic public preaching of a defined Catholic dogma because some people found that dogma offensive. A decade later the same archbishop – now a cardinal – announced that Catholic legislators should feel free to vote in favor of legislation that violated the precepts of the Church.

Yet again, the most conspicuous examples of this attitude have been shown in Massachusetts. In the 1950s, an Archbishop of Boston discouraged a priest from his energetic public preaching of a defined Catholic dogma because some people found that dogma offensive. A decade later the same archbishop – now a cardinal – announced that Catholic legislators should feel free to vote in favor of legislation that violated the precepts of the Church. In 1974 his successor encouraged Catholic parents not to send their children to parochial schools. And in 1993 yet another Boston archbishop instructed the faithful that they should not pray outside abortion clinics. In each of these remarkable cases, the Archbishop of Boston obviously thought that he was serving the cause of community peace. But just as obviously, he was yielding ground, and encouraging the Catholic faithful to yield as well.

And to what end? Today the bill for the sex-abuse scandals has come due, and the Church is paying a frightful cost – in public stature as well as in cash – for the bishops' pastoral failures. With their efforts to preserve the Church from criticism, they succeeded only in bringing down much greater obloquy upon the Church. If Church leaders had acted decisively and forthrightly to discipline the priests who molested young people, and to remedy the defects in clerical discipline that had allowed this sort of aberrant behavior, the faithful might have been shocked, but at least the public revulsion would have been directed where it belonged: at the erring individuals. Instead, by becoming silent partners in the scandal, the bishops have jeopardized the credibility of the Catholic faith itself.

The bishops made a fool's bargain. They were prepared to sacrifice the essential elements of the Catholic faith: the moral teaching, the clerical discipline, even the loving care for the faithful. In return, they hoped to prop up the prestige of the institutional Church. But whatever prestige the Church enjoys is based on public respect for those essential elements of religious faith. When the disgraceful stories eventually hit the headlines, the bishops could no longer fall back on the conventional respect they had once taken for granted. They were willing to sacrifice their apostolic mission to preserve their prestige; in the end they were left with neither mission nor prestige.

Critics of Catholicism, seeing this disaster as evidence to support their own views, have often observed that the bishops erred by devoting their attention to the institutional Church rather than the needs of the faithful. That explanation is misleading because it assumes that the Catholic faith can somehow be separated from the Catholic Church. It cannot.

The Catholic Church is an institution. To draw a distinction between an abstract body called "the Church" and the individual persons who hold the faith is to deny a fundamental tenet of the faith passed down from the apostles: that the Catholic community forms a single body, united across time and space. Like any other organization comprised of human beings, the Church has concrete needs: for buildings in which to worship and administrative structures to organize activities and resolve conflicts. The buildings and the bureaucracies may come and go; the man-made structures may change with time. Yet these structures belong to the Christian community – which is to say, they belong to all believers.

Has the leadership of the Catholic Church served the interests of that community of believers? Of course there could be as many different answers to that question as there are different ways to define the interests of the Christian faithful. Someone who disagrees with Church teaching on one or more key points might believe that the faithful would best be served by a change in doctrine. Or to take a more extreme case, a zealous Protestant who sees the Vatican as the Whore of Babylon would presumably argue that Catholics would all be better off it they simply left the Church. These might be reasonable arguments, which should be address reasonably: but not here. This book is not primarily a work of apologetics, and I do not directly address the arguments of those who reject Catholicism, in whole or in part, on theological or ideological grounds. My goal, instead, is to help the reader understand the interests of the faithful from an orthodox Catholic perspective. Whether or not he accepts the Catholic faith, a fair-minded observer should see the logic of judging the Church by the standards she has set for herself, in authoritative statements like the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Christianity is an incarnational religion: a faith that teaches that the birth of Jesus Christ did not abolish human nature, but raised it to a new dignity. Some religions disdain the body; they see the concrete world as an illusive trap, ensnaring souls that should be liberated to enjoy some sort of disembodied bliss. Not so the Catholic Church, which has always insisted that the spiritual world cannot be neatly severed from the physical world, and has always venerated those who, like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, devote themselves to serving the material needs of others. The spiritual mission of the Church is inextricably linked to her worldly mission.

My goal, instead, is to help the reader understand the interests of the faithful from an orthodox Catholic perspective. Whether or not he accepts the Catholic faith, a fair-minded observer should see the logic of judging the Church by the standards she has set for herself, in authoritative statements like the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Still it is only natural to make some common-sense distinctions between the sacramental life of the Church and the pedestrian work of the bureaucracy – between the missionary who preaches the Gospel and the diocesan clerk who handles the paperwork. Every believing Catholic supports the life of prayer, but the routine work of the ecclesiastical bureaucracy is not easy to love.

In everyday English usage, Catholics make this distinction – often without noticing it – by referring to the Church as "she" or as "it." "She" is the spotless Bride of Christ; "it" is the administrative machinery. "She" is the community of believers at prayer. "It" is the jumbled collection of buildings and budgets. "She" is a living body of faith. "It" is a deadening bureaucracy. For most practical purposes this distinction may be useful (and careful readers will notice that I use it throughout this book), but it must be handled with care.

Consider, for example, my own relationship with my wife. I am very happily married. Leila is my best friend, the love of my life, my soul-mate, and my spouse. She also does the cooking. Each year I claim her as a dependent on my income-tax return. The woman who serves dinner is not different from the woman I married; the woman who affords me a tax exemption is the same one who bore our children. There is only one person here, playing different roles; there is no distinction to be made. But if I were to begin thinking of my wife primarily as a cook and a tax deduction, our marriage would quickly be in trouble.

So too with the Catholic Church. The "institutional Church" that critics disdain cannot be neatly separated from some idealized, disembodied community. There is only one Church, indivisible. But it would be foolish to pretend that the Church does not have different facets: different faces that she shows to the world. Some aspects of life in the Church have transcendent purpose and infinite value. Others are merely necessities and undeniably mundane, they have meaning only insofar as they serve the transcendent purpose. If Church leaders concentrate on the mundane to the exclusion of the transcendent, the faith will suffer.

In Boston, the faith has suffered.

The thesis of this book is that the sex-abuse scandal in American Catholicism was not only aggravated but actually caused by the willingness of Church leaders to sacrifice the essential for the inessential: to build up the human institution even to the detriment of the divine mandate. I argue that in Boston, Catholic culture lost first its integrity and then its power because Church leaders made the same fatal mistake, offering their first fealty to the church that is "it" rather than the Church that is "she." If my thesis is correct – if American Catholicism has been corrupted because Church leaders were pursuing the wrong goals – then it should not be surprising that the results have been most disastrous in the Boston archdiocese, where Church leaders had been must successful in pursuing those goals.

In 2002, when the sex-abuse scandal was in the headlines daily, Senator Rick Santorum, a Republican from Pennsylvania, made an interesting observation about the turmoil in Massachusetts. "When a culture is sick, every element in it becomes infected," the conservative lawmaker said. "While it is no excuse for this scandal, it is no surprise that Boston – a seat of academic, political, and cultural liberalism in America – lies at the center of the storm."

Santorum's effort to draw a causal link between liberal attitudes and sexual abuse drew howls of outrage from his ideological rivals. (The outrage arose nearly three years after the publication of the column in which Santorum made that statement, but the tardiness of the response – obviously timed to damage the senator's re-election campaign – is irrelevant to our purposes here.) They pointed out, quite accurately, that sex-abuse scandals have been exposed in many more conservative communities, so that liberalism cannot be the cause.

Still Senator Santorum was more than half right. Liberalism did not cause sexual abuse. But at least in Massachusetts, the triumph of political liberalism in the late twentieth century was not unrelated to the emergence of the sex-abuse scandal early in the twenty-first. Both trends were symptoms of the same underlying cause: a corruption that began when Church leaders betrayed their primary responsibilities.

What has happened in Boston can happen elsewhere. Throughout this book I will offer comparisons between the situation in Massachusetts today and the situation that other Catholic communities are facing, or may face in the near future. In Dallas, in Philadelphia, and in Los Angeles (to name only a few cities), the full dimensions of the sex-abuse scandal have not yet been explored, and the results could ultimately be as catastrophic as they have been in Boston already.

And what has happened to the Catholic Church can happen to other religious denominations. This book should serve as a cautionary tale. Any conservative Christian body, fighting to preserve the integrity of the Gospel message against the advance of secularization, should be wary of the same dangers. The faith will always face resistance, and Church leaders will always be tempted to tailor their messages to suit the latest fashions. But when the quest for public affirmation takes precedence over the demand for integrity to the apostolic tradition, the results are predictable. The church that caters to public opinion may enjoy a short burst of superficial success, but in the long run it will lose both integrity and popularity.

The thesis of this book is that the sex-abuse scandal in American Catholicism was not only aggravated but actually caused by the willingness of Church leaders to sacrifice the essential for the inessential: to build up the human institution even to the detriment of the divine mandate.

The harshest critics of the Church might say that the steady erosion of Catholic influence in Boston was caused not by strategic errors on the part of Church leaders, but by the inadequacy of their message. Enlightened believers (they might say) threw off the shackles of Roman authority to embrace a more modern approach. But it is only fair to point out that not even the most vociferous anti-Catholic bigots ever envisioned the sex-abuse scandal; no one suggested that the disintegration of Catholic authority would occur in this spectacular fashion; so no one should claim that the debacle has vindicated his theory.

No doubt there are many people rejoicing at the demise of Catholic influence, in Boston and elsewhere. Many people would argue that the Catholics of the early twenty-first century have come to a new maturity, adopting a more modern approach to the faith. But that argument, too, begs the question. If the model of Catholicism that prevailed in the mid-twentieth century is no longer valid, what is the best model for public Catholicism today?

If the Church should have any public influence, what should that influence be? To say that the Church should accept the norms of secular society on the most hotly contested issues of our day – such as abortion and contraception, divorce and same-sex marriage, sterilization and in vitro fertilization, stem-cell research and assisted suicide – is to say that Catholicism should have no public influence at all. Even those anti-Catholic bigots who embrace that view, if they are honest, should admit that their recent advances in these political debates have come not when they defeated the Catholic opposition in intellectual combat, but when their rivals left the field without a fight.

Again, in recent decades the rout of Catholic social thought has been most complete in Greater Boston. In the space of my lifetime, from 1950 to the present, Catholic influence in public life has plummeted, from a position of seemingly absolute dominance to one of near-universal contempt.

No, the collapse of Catholicism in Boston did not begin with the sex-abuse crisis of 2002. That crisis itself was the manifestation of corruption that had begun long, long ago. The corruption was evident decades ago, when Cardinal O'Connell – the same powerful prelate who could scuttle a popular legislative initiative with a single statement – learned that a prominent priest was engaged in gross sexual misconduct. The cardinal chose to leave that priest in office, and cover up the evidence of his transgressions. No doubt he told himself that he was acting "for the good of the Church."

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Philip F. Lawler. "Introduction: the Good of the Church." from The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. (New York: Encounter Books, 2008), 1-17.

Excerpted by permission of Encounter Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

| Encounter Books | Hardcover | 2008 | $25.95 | ISBN-1594032114

THE AUTHOR

Phil Lawler is Director of the Catholic Culture Project. Born and raised in the Boston area, Phil Lawler attended Harvard College, graduating with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. Phil Lawler has been active in politics as well as journalism. He has been Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank based in Washington), a member of two presidential inaugural committees; and a candidate for the US Senate.

As a journalist, Phil has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. From 1993 through 2005, Phil Lawler was the editor of Catholic World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996, recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic World News: the first online Catholic news service.

Phil Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics most recently The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.

Phil lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven children.

Copyright © 2008 Philip F. Lawler




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