First of all, this has got to be one of the best book titles, ever.
Phil Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, has written an account of the Catholic Church in Boston that focuses on the collapse of visible Catholic life in the area as well as the clerical sexual abuse crisis.
For those who have been following the Boston scandals since 2002 (or even before, with the Porter case, which was not Boston, but in the area, and reflective of the culture), there is not a whole lot new here. Some, but a great deal of the book is dedicated in detailing those particular cases. In this respect, Lawler provides a useful primer for those who don’t know the awful details and a helpful reminder for those who do.
But in another respect, Lawler does something more. He reaches back through the history of Catholicism in Boston and tries to understand exactly how and when bishops in this area lost their nerve. When and why did they start accomodating with political culture, in particular, that held so many goals in opposition to Church teaching?
If you’re interested in the answer to the question, let Lawler take you on the guided tour. It’s illuminating. Some of it might be familiar territory, but others – such as the Church’s role in the bussing wars of the 1970’s – ordering area Catholic schools to put a cap on enrollment so they couldn’t be used by parents avoiding bussing – was new to me. HIs treatment of the Feeney business was different from any that I’ve read – it would be worth comparing it to other accounts. (The ultimate point being the contrast between the strong treatment of Feeney with the non-treatment of others in subsequent decades, like Robert Drinan).
One can’t fault a book for not fulfilling one’s pre-reading expectations, but the one thing I thought I’d find in the book but didn’t was a treatment of changes in church life beyond the chancery. What was going on in Catholic schools and other institutions? Parish religious education? Liturgical life? The priesthood and religious life? Lawler treats these questions more broadly, in the “this is the post-Vatican II Church landscape.” I had hoped for an accounting of that more specific to Boston.
In the end, this book is less about the faithful departed than it is about bishops charged with leading the faithful.
Over the past few years, Catholics in the United States have become more aware of the responsiblities and role of a bishop than they ever have been before, and more aware of the strengths and weakness of not only their own bishops, but bishops around the country. Sometimes we are faulted, and rightly so, for speaking of “the bishops” as a homogeneous group, equally at fault for whatever we choose to blame them for.
The injustice in blaming “the bishops” for everything lies in the fact that there are many very good and faithful bishops who are living deeply faithful lives, trying to shepherd us despite the daunting obstacles of a hostile culture, a sometimes uncooperative presbyterate and chancery staff and a laity that wants a thousand different things, many of those things sitting in contradiction.
But the other side of the coin is that the bishops do, indeed, act in concert, as a conference. They may object to being characterized as speaking in one voice, but the fact is, they do. It doesn’t matter if Bishop A or Bishop X believes that stronger, more vigorous action should be taken in a certain area or if Bishops M, N and O are disgusted with the behavior of Bishop R. Good for them, but if they allow the cautious majority to set the direction and speak for all, either to the Vatican or to the rest of us, the complaints that we shouldn’t characterize “the bishops” as a monolith doesn’t hold much water.
The story Lawler tells is of an episcopacy weakened by accomodation and fear of disapproval by political and social elites (and perhaps with secrets to hide as well). The trickle-down effect of the accomodationist gestalt is that what is ultimately communicated to the rest of us is that none of this really matters. It’s changeable. It’s not worth sacrificing for.
Of course, there are several other aspects to this story and one that bears repeating again and again is the questions that laity must ask ourselves. A writer who has looked into the abuse crisis extensively told me that along with what we would expect, the most dismaying elements of the situations he researched was the laity’s frequent resistance to their beloved priests being disciplined for abuse – even abuse or other crimes to which they had admitted.
(Related – if you have a chance, catch the documentary, The Sermons of Sister Jane. We caught part of it on IFC the other night. It’s about Sister Jane Kelly, who blew the whistle on Bishop G. Patrick Ziemann. Instructive and depressing, but not surprising.)
I’m not here to dissect this whole situation all over again. What I want to toss out there today is the possibility that there is still a problem with the conviction that Episcopal Tin Ear Syndrome is active and largely untreated.
What bishops – please assume the caveats I outlined above as I use the general term – don’t seem to grasp or perhaps don’t care about is that many out here beyond the chancery are convinced that bishops’ decisions and statements are essentially motivated by:
1) The desire to protect clerical privilege and status
2) A concern with the opinions of elites and large donors
3) Fear of the IRS
So yes, there’s cynicism. And it’s not going to change until the day when someone in a mitre, somewhere, has something more to say about fellow bishops’ malfeasance than “mistakes were made based on incomplete information and flawed assumptions.”
And, I think it’s important to add, the cyncisim only deepens when those who claim that it is the duty of the Catholic Christian to live prophetically find it impossible to act prophetically themselves.
I have always wondered how long it would take for those in leadership to see the big picture: That if you, as the primary teacher of the people in your diocese, accomodate – which is not the same as pastoral sensitivity, although the line can be fuzzy – as I say, if you accomodate, hedge and stay silent, how can you expect the people you lead to act differently? Simply put. if you’re going to accomodate, we are, too, and you abdicate your moral authority to stand up there and call us to sacrificial fidelity, no matter what the cost.
Not to mention, if you ignore or even discourage faithfulness to liturgical and catechetical directives from Rome in your diocese, you abdicate the moral authority to lay guilt trips on us about our duty to support the work of the diocese. You can ignore? So can we.
Now, now, now..that’s not a call. It’s descriptive of a dynamic that I don’t think many people have really thought through. Our faith in Jesus Christ cannot be dependent on what bishops do and don’t do. But I think anyone can see they are, indeed, very important, even in ways of which they themselves are not aware.
This is a long way from the beginning of this post.
The sexual abuse crisis in the Boston Archdiocese was a long time brewing and had many contributing factors. But, as Lawler points out, what was key was this (in a way) mysterious and complex blindness to the call to holiness and sacrificial love of neighbor, especially the weak, and to be bold in that love, ready to risk all as we imitate the love of Jesus.
The takeaway, I think, is about far more than bishops. It’s about all of us.
As we go through yet another day today, during another week in between Masses, in between prayers, on the road, at work, at home..
…who are we trying to please?