America's Troubled Catholics
Economist [Los Angeles CA]
July 31, 2003
If you want to understand the problemsand the potentialof the Catholic church in America, go to Los Angeles
THE first sight of Our Lady of the Angels, the new Catholic cathedral in Los Angeles, seems a depressingly ordinary LA experience. One door on Temple Street opens on to a giant underground car park, a second on to a multi-layered plaza decked with caf tables. Beyond it, the brutal cuboid building in sandy louvred stone could be a bank or an office complex. The only intimations of the spiritual are a fountain offering living water and, far away on the northern edge of the plaza, a glass wall etched with ministering angels that screens the sight, though not the sound, of traffic on the Hollywood Freeway.
The fountain is also the first indication of the sheer size and complexity of the archdiocese the cathedral serves. It is the country's largest and fastest-growing, with more than 4.5m Catholics in almost 300 parishes. Many of these Catholics are new immigrants, many illegal aliens. The fountain is engraved with the words for living water in the 38 languages in which Mass is said in the archdiocese each Sunday. Catholicism here takes multiple forms, from a charismatic Mexican church in a disused cinema on Broadway, to the white preening neatness of Beverly Hills, to a recent celebration for the city's Nigerian faithful, where the first reading was in Igbo and the second in Swahili.
Not surprisingly, this is also a diocese in deep fiscal trouble. The accounts for the last fiscal year, which ended in June 2003, showed a deficit not of $4.3m, as had been predicted, but of $13.4m. Critics of the new cathedral, which cost $190m, were quick to place blame, but the building has been paid for mostly by donations and a bank loan; instead, about half of the deficit, $7.7m, was a one-off settlement of claims of sexual abuse by priests.
But even without the paedophiles, the archdiocese would be struggling. Returns on investment have been slashed by the falling stockmarket. It's a shame, says Tod Tamberg, the archdiocesan spokesman, that Jesus can't give us a stockmarket tip now and then. Costs, especially wages and pensions for lay employees, are rising all the time. Almost the only bright spot is the increase in income from burial plots as the older parishioners die off.
As early as last September, when it saw the crisis coming, the archdiocese eliminated seven centrally run ministriesincluding abortion counselling and the gay and lesbian ministry. Sixty lay employees were sacked, and five officials resigned in protest at their sackings. Where outside funding can be found, the work is now done by parishes.
These economies come when the archdiocese, with its huge numbers of young people and non-English-speakers, needs to spend moneynot just on evangelisation but on propping up poor schools and even, some say, on politics. At this year's synod, which has just ended, the parishes urged the archdiocese to back the causes of the city's largely Latino force of caretakers and hotel workers, who want better pay and conditions. If the archdiocese is to fly the flag of social justice as well as spiritual renewal, it can hardly keep on cutting its own ministries and staff.
Lay workers are all the more needed because there are so few priests. Los Angeles, of course, shares this problem with the whole Catholic church; but the problem is acute here. The archdiocese has only one priest for every 4,000 souls, and only four have been ordained this year. According to Mr Tamberg, some hope lies with the new arrivals, especially the latest waves of Mexicans, Vietnamese and Filipinos, who have brought their zest for priesthood with them. But the newly appointed director of vocations, Father James Forsen, already sounds a weary note. He is embarking on intensive consultations to find out why so few young men want to be priests.
The sexual scandals, as Father Forsen admits, have not helped. A priest's life is hard enough without suspicion and scrutiny. Some 300 claims of abuse in Los Angeles are under investigation. Ten priests already face charges. For a time it seemed that a state law passed in California that lifted the statute of limitations in criminal prosecutions of old molestation cases, might overwhelm the archdiocese with sexual-abuse claims dating back as far as 1947. The Supreme Court overturned that law in June, but the shadow remains.
The long-term effect of the scandal is not financial: the payment of $7.7m will not recur, insurance should cover any others, and offerings from parishioners are slightly up, surprisingly. Rather the long-term effect is moral, in terms of damage done to the reputation of all clergy, guilty or innocent. And no one draws more fire than the first priest of the archdiocese, Cardinal Roger Mahony.
New building, old cardinal
Cardinal Mahony's image in Los Angeles is often a genial one: enthusing for his new church, or impishly promoting the cathedral's own-label wine in the gift shop. Outside, he seems a far sterner character. Los Angeles is the only archdiocese in the country that believes its files on priests are protected under the First Amendment. The cardinal criticised the data-gathering efforts of the National Review Board, which was set up to monitor the church's response to sexual-abuse cases, insisting on procedures that would have slowed its work to a crawl. When Frank Keating, the board's chairman, resigned last spring, he described Cardinal Mahony as a man who listened too much to his lawyer, and not enough to his heart.
From his own point of view, the cardinal has done much to counter scandal in the archdiocese. A policy of zero tolerance has been in place for some months, a special panel on overseeing allegations of sexual abuse has been set up, and every parish is meant to have a Safeguard the Children committee, dealing with everything from consultations with psychiatrists to better lighting round basketball courts. He has forced some erring priests to retire. Yet Cardinal Mahony still protects others, and is reluctant to hand their documents over. He is of the school of old Irish priests, like Bernard Law, the former cardinal in Boston, who believe that the Church should sort out its own black sheep.
The new cathedral will be his particular legacy, and an impressive one. It has taken almost a century to appear. Despite those first impressions, it is a powerful and dramatic space, and a grand focal point for the sprawling city. Together with Frank Gehry's new Disney Concert Hall, a fabulous burst of titanium-clad curves and towers a few streets away, it has given Los Angeles a centre at last. Yet the cardinal's many critics may well find symbolism in the cathedral's extraordinary use of alabaster: an intricate, complex and confusing material, vulnerable to intense heat, and admitting murk rather than light.
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