Disenchanted Boston Catholics Seek Reform

By Fr. Richard P. McBrien
National Catholic
September 19, 2003

When a new bishop is appointed to a diocese, it is customary for those interviewed by the media to speak of him in glowing terms. The choice always seems to be just the right one, even “inspired,” and the pope is credited with an enormous measure of wisdom for having made it.

Occasionally, there is a discordant voice, but it is often met with howls of protest, communicated via e-mail or phone. To raise questions about an episcopal appointment is considered tantamount to an attack upon the Holy Father himself.

Given the nature of the pool of potential candidates for appointment to a major see nowadays, it is inevitable that the appointee will have the profile of a strong, even hard-line, conservative, selected for his loyalty rather than leadership talents.

Discordant voices may not be popular with a few Catholics, but those voices reflect the thinking and concerns of the great majority of the Catholic community today. Such is the case with the July 1 appointment of Bishop Sean O’Malley as the new archbishop of Boston.

The appointment was initially praised and celebrated from within a fairly broad cross section of the Boston Catholic community -- priests who will have to live and work under the new archbishop’s authority, laity who hope to win a sympathetic response to their requests for dialogue on matters of pastoral concern, and even a lawyer or two who see dollar signs in the resolution of pending lawsuits by victims and survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Boston priests.

However, in early May The Boston Globe released the results of a poll of area Catholics regarding the qualities they would most like to see in the successor to Cardinal Bernard Law, who had resigned under pressure the previous December.

Nearly one in five Catholics said that they were now so alienated from their church that they have considered joining a non-Catholic church, while 39 percent said they would support an American Catholic church that would be independent of the Vatican.

Sixty-two percent of Boston-area Catholics indicated that they had lost confidence in the Catholic church as an institution, and nearly half acknowledged that they are now giving less money to it. Moreover, 27 percent said that the sexual abuse crisis has caused them to attend Mass less regularly.

Church officials in Boston do not deny any of these data. They acknowledge that Mass attendance has dropped 14 percent since 2001, while revenue from the archdiocese’s annual fund-raising appeal decreased by 47 percent.

More than five months after Law’s resignation and 16 months after the scandal first erupted on the public scene, the laity’s alienation from the church is accelerating rather than diminishing. Fifty-three percent of Boston-area Catholics insisted that there needs to be a “modernizing [of] church attitudes on social issues.”

A plurality of Boston Catholics said the requirement of priestly celibacy is the primary cause of sexual abuse in the priesthood, and an overwhelming 86 percent said that they would now support allowing priests to marry, and 80 percent -- another record-breaking percentage for Globe surveys -- support the ordination of women as priests.

According to the survey, support for the ordination of women and married priests cuts across all demographic categories, even among weekly communicants and senior citizens. Only nine percent blame gay priests for the crisis, contrary to the explanation proposed by certain high-profile conservative Catholics.

Asked to describe the ideal relationship between an archbishop and his flock, the majority chose a middle ground. He should be both a leader and a listener, not just one or the other. He should be open to, and readily cooperate with, his priests and laity in the exercise of his pastoral authority over the archdiocese.

Although a significant plurality of those surveyed cited “openness to change” as the most important quality they would like to see in their next archbishop, they seemed skeptical about the likelihood that the pope would choose someone of this type. Only 18 percent thought the pope would make such an appointment.

In the days, weeks, and months ahead (it won’t take years), it will become clear whether this skepticism was justified, as it becomes clear whether the new archbishop shares the pastoral concerns and attitudes of the majority of his new flock.

If there is an obvious discrepancy between his approach and theirs, those who greeted the appointment in July with hope and enthusiasm will undoubtedly need to reevaluate their initial reaction. And the early critics will, too, if the opposite is the case.

For the church’s sake, one hopes the skeptics were wrong.


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