In Hock
Church Fights Sinking Popularity by Becoming Less Likeable

By Joe Keohane
Weekly Dig [Boston MA]
Downloaded April 29, 2004

There is irony, but it's probably too obvious by now to point out. The Archdiocese of Boston is getting simultaneously louder and smaller; the Church's $107 million sale of its lavish Brighton headquarters to BC to pay off victims of rampant clergy abuse seems at odds with its escalated efforts to steer matters of social debate and public policy; the Church's looming closure of numerous parishes due to falling attendance and revenues and a scarcity of priests seems at odds with what has been criticized as a reactionary approach to church administration adopted by Archbishop Sean O'Malley.

O'Malley hastened last week to reassure the faithful that the sale of 43 acres of the Archdiocese's 64-acre HQ was not tied to the upcoming parish closings (he has vowed not to put the proceeds of sold churches and schools toward the abuse settlements) but instead an attempt to pay down the Church's $135 million debt.

"It puts us on the road to recovery," O'Malley told the Globe.

Financial recovery from the sex abuse scandal perhaps, but in the long term, the settlements themselves (by far the largest of their kind in America) are the least of the Archdiocese's problems. Beyond nearly bankrupting the Church, the sex abuse scandal eroded the Church's moral authority, its good name and perhaps most importantly the faith of many of its followers. It became a running joke that the same vastly corrupt body responsible for cosseting deviant priests at the expense of children's well being would deign to offer tips on living the godly life. The favored adage, "we are all sinners" began sounding like a cop-out, a frayed moral equivalency.

After repeated attempts to blame the media and even the victims for the scandal, Bernard Cardinal Law stepped down, and the Church brought in Sean O'Malley, a Capuchin Franciscan friar, to replace him and hopefully steer the Archdiocese through its darkest period yet. Many heralded O'Malley's arrival as just what the Church needed. He not only swore to uphold his vow of poverty but actually does so - exemplified by his refusal to live in the now-sold Brighton mansion, opting instead for a small apartment behind Holy Cross in the South End; he is forever clad in his brown Franciscan garb; he is a genuinely nice guy; and unlike Law, who was more politician than priest, O'Malley's humility seems sincere.

So it came as something of a shock when the new Archbishop eschewed the expected soft-shoe conciliatory tack in favor of a more hardnosed approach, even though hard noses are what Franciscans are known for. O'Malley quickly made clear that he is not here to make friends, and that he intends to repair the Church's moral authority by acting as though it was never damaged in the first place. The hope is that the moral authority he cultivates will in time supplant the Church's current moral authority, which can be identified by the powerful stench of corruption it continues to give off.

Instructing his charges to act as though operating in "a hostile, alien environment," O'Malley has led a renewed charge against Catholic hobbyhorses, from abortion and premarital sex to MTV and gay marriage. Especially gay marriage. The week before Easter, he cited "the breakdown of authority" as the principal cause for the societal decay that has given rise to anti-Catholic sentiment. He named that breakdown's sordid acolytes: "the drug culture," "feminism," "the sexual revolution," "hedonism" and "consumerism." Earlier this month, O'Malley even animated 1,000 right-wing spin doctors by stating that Catholic politicians whose political views contradict the Church's, "shouldn't dare come to Communion." And this after pro-choice, pro-civil union Senators Kerry and Kennedy received the Eucharist at O'Malley's own installation last July.

The intent of the Archbishop's moves is clear, even if they have proved exceedingly unpopular with left-leaning Catholics, women especially. He, like the Pope and many of the nation's top clerics, sees in the gradual modernization of the Church the seeds of its own destruction. By unapologetically holding the Church's line on these issues, he's hoping to counter the effects of patchwork Catholicism - a liberalized form of the faith, which, though often pleasing to the people, makes it harder for the Church to mobilize the faithful in any meaningful way. When people can pick and choose what parts of the faith they like, there's a significant loss of unity and uniformity that could be ultimately fatal to an organization as reliant on absolutes as the Catholic Church. If it is to regain its power, the Church needs to know that its followers will do what it says, when it says it. It needs to be a boss again - not a buddy.

It's an awkward position for the Archbishop to be in, although awkward is probably an understatement. These tactics worked fabulously for the Church in its heyday, but given how the world has changed in the last 50 years, it's a bit like a former jock squeezing into his high school football uniform to recapture his lost potency: He may have had a thousand reasons for putting it on, but after a look in the mirror, he'll have only one for taking it off.

So is it audacity or obliviousness that's guiding O'Malley's work? Certainly traces of both are evident in a March 26 editorial published in The Pilot, the Archdiocese's house organ, published by O'Malley: "The Church has the right and the obligation to form the consciences of Catholics on issues that affect them, particularly on moral issues."

It's a tough sell coming from a church still very much in crisis mode, closing parishes and selling off land - a church that will for the foreseeable future be reminded of its own sins each time it tries to warn others away from their own. But then fundamentalism springs eternal. As one of O'Malley's aids told the Herald, "We must preach the word in season and out of season, when convenient and inconvenient."


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