Closings: the Clergy and the Laity

By David A. Mittell Jr
The Providence Journal [Boston]
June 10, 2004

THE CLERGY sex-abuse scandal, combined with the recently announced closing of 65 parishes, arguably constitutes the greatest crisis in the Roman Catholic Church in Boston since the burning of the Ursuline Convent, in Charlestown, in 1834. But the two crises are vastly different: The burning of the convent was a criminal act by Catholicism's enemies when the church was a nascent presence in a predominantly Protestant city, state and country.

The current crisis comes after a century of Catholic political and economic dominance. In this case, the criminal and negligent acts were those of Catholic clergy, not Catholic enemies. An early attempt by Bernard Cardinal Law to portray the scandal as a contrivance of the anti-Catholic media disintegrated before onrushing facts.

Nor can the closing of parishes be blamed on anything akin to arson by strangers. The closings were decisions of the hierarchy, based, it was asserted, on shortages of funds, priests and parishioners. In both the sex-abuse scandal and the closings, the pain of the wounded church of 2004 is self-inflicted.

In announcing the closings, church officials repeatedly made the point that the scandal had nothing to do with them. The millions of dollars going to 40 years of victims of priests are being paid by insurers, not by the sale of the real estate of the parishes to be closed.

The assertion can be accepted as strictly correct. Scandal or no scandal, and whoever the archbishop were, some aging buildings housing declining congregations would have had to have been closed. Archbishop Sean O'Malley can be criticized for the total number of closings; for the particular parishes he chose to close; and for announcing his profoundly wrenching decisions tackily, via Federal Express. But it is an error of intellectual indolence to displace lingering anger at Cardinal Law onto him.

In a broader sense, the scandal and the closings are indeed connected. The burning of the convent in 1834 appalled Catholics and Protestants alike. (Among the latter: John Quincy Adams.) It was counterproductive to the purposes of the perpetrators, because it led right-thinking people of both traditions to unite to oppose bigotry. Among Catholics, it had an energizing effect.

The sex-abuse scandal has had an opposite, enervating effect. It has caused many to stop attending Mass, including some who will leave the church permanently. It has led to a sharp decline in contributions to collection plates and to Catholic Charities. It has robbed the church for the time being of its moral authority on political and social issues. For example, I doubt that more than a handful of legislators considered the church's position on gay marriage when they voted on the constitutional amendment banning the practice.

The scandal's direct connection to the closings is that at a critical moment it deprived the church of the great entrepreneurial energy in Catholic Boston. Until the scandal, the annual garden party at the archbishop's residence to raise money for the Cardinal's Appeal was the leading social event of the year for many prominent Catholics. Without the scandal, there would have been money enough, and energy enough to raise much more, to save historic buildings and vital parishes that are now to be closed.

As it is, few influential lay Catholics have stepped to the plate. An exception, and an example of what might have been, was the noble act of Secretary of State William Galvin in pledging a credit line of $100,000 of his own money to keep Our Lady of Presentation School, in Brighton -- his alma mater -- running for one more year.

Look for Secretary Galvin to run for governor or U.S. Senate in 2006, but never mind. This may have been the most savory, sleazeless, unsordid act by a Massachusetts politician in my lifetime! One hopes it will be repeated, and that parishes such as Saint Catherine of Siena, in Charlestown, which largely serves a troubled public-housing project, can yet be saved.

Motoring through suburban Catholic strongholds such as Duxbury, Milton and Scituate, one identifies an additional problem -- and a spiritual one, I think -- that has nothing to do with the clergy-abuse scandal: too many "McMansions." After World War II, Catholic Bostonians were typical of their generation in being generous about giving when Richard Cardinal Cushing, the archbishop from 1944 to 1970, appealed to them.

Today, too many who have done well, and are in a position to lead if they saw fit, prefer to spend their discretionary income on monuments to themselves. That, of course, is not a Catholic thing.

David A. Mittell Jr. is a member of The Journal's editorial board.


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