What Is Going on in CT?

By Michael Sean
March 11, 2009

Catholics in Connecticut are gathering at the State Capitol today to protest a bill that has already been pulled by its sponsors. The bill would have amended the laws under which religious organization incorporate, mandating specific forms of non-canonical lay involvement in ecclesiastical decision-making. The proposal was unconstitutional on its face and had no prospect of making it past a scheduled hearing that has also now been cancelled. In a show of muscle, the Church has not cancelled their protest.

It is hard not to believe that the whole episode was but a strange combination of trouble-making by a legislator who has clashed with the Church previously, pressure from local Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) organizations, and hysteria on the part of officials in the Diocese of Bridgeport. The legislator, State Sen. Andrew MacDonald, has clashed with Church officials before, especially on the issue of gay marriage: MacDonald was the first openly gay state senator in Connecticut. But, as Chairman of the Judiciary, surely he is sufficiently acquainted with constitutional law to have recognized the ridiculous of the proposal to which he gave his name. In a statement, MacDonald said he did not necessarily support the bill he was sponsoring, which is odd enough, but then denied authorship, saying it was nothing more than a proposal from constituents. Constituents, alas, are not elected to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. MacDonald should have known better.

MacDonald's statement said "this bill was proposed and written by a group of faithful Catholic parishioners from Fairfield County who asked the Judiciary Committee to consider giving the subject a public hearing." I wonder what criterion he used before deciding to affix the adjective "faithful" and if he thinks he is competent to make such a judgment. If you think increased lay involvement is a good idea, five minutes at a VOTF meeting will convince you to re-consider. In the abstract, lay involvement sounds lovely. In reality, VOTF meetings can very easily end up dominated by the ill-informed and the self-important.

MacDonald also played into the hands of conservative Republicans who used his proposal to scare the living daylights out of the bishops. Notices went up on diocesan websites, a call for a mass protest was sent out by email, phone calls were made to pastors. Like the Freedom of Choice Act (which still has not been introduced into either house of Congress), MacDonald's proposal added fuel to the conservative fires. And, any politician should recall Machiavelli's warning: If you strike at the prince, make sure you kill him.

Behind all this, of course, is a question, albeit one that we don't want the legislature in Connecticut to ask or answer: What is going on in the Diocese of Bridgeport? The focus of lay anger was embezzlement by pastors, one of over one million dollars and the other around $600,000, within the past two years? No wonder the laity is upset. A spokesman for the diocese told the Hartford Courant that independent audits have been implemented and that parishioners and staff are told of whistle- blower protections in four languages. "We really went the extra mile," said Joseph McAleer.

I am delighted that the Bridgeport diocese now has better financial oversight. But, the lost money is only part of the problem with embezzlement. What do these incidents say about the clerical culture, the spiritual health of the clergy, in this diocese? Embezzlement is not a casual sin. A pastorate is not a casual responsibility. To have two such instances in as many years raises a host of questions. ("To lose one parent, Mr. Worthing, can be considered a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.") The VOTF crowd may not have known how to properly raise those questions, but Archbishop Sambi should call his office.

Another Connecticut legislator, State Senator Andrew Maynard, told me yesterday that he received about 500 e-mails on the now yanked revisions of the incorporation rules within twenty-four hours. Maynard, who attends St. Mary's Catholic Church in Stonington, expressed his frustration with the Church's lobbying efforts: "Everyday, we are up here (at the Capitol) working on health care or helping the poor and social justice issues and nary a word from Catholics but as soon as we touch gay rights or something like this we get inundated with phone calls and e-mails." The Catholic bishops in Connecticut need to focus on that sad reality as well.


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