A Docile Tradition Protects the Church

By John P. McNamee
Philadelphia Inquirer
February 22, 2011

I'll start with Digby Baltzell, the quintessential WASP. He might have even created that acronym. His landmark book Puritan Boston and Quaker Philadelphia was critical of the Society of Friends, blaming it for the quiet, passive temper of our city.

Philadelphia's Protestant establishment lacked the passion of Puritan Boston, and it passed on that detachment to later-arriving ethnic communities, so that even my fellow Irish Philadelphians took on an uncharacteristic docility. In fact, it wasn't until generations after John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald in Boston and Jimmy Walker in New York that Philadelphia got an Irish mayor, and that was by accident (when City Council President James Tate took over upon the resignation of Richardson Dilworth).

But my lament is not about the Quakers or WASPs. It's for the local Catholic Church in the face of new and terrible revelations of pedophilia, denial, and concealment. A monsignor hangs out to dry, but the fault is more extensive and pervasive.

Let's look at Boston Catholics' response to the pedophilia crisis in that archdiocese. As Baltzell might have expected, Puritan Boston birthed a more passionate Catholic response. Members of a vociferous lay Catholic caucus called Voice of the Faithful argue that canon law gives them "the right and even at times the duty" to make their opinions known. They demanded a voice in the Boston crisis, and they were so insistent on their basic rights of free assembly and speech that churches simply had to allow their gatherings and hear them out.

The Philadelphia Catholic hierarchy, by contrast, has discouraged and even forbidden local Voice of the Faithful members from gaining access to church buildings. Given that the scandals are now causing massive disaffection here, shouldn't local church officials stop impeding the participation of any of the faithful?

And then there's Chicago. Always more outspoken than other Catholic communities, Chicago's has its own theological journal and an independent priests' council. Years ago, a new Chicago archbishop was publicly rebuking local pastors for minor infractions during his pastoral visits, until 300 of the city's priests wrote an open letter complaining about his micromanagement. Three hundred.

In Philadelphia, not three of us priests would lodge such a complaint. And our Council of Priests is completely subordinate to local church authorities. What began in our seminary days as clerical obedience has become a fearful, mute submissiveness.

I am retired now, but my friends who are still active in the mainstream and the margins of the church and the priesthood often speak to me about the reform that was the promise of the Second Vatican Council of 50 years ago. I frequently respond that I have little interest in church reform because, in the end, I don't expect it to happen.

In recent weeks, though, we've seen uprisings of ordinary people in countries ruled with a hard line and a heavy hand. Perhaps that should give me hope.


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