The city of Boston has long been a bellwether of cultural change — from the fomenting of the American Revolution to the rise of Irish immigrants, to the election of the nation's first Catholic president, and now, tragically, to the legalization of homosexual "marriage." What happens in Boston rarely stays in Boston. Such was an ominous portent for the Catholic Church in the U.S.: Boston's clerical sex-abuse scandals of 2002 proved to be merely the tip of an iceberg that spans the entire continent. Philip Lawler examines how the Archdiocese of Boston and the city itself reached this state in The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture.
Lawler, the former editor of The Catholic World Report and one-time editor of Boston's archdiocesan newspaper, has had a front-row seat to his hometown's demise. He places the current landscape in historical perspective by tracing the city's religious roots back to its Puritan days. The original settlers despised the Catholic Church; led by John Winthrop, they envisioned a "city on a hill." The city would not be the vibrant optimistic locale that became a part of Ronald Reagan's rhetoric, but one holed up in a self-enclosed ghetto, ready to ward off its enemies. And who were those enemies, Lawler asks. The enemies were the Catholics.
This basic state of affairs did not change through the founding of the U.S. and the first half century of its existence. But history can shift direction on the slightest of changes. One fateful morning in 1845, peasants in Ireland left their cottages to find a fungus on their potato crop. It unleashed the Great Famine that ravaged the Irish countryside for four long years. Poor and starving Irishmen were loaded onto poorly constructed "Coffin Ships" headed across the Atlantic. The final destination of the ships was Montreal, but they made a stop in Boston. It was here they unloaded their human cargo. The Old Towne would never be the same again.
Boston would be the place where the Irish finally rose up and seized real political power. By the beginning of the 20th century, Irish-Americans effectively ruled the city, and Lawler devotes the first chapter of his book to discussing this "Irish conquest," which translated into a triumph for the Catholic Church. The Archbishop of Boston, William Cardinal O'Connell (1907-1944), was a major political force, and a statement from him could single-handedly stop legislation in its tracks. Cardinal O'Connell foiled a proposed lottery and used his power to halt legislation regulating child labor. James Michael Curley won election to the mayoralty four times in an illustrious career and ruled Irish Boston, but he too was a man under authority — that of Cardinal O'Connell. In terms of raw political power, it was the beginning of Boston's "Catholic century," as Lawler terms it.
The Faithful Departed lays out how cultural and social attitudes developing during this ascendancy would ultimately provide the groundwork for its demise. Foremost among them was the approach used by the Church to win social acceptance. (Even after Boston Protestants fell from political power, they retained control of the financial levers of the city as "lace-curtain" Irish, as the upwardly mobile were called.) The tactic chosen was to emphasize the Church's value as a civic institution, while downplaying the primary reason for her existence: being the Ark of Salvation. Lawler sees the roots of the problem developing under Cardinal O'Connell.
Cardinal O'Connell's successor, Richard Cardinal Cushing (1944-1970), even more fervently advanced the notion that Catholics could be "good neighbors," holding to their own faith while avoiding a battle with secular culture. Cardinal Cushing was on friendly terms with one powerful parishioner who had a strong interest in seeing such an understanding of Catholicism develop: Joseph Kennedy Sr.
The patriarch of the Kennedy dynasty never publicly questioned Catholic teachings, though he repeatedly flouted them in his private life. He was preparing the way for his son to run for the U.S. presidency; finding a way to deal with his Catholicism in a politically acceptable way was paramount. Unlike Al Smith, the Democratic Party's 1928 Catholic nominee who dug in defending his faith and lost to Herbert Hoover in a landslide, Kennedy was focused on winning. He needed to turn out the Catholic vote while not antagonizing the large segments of the populace that feared "papal influence." As a candidate, John F. Kennedy would deal with the question in a famous Houston speech in which he assured a Protestant audience that his Catholicism was a private matter, and that it need not shape his views on public policy. Lawler accurately exposes the illogic in JFK's formulation: "If Kennedy really did set aside his personal beliefs, what principles would guide his decisions? If he simply followed public preferences he would be a glorified pollster, not a political leader. But if he held to some other set of ethical principles…then his ultimate loyalty was not to the Church."
Kennedy's position did not add up, but it paid political dividends: He garnered 80 percent of the Catholic vote, and was able to neutralize his opposition just enough to squeak past Richard Nixon in the 1960 presidential election. The Church's hierarchy never contested Kennedy's argument that his faith need not impact his policy views. As a result, getting the nation's first, and thus far only, Catholic president came at the cost of effectively privatizing religious belief during a time of rising secularism.
The consequences of religious privatization would become painfully apparent in the years ahead as Roe v. Wade, for example, was handed down in 1973. Lawler reveals that the Kennedys were preparing to distance themselves from Church teaching on abortion, years in advance of Roe. A 1964 meeting at Hyannisport was convened, with several liberal theologians as guests of the Kennedys, for the purpose of discussing how to handle the matter. The guest list included Fr. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit who would go on to successfully run for a seat in the House of Representatives, where he compiled a staunch pro-abortion voting record.
Lawler opines that the decline of Church influence was noticeable immediately after Roe was handed down. In a previous generation, Mayor Curley would have immediately denounced the decision and any wayward Democrats would have fallen in line behind Cardinal O'Connell. Here though, Lawler does overlook evidence that all was not lost in the early 1970s. Tip O'Neill, after some initial waffling on Roe, fell into line after a scolding from the clergy, and went on to compile a solidly pro-life voting record until his retirement in 1987. It is impossible to imagine former Speaker of the House John W. McCormack, a man from Irish Boston and a devout Catholic who'd just retired before Roe, ever choosing Planned Parenthood over Holy Mother Church.
If all wasn't lost, it soon would be. The next issue to rock Boston, the Catholic Church, and the country at large would be the issue of school busing. In order to achieve racial integration, an Irish Catholic judge, Arthur Garrity, ordered the experiment of mandated busing in the traditional working-class neighborhood of South Boston. Known as "Southie" to its friends and enemies, the community dug in, not wanting their own kids bused out, nor wanting African-American children bused in. The issue was a combustible mix of left-wing elitism and racial prejudice with the right of parents to control the education of their children.
Such a situation represents an ideal teaching moment for the Church hierarchy to clear up what's at stake and speak for the faithful, while quelling some of their worst prejudices. But the moment was missed, as the recently installed Archbishop of Boston, Humberto Cardinal Medeiros (1970-1983), chose to ignore the pleas of his poorer constituents and instead to appease the unholy alliance of the left-wing establishment and the lace-curtain Irish who considered Southie an embarrassment. Cardinal Medeiros not only urged Southie to back down but, as Lawler points out, he placed a cap on Catholic-school enrollment — thereby closing a loophole parents might have chosen to escape the judicially hotwired public schools.
Lawler moves on to examine the leadership of Bernard Cardinal Law (1984-2002), a man for whom he worked while editing the archdiocesan newspaper. Lawler portrays Law as a man who seemed to have the right instincts, but followed the time-worn path of suppressing it for the sake of a superficial peace. The Cardinal abandoned prolife protestors after a shooting at a local abortion mill in the 1990s. Rather than vigorously defend the countless prolife protestors who prayed peacefully outside abortion mills, or defend Operation Rescue, whose members willingly accepted arrest, Cardinal Law urged Catholics not to pray outside the abortion industry's outposts, using rhetoric that painted the entire movement as guilty of the crime of an isolated extremist. Lawler cites further examples involving liturgical abuse to illustrate how Cardinal Law had lost control of his archdiocese and downgraded the importance of grave matters.
While the leaders of the Church busied themselves with social acceptance and good publicity, what happened next, in retrospect, seems inevitable. Priests with a record of sexually abusing children were shunted from parish to parish. It proved a convenient way of sweeping problems under the rug rather than dealing with them. And what happened in Boston again proved to be a catalyst for what happened nationwide. Lawler uses several chapters that expose the "efforts" of the American bishops to deal with the abuse. But those efforts followed the familiar pattern of focusing more on stopping negative headlines than on ripping out dissent and debauchery at its roots.
If there is one weakness to Lawler's book, it is the lack of solutions that are within the grasp of the laity to renew Boston's Catholic culture. An unhappy consequence of the overall collapse of Catholic culture has been a tendency in conservative and traditionalist Catholic circles to degenerate into a culture of perpetual complaint.
The stakes for renewal in Lawler's hometown are enormous. Boston is the cultural capital of Irish-America, and that culture has carried enormous influence in the nation as a whole and in Democratic Party politics. The twin goals of revitalizing faith in the Irish-American community and bringing down the curtain on the secular Left's forty-year war on traditional Democratic ideals have to begin in the Catholic Church. By diagnosing the problem and locating its roots, Lawler at least has us halfway home.
This article was published in the October edition of New Oxford Review.