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The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Ca

February 19th, 2009 at 11:21 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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Titles matter! I took up Philip Lawler’s The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture in the belief that I would be reading … well just what the title said, a study of the secularization of Massachusetts Catholicism.

For my purposes, Lawler’s book opened very promisingly, with an evocative description of a long-vanished Boston:

Governor James Michael Curley wanted a lottery. It was the spring of 1935, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was facing a budget crunch, and Curley saw the lottery as a painless alternative to tax hikes. At the State House on Boston’s historic Beacon Hill, mos legislators agreed. Debate had been perfunctory. Support for the proposal was overwhelming; passage of the enabling legislation seemed assured.

Then on May 20, Cardinal William O’Connell weighed in. “I am opposed to a state lottery,” announced the powerful head of the Boston archdiocese. A lottery would bring “out-and-out gambling” to Massachusetts, he said, and this would be “a tremendous source of corruption and demoralization.”

Within twenty-four hours , the lottery was dead. … The idea of a state lottery would not be taken seriously again in Massachusetts for nearly thirty-five years.

Good anecdote.

Almost immediately however Lawler – a former editor of the Boston archdiocesan newspaper – veers toward a very different subject, one no doubt fascinating to many, but less so to me: a detailed study of the internal workings of the Boston archdiocese.

His thesis is that the Boston archdiocese was fatally infected early with excessive regard for the Catholic Church as an institution, too little for the Catholic church as a community. This led to the promotion of overworldly clerics, who too often accommodated themselves to the ever more secular and liberal culture of their city and state. In particular they looked the other way as the seminaries fostered a homosexual culture, quietly working a sexual revolution within the priesthood. This looking the other way made possible the clerical sex abuse scandals exposed after 2002.

Lawler’s story is surely important. But I remain unconvinced to put it mildly that it is the failings of the Church hierarchy, real as those surely were, that explain the collapse of Boston’s Catholic culture. That’s a very different story, awaiting a different telling.

Update: Phil Lawler, who has a blog, comments on this bookshelf entry: 

Frum isn’t writing a full review and he doesn’t indicate where he finds my logic flawed or unconvincing. He just announced that he isn’t sold. That’s an unanswerable argument. All I can do is appeal to the other readers. Did you think that I made a convincing case? 

That’s a fair query, so let me elaborate in a sentence or two. Without having checked, I would think it a very good working assumption that the collapse of Boston’s Catholic culture can be shown in measureable ways to have commenced sometime between 1965 and 1975. Church attendance, priestly vocations, parochial school enrollments – that’s the story nationwide. (You can find the numbers if you want them in my history of the 1970s, How We Got Here.)

An explanation of this long-running, national trend has to take us further than the misconduct or negligence of the hierarchy of one archdiocese in the past decade and a half. I notice that Richard John Neuhaus agrees with my assessment: Lawler wrote a fine reportorial account of the misdoings of the Boston Catholic hierarchy – but that is a different thing from what his publisher advertised. I have no complaints to make against Lawler’s topic, which I am sure is of urgent interest to many people. However, it was the advertised topic that happened to interest me. 

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