Let the Dead Bury the Dead: A Review of “The Faithful Departed”


The Faithful Departed: the Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, by Philip Lawler (Encounter, 2008)

The English journalist Damian Thompson once suggested that the response of religious leaders to social changes (industrialization, the rise of science, etc.), as much as the changes themselves, was the cause of secularization in Western societies.  Their leaders ceased to believe, therefore failed to defend the faith; consequently, the religion declined. If I understood him correctly, he meant this process was as much an internal degradation as much as an external process which happened to religions and religious institutions.

Thompson’s idea came to mind as I read The Faithful Departed. Philip Lawler wrote his book in 2008, following the sex abuse scandal that rocked the Boston archdiocese in 2002.  It light of the McCarrick revelations, its relevance is greater than ever.  Lawler charted the rise of the Boston Catholic community from suspect minority to overwhelming social and political force in the early 20th century, to the decline of its influence from the 1950s onward.  It documents the loss of the once vibrant faith in Boston, culminating with the sexual abuse crisis.

The book deftly weaves episodes in the life of the national Church–the election of John F. Kennedy, Vatican II, Roe vs Wade, and the response of the American bishops to the sex abuse crisis–with the tale of the rise and fall of the Boston Church.  The result is an exemplary tale of the social success of American Catholicism and how it fed its spiritual decline.  Lawler notes the increasing professionalization of the Boston clergy throughout the 20th century (39), which went along with a rise in both the status but also the wealth of the Boston Church (47).  He notes how its archbishops slowly began to accommodate secular mores in the 1950s , which led to politicians doing the same in the 1960s, starting with the 1960 presidential election:  “by drawing a distinction between Church doctrine and private conscience, they could avoid a protracted battle with secular culture.” (59)  In effect, the Church traded status and influence for fidelity to the faith, and lost both in the end.

Internal changes are key here as well, above all Vatican II. Lawler notes, as many have, the disorienting effects of the Council on Catholic life.  Before the Council, everyone knew what “Catholics believed, and what their faith demanded of them…within a few years…all those certainties were gone.” (68)  In the pace of a monolithic, unchanging tradition, priests were free to experiment everywhere with the liturgy, with divorce, contraception, and other difficult Catholic doctrines.   The result of Lawler astutely notes, was that priests had more power with less responsibility, since they no longer felt bound by tradition. (67)  But because they no longer represented a truly universal faith, the average priest had “more power but less authority.”  (75)  They had “enormous freedom of action, but very little sense of purpose” as a result of the upheavals that followed the Council. (76)   There is little reason to respect people whom you think are merely making things up based on their on whims.

The Boston Church filled this lost sense of purpose with secular politics and social work.  The Church in Boston as in the rest of America came to mimic the professional classes which dominate American life.  Accommodations with secular life touched everything in Boston from abortion, to school busing schemes and debates over marriage. (77-121)  The bishops especially became invested in the appearance of unity, at the expense of everything else, which meant denying problems and sweeping them under the rug. (116, 119, 125)  This includes, as he notes several times, the increasing influence of homosexuality in the priesthood, which bishops carefully ignored. (113)  The irony is that in the end they lost their political influence as well:  whereas in the early 20th century a word from the archbishop could sink legislation,  same-sex marriage became law with minimal opposition from the bishops. (203-219)  Not that it would have mattered. No one was listening any more.

And for good reason.  The Church’s decline climaxed in the sex abuse scandal, in which successive American bishops protected abusive priests and hushed up scandals with financial settlements.  The details of the Boston crisis, the abusive priests and the obtuse reaction of Cardinal Law to it, is simply appalling.  It makes for quite depressing, and depressingly familiar reading.  Law epitomized the reaction of the American bishops as a whole, who still do not fully grasp the gravity of what is taking place.  Law, for example, wrote to several priests he removed from ministry after their abuse came to light, saying that “yours has been an effective ministry, sadly marred by illness.” (151)   Lawler notes how some tried to warn Cardinal Law, such as Margaret Gallant, a valiantly faithful Catholic woman, but repeatedly ignored and rebuffed.  Gallant abandoned the Catholic faith in 2002. (160)  The Dallas Charter, adopted by the bishops in response, covered for the bishops by putting the onus for its “zero tolerance” policy on their priests.   Under its guidelines, priests are often removed from ministry for any accusation, no matter the facts of the case. (169)  To this day, the bishops are immune from this process.

The alignment he notes between the diocesan bureaucracies, treatment centers (where offenders were sent for a brief time and then returned to active ministry) and  seminaries run by “lavender mafia” is particularly important. (228)  The symbiosis between the three has, as far as I can tell, remained unchanged.  Lawler raises the specter of sexual blackmail as the reason for the bishops’ silence on sexual malfeasance in the Church, and his account, combined with the revelations about McCarrick, is quite persuasive. (239)  Lawler suggests that no procedural or bureaucratic norms will end this crisis, as long as men who govern the Church refuse to take responsibility for their actions.  Personnel is policy, and those who have caused this crisis cannot be trusted to end it.  The only way it will end is if ordinary Catholics stand up for the integrity and mission of the Church.  As he puts it, “loving the Church means denouncing corruption” in this case. (256)

Lawler’s book is as depressing as it is necessary.  No serious Catholic can ignore the massive, ongoing scandal which is engulfing the Church even as we speak, and his book helps understand some of its causes.  More than this, he points out that the Church, both in Boston and in its earliest days, has been in this position before.  With its prestige and status gone, all that remains is the wealth accrued in the course of the 20th century, which will soon dissipate in Boston as elsewhere, as people exit the faith.  This gives us the opportunity, Lawler says, of recognizing “when we are relying on human strengths and earthly resources, and ignoring the power of the Holy Spirit.” (255)  Only by abandoning the quest for respectability and acceptance from the world, and embracing the Church’s call in its fullness–with its beliefs about sexuality, its stringent asceticism, its focus on the eternal rather than the temporal–can the Church bring this evil to an end, and proclaim once again the Gospel of God to mankind as Christ commanded it.



~ by Alypius on August 7, 2018.

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