Lawler’s version of Catholicism, which he adamantly insists is the only possible view that can be called “catholic,” demands unquestioned obedience to the bishop of Rome, and strict adherence to a bevy of dogmatic claims all focused on keeping power over life and death and one’s eternal soul in the hands of the men who run the church. To a belief that to be a Catholic you have to force a woman who has been raped and impregnated to give birth to the baby. That you cannot practice birth control, cannot have a sex-change operation, cannot have a hand in euthanasia, cannot vote for a Catholic congressman who favors abortion rights, even for non-Catholics.
I suspect Lawler is wrong when he concludes the church is dead. It is not dead, but simply evolving. The bullying church is on the ropes, at least in Europe and America, but the pastoral church is likely to go on for the forseeable future. The problem is, Lawler doesn’t accept this division. For him there is only one church and he sees no reason not to label the 90% of Catholics who practice birth control as non-Catholics. Or not-really Catholics.
Lawler gets the problem right: Church leaders derailed the church in Boston (and this applies elsewhere as well) by yielding to the temptation to build up their power and influence for its own sake, rather than nurturing the religious solidarity on which they depended. “Cardinals became preoccupied with the needs of the archdiocese as a secular institution, sometimes even to the detriment of the archdiocese as a community of faith.” (p. 248.)
But he gets the solution wrong – that the church should speak with one voice, and that that voice should be the voice of central authority. And he sabotages his own solution by writing wistfully of a day when politicians took their orders from bishops and people knelt and kissed their ring. It’s not the “community of faith” he appears to be longing for but a community of power in numbers, a community run by authoritarians who brooked no dissent.
Lawler and I are working from opposing ideologies. His is that there is a single divine truth, that it has been revealed to the pope and curia of the Roman Catholic Church, and that there is no room for divergence from their magisterium. Mine is that truth is not revealed, but discovered, that knowledge is the sum total of all human experience to date, subject to change with every piece of new and conflicting evidence. There is no middle ground between these two ideological stances, but I trust I can at least describe his views fairly and objectively before explaining why I disagree with them.
Here is Lawler’s evidence for the decline of Catholic power and influence in Boston and beyond:
- A 1958 Gallup poll showed that three out of four American Catholics attended Sunday Mass regularly; by 2000 the figure was closer to one out of four.
- In that same time period nearly half of all Catholic elementary and high schools closed.
- The number of Catholic marriages solemnized in churches fell by over 30% and the number of marriages annulled went from about 350 a year to nearly 50,000.
- The number of priests fell by about 20%; the number of ordinations dropped by about 65%.
- Two-thirds of the country’s seminaries closed and the number of women religious fell by over 50%. Teaching orders declined from 104,000 in 1965 to about 8,000 today. (p. 73)
“For the Catholic Church in Boston today,” Lawler writes, “there is no earthly hope.”
…Empty buildings—cavernous Gothic churches, rectories, convents and schools—urgently need repairs, but the paltry collections are not even enough to keep up with the current fuel bills. Priests and nuns are aging, and precious few young people are entering the seminaries and convents to take their place. The congregations, too, are aging; the pews are dotted with gray heads, while young couples spend their Sunday mornings at home with the newspaper and the television programs that cater to serious-minded secular viewers by featuring discussion of current events.
The entire massive structure of Catholicism totters along on borrowed time. But the trend is clear. That whole structure will come crashing down, perhaps within the next generation, unless there is some dramatic change… (pp. 252-3)
Lawler thinks the church’s problem is that it is a willow when it ought to be an oak. It should be standing firm and strong, eternal and unchanging. It should never have surrendered to worldly pressures but held firm against all temptations to modernize. Vatican II was the beginning of the end, he says – not because of the work of the council itself, but because of what happened afterwards. The church never should have abandoned Latin, the universalizing language. Priests should never have begun turning and facing the congregation at worship but continued with his back to them as he led the body in the ritual of worship and the mysteries of the faith. The problem began in Boston, he says, when the Kennedy family met at Hyannisport to figure out how Catholic politicians now entering the mainstream should compromise as political leaders of Americans outside the faith. They should never have allowed them to think independently of Rome. There should have been no allowance for politicians who voted, for whatever reason, for birth control or abortion. Lawler’s book could have been written by Rick Santorum.
There has probably never been a better illustration of how one can miss the woods for the trees. The priestly abuse scandal, Lawler says, had three parts: The first part is the abuse itself. The second is the prevalence of homosexuality among Catholic priests. And the third is the abdication of authority when bishops, confronted with evidence of abuse, chose to ignore abuse complaints and enabled predators to continue as predators. (pp. 7-9)
Lawler’s reasoning is that people lost faith in the church because of its failings. The abuse scandal destroyed the credibility of the church as a moral force, and has caused catastrophic financial harm. There’s no arguing with his first point. Moreover, the public image of a church lying to protect its reputation and placing the welfare of its priests over the welfare of their victims was an even greater moral failing. There is no arguing with his third point, either.
There is, however, a serious problem with his second claim. By putting emphasis on the sexuality of the priests in question, rather than on their inclination to abuse children, Lawler says little about the scandal and a great deal about his own homophobia.
Lawler is a hammer in search of a nail, and he finds one in homosexuality. Mired in the misconception of homosexuality as a mental disorder, he draws the line not between abuser priests and non-abuser priests, but between gay priests and non-gay priests. He makes much of the John Jay Report on the scandal, commissioned by the bishops, which noted that 81% of molestations were of males, and concludes this proves a connection between abuse and sexuality, without seeing the obvious – that even if 100% of all Catholic priests were homosexually inclined, the problem would still be the capacity of any particular priest to abuse, and not his sexual inclination. According to the John Jay Report, only about 4% of priests have been charged with sex abuse and the number found guilty, obviously far fewer. Most gay priests do not abuse boys, just as most straight priests do not abuse girls. And opportunity – the fact that priests are left alone with boys but not with girls – would seem to be an obvious way to explain the rest.
Lawler, however, is a dog with a bone.
When intelligence agencies discover an enemy spy within their own ranks, they…root out the effects of his treachery. If the bishops had been determined to conduct a thorough study of sexual abuse they might have done similar investigations into the backgrounds of the priests who were accused. Who were there (sic) friends among the clergy? Where had they been assigned? Did they share vacation cottages with other priests or bishops? Who had been their seminary teachers? (p. 226)
Nobody could lay better ground for a witchhunt. The child abuse scandal wasn’t the only reason for the church’s decline, as anyone familiar with the recent uproar in Germany over a rape victim being turned away from a Catholic hospital can tell you. It does have more than a little explanatory value, though, provided you get the explanation right. Lawler gets it all wrong.
Lawler’s assumption that homosexuality is by nature corruption leads him to the inevitable conclusion that the very presence in the church of gay people is what is corrupting it. Not deception, not injustice, not hypocrisy, but rot from within as exemplified by "rampant" homosexuality. Some people advocate frisking every black kid on the block on the grounds that the high percentage of black kids in trouble means you increase your chances of getting the bad guys. Round up the homosexuals and anyone who has anything to do with them. That’ll get the child abusers!
One might expect so much more of Lawler. He is a Harvard graduate, the author of six books, editor of several magazines. His articles have appeared in over 100 newspapers in the U.S. and abroad. But even monkeys fall from trees. And even good historians – and The Faithful Departed is very readable informative history – can trip over their own ideological blindess. Lawler doesn’t just stumble, though. His advocacy of blind obedience to a closed system hobbles him from the start.
Lawler is Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation, now headed up by Tea Party leader, Jim “homosexuals should not be teaching in the public schools” DeMint. If you go to their website, the first thing you see is “Join Rush Limbaugh and hundreds of thousands of other conservatives as a Member of The Heritage Foundation today.” No man should be judged entirely by the company he keeps, of course, but one gets an idea of what Lawler seems to have in mind when he speaks of conservatism.
His solution to what ails the church – to return to the day when young couples living together before marriage should be denied communion – is bizarre. His advocacy of conservative causes fills his pages. He uses terms like “pro-abortion,” rather than “pro-choice.” He speaks of Father Coughlin, the fiery radio-priest of the 1930s as a kind of buffoon, as being “dogged by charges of anti-Semitism.” (p. 88) Which is an interesting way to put it, when you consider Coughlin’s magazine, Social Justice, published the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He bewails (p. 129) the change from the time when Catholic children learned the Baltimore Catechism by the rote question-and-answer approach… to “master truths.” In writing of the Vatican response to the demand for same-sex marriage, a document titled Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons, he stresses that “The Vatican noted that these arguments were ‘drawn from reason’ rather than revealed truth and practically in the same sentence notes that “Considerations described homosexuality as a “troubling moral and social phenomenon,” missing the point that the only arguments used against LGBT rights for some time now have been those attributable to so-called revealed truth. (pp. 208-9)
Lawler makes the case that Vatican II did not change anything, that most Catholics are wrong in thinking that it did. It was the liberals who hijacked the Council, says Lawler, catching “tradition-minded” Catholics off-guard (p. 71). He makes no concession to a need for reform, no recognition that priests once turned away women wearing lipstick from communion. No recognition, in other words, that “conservative” has no meaning out of context. That what matters is not whether one is liberal or conservative but what one is liberal or conservative about, what is being conserved and what is being cast out. Lawler makes no mention of the offensiveness of the prayers for the conversion of the Jews in light of charges Pius XII failed to step in with any effective opposition to the persecution of the Jews – for the same reason the church today is shamed by the child abuse scandal, because it acted to preserve the institution at all costs, and not to protect the bodies and souls of the vulnerable. He cherry picks his events the way he accuses “cafeteria Catholics” of following those rules they will choose to be governed by and rejecting the others.
The church will rise again, is Lawler’s conclusion. After all, Catholics in Boston were a minority back in the early 19th Century, oppressed by a hostile majority, as they are today. “With the power of faith it could happen again.” (p. 258)
Faith, and a return to the old ways. Back to a time before the 60s and the sexual revolution and easy divorces. Back before the breakdown of gender roles, before all this talk of ecumenism.
How is that to be accomplished? Through unity of thought by imposition of orthodoxy. By embracing the church militant, marching in lockstep and silencing all dissent.
Lawler tells us only what he thinks went wrong, not how one persuades the world that they should embrace his particular choice of orthodoxies and not some other.
That would be a topic for a different book.
page references are to Lawler, Philip F., The Faithful Departed: the Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, paperback edition (with a new 2010 preface by the author), Encounter Books, NY and London, 2008