The Shame of the Dioceses
Catholic lay people in Boston are responding to church leaders in these matters of accountability and management in a way unprecedented in the modern Catholic church in the United States. Where once “pray, pay and obey” Catholics would have grudgingly gone along with the hierarchy or left the church disgruntled, today they are saying, in effect: “You created the problem. You can’t take our parishes to fix the problem.”
That, of course, is too simple a reading of the situation. Even without the enormous pastoral blunders and gross mismanagement by previous archbishops in their handling of the clergy sex abuse scandal, things would have to change in Boston. Demographic shifts and the priest shortage alone continue to dictate changes in the urban Catholic landscape.
Above all, this touches on a crucial point that flies over the heads of many laypeople, even now: the ecclesiastical culture of a diocese is not equivalent to Revelation; issues of management (and, for that matter, communications policy) do not supersede, nor even stand alongside, the Gospel. And to tweak or see errors of ecclesiology in a diocesan culture which has gone off the rails -- especially those which have submitted to the clericalist beast -- isn't subversive, sinful or anti-Catholic, as the Bosses would have it. It's actually more solid Catholicism than a lot of the laziness and abuses which have crept in to these stagnant old warhorses.
It will take considerable courage, however, to buck the culture that Fr. Donald Cozzens, in his book Faith that Dares to Speak, characterizes as the last feudal system in the West.
That system -- dependent on an ignorant populace as well as absolute loyalty and the issuance from on high of benefices -- is crumbling. The serfs have been educated; unquestioning loyalty has been shown to be a dangerous idol; Boston as benefice has lost its luster.
Last feudal system in the West? Ummm... I guess Cozzens has never been to my hometown, where church and state both still operate along pretty medieval lines. And both aren't looking so great right now because of it: major federal corruption trials against city officials and mayoral confidantes, and a grand jury report coming next month which won't portray the archdiocese in its preferred best light.
Does that mean things will change? Probably not -- Lincoln Steffens' analysis of a "corrupt and contented" Philadelphia still rings true a century on. But it'd be nice to think that history, for once, has no sway on the future.