The initial focus is the sex abuse scandal. Lawler makes two key points about that. First, it was not errant priests who were the real blow to the credibility of the Church, but revelations about how much bishops had covered up abuse. This episcopal mendacity is an aspect of the scandal that Lawler holds the Church has continued to fail to address (p.xiii). Lawler notes that as early as 1985 US Bishops had received a confidential report on child abuse, and there had been court cases and payouts. Then, in 2002, a Massachusetts judge became the first to order public release of confidential Church documents and the full extent of episcopal cover-up and mendacity became public knowledge and public record: while a minority of priests where abusers, a majority of bishops were party to the cover-ups (Pp7-9).
Second, that the Church’s influence had been waning for decades. As a sign of this, Lawler notes that laws have been passed going against Church doctrine without a single dissenting vote by lawmakers. The “most painful” sign of the decline in Catholic influence being Massachusetts legalising same-sex marriage (p.4).
The essential problem Lawler sees as the hierarchy betraying Church doctrine and pastoral care in order to prop up the Church as an institution (Pp12-3). Lawler is judging the Church within an orthodox Catholic framework, arguing that it was betrayal of the divine mandate, the transcendental role of the Church, in order to further the institutional interests of the Church that was the fundamental problem. Hence the scandals being worst, and most disastrous, in Boston, where the process was most advanced, most successful (Pp14-5). What he is telling is a cautionary tale that Lawler holds carries lessons for any conservative Christian Church “fighting to preserve the integrity of the Gospel message against the advances of secularization” (p.16). The examples he lists of contentious issues – “abortion and contraception, divorce and same-sex marriage, sterilization and in vitro fertilization, stem-cell research and assisted suicide” (Pp16-7) – indicate how much issues of sex and gender are confrontation points. Issues with little actual Gospel support for most of the conservative Christian positions thereon.
Lawler then moves into a history of Catholicism in the US, particularly the Irish and particularly in Boston. It is a story of struggle against exclusion and discrimination. Alas, Catholic complaints about discrimination, given the appalling Catholic record of repression of (for example) the Jews, always come with a whiff of discount-for-hypocrisy. Especially when, as in Lawler’s case, no context is given for Protestant distrust of Catholics and Catholicism is given while he is clearly very much in favour of his same-sex oriented fellow citizens being denied equal protection of the law.
Still, it is a dramatic story, well told. The horror of the WASP elite as an overtly tribal Irish Catholic politician, James Michael Curley, proud of being convicted of fraudulent conduct because he “did it for a friend”, became mayor of Boston is well told (Pp30-1). The Catholic takeover did lower the probity of city government, but if one uses universal values as a weapon for tribal exclusion, you undermine the credibility of those values.
The cost of success
From a repressed minority, the Irish Catholics of Boston became a vigorous and confident majority: particularly under the episcopate of William O’Connell. O’Connell was a vigorous and successful administrator. Vocations, parishes, Catholic schools expanded greatly under his administration. He was an efficient and effective delegator, building up a system where institutionally effective priests were given considerable latitude and authority: this was the path to promotion (Pp33ff). In effect, O’Connell created, or at least was a prime facilitator of, a priestly managerialism (though Lawler does not use the term). Managerial authority and efficiency – the priest as professional – overtook vocation.
O’Connell even had his own sexual scandal – a very heterosexual one – where his priest-nephew led a double life as a married man, possibly involving funds embezzled from the archdiocese. Cardinal O’Connell took years to do anything about it: a harbinger of things to come (Pp39ff).
Lawler then takes us through how mainstream, influential and self-confident postwar American Catholicism was. It had a positive “media presence” – a good relationship with Hollywood, a radio and later TV star in Father, then Archbishop, Sheen, who concentrated on pastoral advice, unlike the previous media star Father Coughlin (who Lawler casts as ‘fiery’, with the barest mention of accusations of anti-Semitism). Lawler presents the avuncular Cardinal Cushing, O’Connell’s successor and a practitioner of interfaith dialogue (his sister married a Jew and the Cardinal became a friend of his brother-in-law’s family) as the symbol of the era. A lenient man, friend of Joe Kennedy (who was very attentive to the institutional presence of the Church, rather than its teachings), publicly sympathetic to Jacqueline Kennedy when she married a divorced man, the Cardinal was at an appalled loss when confronted with angry students full of 60s rebelliousness. (Lawler never quite says so, but gives the impression that he would have preferred the Archbishop to have rejected, or at least publicly rebuked, his sister and his friend.) There was also an ongoing controversy over an evangelising Harvard priest, Father Feeney, who took a particularly strict version of no salvation outside the Church (Pp43ff).
So C20th Boston had two long-serving Cardinal-Archbishops: one who was respected, but not loved; one who was loved but not always respected. In 1960, a Catholic was elected President. In 1964, Catholics become the largest religious block in the US (as they still are). Yet the cultural revolution of the 1960s was sweeping through the US (and Western world more generally) (Pp53-4).
The distractions of democracy
Lawler is clearly a conservative Catholic, in both accepting Church authority and in politics: yet the most prominent political Catholic family were the Kennedy’s, notoriously liberal Democrats. This is an issue for Lawler, particularly given that they produced the first (and so far only) Catholic elected US President. Lawler examines candidate Kennedy’s September 12 1960 Houston speech to Baptist ministers where Senator Kennedy made it clear that he would not be an agent of the Catholic Church, that he would be guided by his private conscience. Lawler’s problem with this is that his speech in part signalled that on some of the issues of the day – recognising the Holy See, state aid to parochial schools, public funding of family planning – he would oppose Church teachings. Kennedy was accepting his position as the “tribal” Catholic but emancipating himself from the burdens of Church teaching. Lawler notes that he was following in the footsteps of Justice William Brennan who, at his Supreme Court confirmation hearings, acknowledged the supremacy of the Constitution (Pp55-6).
But Kennedy’s message was—or at least should have been—unsettling to Catholics who believed that a properly formed conscience will adhere to the teachings of the Church (p.56).The notion that the decisions of a serial group of celibate men operating in a particular tradition achieve a monopoly of moral truth is precisely what concerns people about Catholicism. How can someone be an agent of a wider society, or of a particular Constitution, while accepting that the decisions of a specific Church are always ultimately moral trumps? Particularly a Church with a somewhat grisly, intolerant and repressive past? If it had been up to the Catholic Church, Jewish emancipation would not have been achieved: nor intellectual freedom; nor religious freedom; nor sexual freedom. A story that Lawler does not tell, nor even allude to except in the most elliptical terms, is how outside pressures have forced change on quite basic issues of public life even in Catholic teaching (for example, on treatment of Jews). He is concerned with the Church’s failure to stand by its teachings without concerning himself with how those very teachings have evolved and what that implies about the Church’s own doctrines and processes.
Catholics may have become the largest religious bloc in the US, but it is still a majority Protestant country, with very different views of individual conscience and authority. The issue of Church authority and democratic agency is rather more complex than Lawler is implying.
It is all very well for Lawler to point out that the Church had failed to follow its own teachings in the child abuse cases, but those teachings are still decided upon by precisely the class of people who made such serially mendacious decisions, in jurisdiction after jurisdiction. Lawler wants to use the teachings of the Church as not only a benchmark to judge, but as a protection against, the implications of the Church’s profound moral failings. A certain selective blindness is required to carry this off. I am reminded of Orwell’s critique of Chesterton: that his commitment to the truth of Catholicism compromised his commitment to truth:
Chesterton was a writer of considerable talent who chose to suppress both his sensibilities and his intellectual honesty in the cause of Roman Catholic propaganda.Lawler strays into similar territory.
Lawler engages in a historical dissection and critique of the process by which being a Catholic politician came to have very little to do with following Catholic doctrine. He notes that the puritan elite of Boston had long been motivated by politics of salvation, this simply became more overtly focused on salvation in this world. (Modern progressivism does descend in part from transferred Protestant radicalism.)
What grieves him particularly about the process is that Catholic prelates led the way, accepting that religion was a matter of private belief, separate from public life. In 1965, when the Massachusetts legislature was debating on repealing a statewide ban of sale of contraceptives, Cardinal Cushing told a radio audience:
I am also convinced that I should not impose my position—moral beliefs or religious beliefs—on those of other faiths (p.60).Lawler wants to differentiate Church teachings that are specifically religious (such as doctrines on the Trinity) with those which are based on natural law teaching (such as opposition to contraception and abortion): a separation between those with direct public policy implications and those without. This is also not a differentiation based on the authority of Church teaching – they are all equally that – but which are more readily open to building alliances and coalitions.
When a Democratic primary to replace Father Drinan (a Jesuit priest who, in defiance of the Church hierarchy, had repeatedly sought and been elected to the House of Representatives) was underway in 1980, Cardinal Medeiros issued a pastoral letter denouncing abortion and support for abortion. The timing was clearly aimed at supporting anti-abortion Arthur Clark over pro-abortion Barney Frank. There was a public outcry at religious interference in politics and Frank won the primary (Pp62-3). The notion that Catholic moral teachings apply only to Catholics had become widely accepted, becoming internalised even by those speaking for the Church (Pp63-4). Surely, the implication that Catholics ought to vote as a bloc was also causing some angst, not merely in defence of a position many disagreed with. (Though, in Lawler’s defence, many such commentators were and are completely comfortable with African-Americans voting as a bloc.)
For Lawler, the Church provides authoritative truth. Anyone can argue for something they believe is true: being a prelate gives one no special authority on such matters. Indeed, given the need to stay within doctrine, it may even be a handicap: particularly if such doctrine has decreasing resonance. In the wider society, that a Catholic prelate argues for it gives something no special authority. It may have importance, if it reflects a sizeable slice of opinion, but that is a separate question. The tension between Church authority, group identity and popular sovereignty is perhaps more complicated than a failure of the Church hierarchy to speak up for Church doctrine.
To put these issues in context, change ‘Catholic doctrine’ for ‘Sharia’ or ‘fatwa’ and how do Lawler’s arguments look? The claims of religious authority do not come in the “clearly right” and “clearly wrong” versions that Lawler implicitly claims. The state and public life must deal with them in general, not according to some form of privileging.
This review will be concluded in my next post.