Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Faithful Departed

I just finished The Faithful Departed by Philip Lawler. This is absolutely required reading if you wish to understand what has gone wrong with the Catholic Church in America. I could barely put it down. Lawler ends with an in-depth analysis of the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the Church over the last decade; what is so outstanding about his analysis is his delineation of the roots of the scandal in the history of the Church, which he takes all the way back to the 18th century.

Something that has always puzzled me is how easily traditional piety was overrun in the wake of Vatican II. It is common knowledge by now that the official documents of the Council called for no such thing; most of the unorthodox innovations were made with reference to an undefined "spirit of Vatican II" that bore little relationship to the actual Council documents. But why did traditional believers put up so little defense? Why did bishops fail to hold the line and discipline obvious breaches in liturgical and doctrinal discipline? Something must have already been wrong with the Church, prior to Vatican II, that made it so weak in the face of rebels. What was the source of this weakness?

Focusing on the Archdiocese of Boston, Lawler shows that the bishops had, for a long time, been developing a bad habit of hiding problems rather than confronting them openly, "for the good of the Church" (which good was often hard to distinguish from the personal good of the bishop.) The Church in Boston had become a "good citizen", seemlessly intertwined with state and local government, and just as politicians prefer to hide problems rather than confront them, so the bishops developed a similar habit. This would have tragic consequences when the bishops later dealt with sexually abusive priests.

When the radicals began to remake the Church in the wake of Vatican II, the bishops had already developed the habit of dealing with problems by pretending they didn't exist. It wasn't the case that ordinary believers passively accepted the destruction of the Faith. They complained loudly and often to the bishops throughout the 60's and 70's, but their pleas fell on deaf ears. This is the answer to my puzzle about how the Church was so easily undermined in the 1960s. The bishops had already lost the will to oppose the radicals.

The sex abuse scandals were of a piece with the bishops failure to discipline doctrinal radicals. Just as they found it easier to pretend that liturgical abuse didn't exist, so they found it easier to believe that sexual abuse didn't exist, and just pass abusive priests from parish to parish. This was no more so than with the case of Cardinal Law here in the Boston Archdiocese. Publicly and in speeches, the Cardinal held to a doctrinally orthodox line. In fact, he was known as a "conservative" and vilified by the Boston Globe for being such. Yet, I wondered back in the 1990's, why did he allow heresy and liturgical abuse to flourish in his archdiocese? The assistant pastor in my parish, during a baptismal class in 90's, told me that there was no such thing as original sin or the Devil, those concepts having been discarded as "old theology." When I later confronted him the Catechism, he was genuinely surprised. He had been taught in the seminary - Cardinal Law's seminary - that there was no such thing as original sin or the Devil. The Cardinal seemed constitutionally incapable of disciplining any official in his archdiocese.

I'll have more to say on this book later. I highly recommend it.

1 comment:

Leila said...

You and your readers might be interested in joining the discussion over at The Faithful Departed, a blog for the book. I hope you do!