Converting to Modernity

The series of events that began with the conviction of John Geoghan in Boston on charges of sexual abuse–along with the revelations that the Boston archdiocese had known about his problems and had nonetheless transferred him from parish to parish–are unprecedented in the history of American Catholicism. The consequences have been shattering: a lack of trust in Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law, a falloff in contributions with implications for the charitable good deeds of the church, a questioning of many traditional Catholic tenets such as the male-only priesthood, a sense that the church has not responded adequately to contemporary understandings of sexuality, and an increase in demands by laity for a say in how their church is governed. When the final events in this story have unfolded, and no one knows when that will be, we will have witnessed the single greatest crisis in the history of American Catholicism.

Yet as dramatic as these events have been, they have occurred against the background of an ongoing transformation in the nature of American Catholicism that has been taking place over the last half century. In that time, American Catholicism has become more American in its actual practices–more individualistic and more democratic–and this trend will only continue and intensify, however the current crisis is resolved.

Roman Catholicism in America, and particularly in Boston, was, from the moment of the arrival of the first wave of European immigrants from countries such as Italy and Ireland, primarily an urban religion. Catholics, in order to prove that they belonged in their new land, invested heavily in the construction of monumental church buildings. Obligated by the rules of their faith and by custom to attend Mass at their local parish, Catholics were far less likely than those of other religions to flee to the suburbs with the first available opportunity. Even if Catholics wanted to leave the city behind, moreover, not many of them could. Of course some Catholics, most famously the Kennedys, achieved great wealth. But Catholics lagged behind other religious groups in rates of college and university attendance. Well into the 1940s, most were tied to working-class jobs, and to the ethnic-ghetto lifestyle that came with them.

As part of that lifestyle, Catholics led their lives connected to institutions. Many belonged to labor unions; even as the growth of unions began to slow down, the head of the AFL-CIO would invariably be Catholic. It was Catholics who took the lead in organizing their political life through parties, sustaining the machines made famous by Boston’s James Michael Curley. Government was another institution central to Catholic life, both because so many of the faithful found employment in city agencies and because some were still dependent on governmental assistance. Catholics, alone among America’s religious groups, had their own system of schools, eventually including colleges and universities, which not only taught their children but provided employment as well. They organized their social lives institutionally, in organizations like the Knights of Columbus. And no roll call of institutions important to Catholics could leave out the family. Strictures against divorce were taken seriously during these years, and when Catholics, especially women, prayed to the Madonna or to Our Lady of Perpetual Help, they prayed for the protection of their family.

As a result of this strong emphasis on institutions, Catholics developed an appreciation of the importance of loyalty. “Go West, young man,” Horace Greeley advised Americans, and they have been fleeing established institutions ever since. But Catholics did not go West, not even, at first, to Weston or Wellesley, let alone California or Texas. Institutional loyalties were not to be so casually disregarded. There was a Catholic ethic in America just as much as there was a Protestant one, and the Catholic ethic insisted on the importance of communal solidarity. Strength, people understood, lay in numbers. Catholics could only exercise influence in the face of Protestant dominance by joining the same unions, voting for the same political party, and living in the same geographic areas.

Long before anyone heard of John Geoghan, however, the distinctive pattern of Catholic life in America had begun to change. For one thing, the suburbs eventually beckoned; it is worth noting that the epicenter of the current crisis is not South Boston but Wellesley, home of the laity group Voice of the Faithful. There are no significant differences now between rates of college attendance among the Irish and any other American ethnic group, including Asians and Jews. When business leaders offer their opinions on the crisis, many of them are Catholic, as are the law enforcement officials managing the cases that grow out of it, the heads of the law firms on all sides, and the media magnates who provide the coverage. Legacies of older forms of Catholic social life remain; Southie and its politicians give Boston, and indeed Massachusetts, a distinctive political culture and, as we learned after September 11, a significant number of uniformed officers are still Catholic. But American patterns of upward mobility have caught up to Boston’s Catholics. The archdiocese’s young men–and young women–now go as far West as their hearts take them.

These sociological transformations make Catholics more like the rest of the country. And one of the defining features of this country is its individualism. With economic and political success, and the mobility and independence that come with it, American Catholics are less attached to their organizational loyalties. They no longer dominate the unions as they once did. They don’t vote as a bloc in the Democratic Party anymore; some have become Republicans. Their schools are less central to the raising of their children as they once were, as children arrive at Boston College or Notre Dame, or at Ivy League institutions, having gone to suburban prep schools. More and more Catholics divorce. Bowling leagues–Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam’s short-hand symbol for the rich associational life that once marked American life (and in which urban Catholicism played such a significant role)–have declined. Some unidentifiable but nonetheless significant number of Catholics have converted to other faiths, including forms of evangelical Protestantism that have historically been anti-Catholic in character. Others marry outside the faith–not in rates as high as, say, Jews, but in rates that inevitably influence the strength of Catholic loyalties. Obvious and important differences persist between Catholicism and other religions. But it is nonetheless the case that Catholics have become a little less distinct among America’s religious believers.

The church can no longer ignore sweeping changes in the outside world.

All these changes in the nature of American Catholicism were underway before the pedophilia scandal broke out in Boston. But while the changes were well known to practicing Catholics as well as outside observers, the church hierarchy either did not understand them or did not care much about them. Its instincts stayed rooted in the institutional understandings of the past. The organization always came first, before the rights and interests of individuals. One simply did not get rid of abusive priests because it would bring unflattering publicity upon the institution. Those who had qualms about transferring sexual predators elsewhere without informing parishioners about their conduct were expected to keep their thoughts to themselves. Those who cooperated with the system were rewarded and whistle-blowers, even before the term existed, were not tolerated. The archdiocese acted like an old boy’s network in the most literal sense of the term. Pastoral skills, intelligence, and independence of judgment were devalued relative to willingness never to rock the boat. While it is true that John Paul II appointed bishops who shared his conservative views on sexual morality, far more important was his choice of leaders who would observe the rules of institutional behavior. Political ideology is not the only form that conservatism takes; there is also the kind that shies away from change. It is common to say that in its response to the crisis, the Boston archdiocese acted like Enron. It did, but not because the church is like a modern corporation. Rather, the church is built on a feudal system of reciprocal loyalties.

Almost as a point of pride, the church governed itself in ways that ran counter to the radical transformations sweeping over the other institutions of American life in the 1970s and ’80s. Women were rising to power in organizations of all sorts, bringing with them new rules of recruitment and promotion not based on old-boys networks. But women, of course, were excluded from the Catholic priesthood. Business and academic organizations began to make available to the public information about their inner workings, in part under legal pressure to show that they did not engage in racial discrimination, but the church was exempt from such requirements. In fields like entertainment and professional sports, free agency enabled stars to bargain with other employers to advance their careers, thereby shifting the balance of power away from management in favor of individuals, while the church, organized in top-down fashion, could ignore such trends. Outside the church, Americans were criticized for their narcissistic preoccupation with the self. Inside the church, an older America that valued institutional obligations over individual needs still reigned supreme.

There is something admirable about the church’s resistance to the trends in the rest of American culture, for not all the changes that have taken place over the last 30 years are positive ones. But the great bulk of them have represented social progress, and institutions throughout society have been forced to adapt to this new environment, often to their own eventual benefit. Boston College, for example, moved to admit women, to develop a lay Board of Trustees, to recruit non-Catholic faculty and students, and to become a national rather than a local institution. It did so, moreover, not to become less Catholic, but to respond to the needs of a more modern and mobile Catholic population in the United States. Much of BC’s distinctively Catholic identity was lost in the process, it must be admitted. But almost no one, save for the occasional critic, thinks that Boston College is worse off as a result. In some ways, the Catholicism at Boston College has been strengthened because, rather than being taken for granted, it has to prove its value to students who have been exposed to the rest of America and come prepared to ask questions about what BC can offer them.

No similar transformation took place in the Boston archdiocese across the street. As American Catholics became used to questioning authority, the church insisted on its authoritative teachings, including teachings on sexual morality most of the otherwise faithful no longer believed. An increasingly affluent membership came to accept Vatican II’s stress on the active participation of “the people of God,” meaning people much like themselves, in the liturgy, but not all church leaders shared their enthusiasm. Catholics searching for a religion that spoke to their own needs began to make a distinction between their faith, which was personal and intimate, and their religion, which was bureaucratic and organizational, but this, of course, was anathema to those for whom the church was the hierarchy. To the extent that Catholics identified with the institutional structure of their religion, moreover, they increasingly looked to their local parish rather than the archdiocese or Rome. It is not the job of religious leaders to hire survey researchers to find out what their members want (although some religious institutions, such as Protestant megachurches, frequently do). But smart church leaders keep their ears on the ground, slowly adjusting to new realities even as they insist on the timelessness of tradition and ritual.

If high-ranking officials in the Boston archdiocese were engaged in such sociological fine-tuning, they kept their findings to themselves. From the moment the crisis over abusive priests broke out, the church responded in ways that suggest an utter lack of understanding of the ways most Boston Catholics live. (An exception can be found among recent immigrants to the United States, many from Latin America, who, like other immigrants before them, tend to be more respectful toward church authority.) Desperate to hear the language of care and concern from their leaders, Catholics heard church leaders speak in the language of litigation. Certain that future abuses could be prevented if church officials would seek the advice of the laity, they were instructed in no uncertain terms to keep their noses out of church affairs. Used to having influence in non-religious institutions, they were asked to donate money without asking awkward questions about how the money would be spent. Trust us, church officials told them, just as you have always done. But Americans have learned to distrust those who have been in charge for too long, giving support to political reforms like term limits. It was as if the Boston archdiocese had been frozen in time. It was still speaking to a city-bound, institution-first Catholicism that no longer existed, somehow managing to overlook the suburban, individualistic, and questioning Catholicism that had taken its place.

Commentators still speak of the crisis that began in Boston but has spread further as one primarily about sexuality. Some view it as a situation in which powerful and trusted men abused their positions to prey on innocent youngsters. Others, particularly those of a more conservative bent, focus on homosexuality, as if what has taken place is a byproduct of the sexual revolutions of the 1960s and ’70s. But the long-term implications of the crisis touch on the whole way the church exists in the world, and sex is a relatively minor part of that. The real crisis involves the proper way to hold churches accountable in a democratic society, whether those churches are themselves democratic or not.

The grandparents and great-grandparents of today’s residents of Wellesley and Weston came to the United States from many of the poorest and most oppressive parts of Europe, places that did not have long established democratic traditions. And they brought with them a faith that had distinctive old-world characteristics. They accepted as a matter of course that theirs was the One True Church. Mass, conducted in Latin, was filled with awe and mystery. The liturgy–unchanged for centuries–emphasized tradition and ritual. Martyrdom was widely admired. Confession could not be avoided, and the form it took was not group absolution but an often uncomfortable one-on-one soul-baring in a dark and forbidding box. Practices such as praying with a rosary and offering devotions to Mary and popular saints were common. The language of sin and suffering permeated Catholic worship. Immigration is a wrenching process of dislocation, and it is no wonder that so many immigrants held fast to older forms of faith in order to reconcile themselves to difficulty while smoothing their adjustment to a new way of life.

But today’s Catholics have been in democratic America long enough to create a uniquely American form of Catholicism. They seek in their faith what other American believers look for: a God who speaks to them personally, a faith that is more optimistic and celebratory, answers to questions about what it means to lead a moral life, forms of worship that make people feel empowered, and an active say in the religion that speaks in their name. This does not mean that all American Catholics believe that women should be ordained as priests or that Rome should change its position on birth control; Catholics have been divided on those issues for some time and will still be divided long after the current crisis plays itself out. But it does mean that the church can no longer govern itself as if accountability does not matter. That so many Catholics are angry at the actions taken by their leaders does not mean they have become bad Catholics. It means they have become modern Catholics.

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However the crisis is resolved, Catholicism as a faith will likely be strengthened no matter what happens to Catholicism as a religion. Organizationally speaking, the church in America will never again be as it was. Some increase in lay participation in its governance is inevitable. If the number of available priests continues to decline, advocates for women’s ordination and elimination of the celibacy requirement will get more of a hearing. The church will have to find ways of dealing with the modern world’s preoccupation with questions of authority and how it is exercised, along with questions of sexuality and how it is practiced. But the important point is that Catholics love their faith too much to allow those questions to be answered without their input. The church that emerges from this crisis may never be, nor should it necessarily be, a democratic one. But it will be one that is more responsive to democracy. For the church can only flourish if it adapts itself to the society it has done so much to shape‹and which, despite persistent efforts by church officials to resist the process, has done so much to shape the church in turn.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College.