A Shrewd Move

By omitting the Boston archdiocese from his planned trip
to the US in April, the Holy Father upset expectations.
But he has good reason to avoid it.

Last April the director of the Vatican press office, Father Federico Lombardi, SJ, confirmed reports that Pope Benedict XVI would travel to the US in 2008. Immediately the rumor mills began to churn.

The Holy Father had accepted an invitation to address the UN at its headquarters in New York, the papal spokesman disclosed. Other stops, particularly along the east coast, could easily be added to the trip. So when would the Holy Father make the trip and which American cities would he choose to visit?

By September enterprising reporters, calling on their best sources in Rome, had accurately established the timing for the Pope’s trip: mid-April 2008. Speculation about the cities on the papal itinerary was a bit more varied.

In my native Boston, reporters were convinced that the Pope would make a stop there. They had several good reasons for reaching that conclusion. Boston is just a short hop from New York, they reasoned: an easy addition to the papal travel schedule. During his first visit to the US in 1979, Pope John Paul II had made back-to-back stops in Boston and New York, and it seemed reasonable to expect that Pope Benedict would follow the same pattern, reviving the happy memories of that first papal visit.

On a trip taking place in April 2008, the Pope could join in celebrating a historic milestone: the 200th anniversary of the Boston archdiocese, which was established (as a diocese at first) in April 1808. More important, by visiting the archdiocese that had become the focal point of the sex-abuse scandal in the US, the Pope might give Americans some sense that the Church was returning to normalcy after the most damaging episode in the history of American Catholicism.

Officials of the Boston archdiocese issued only a few cautious statements for public consumption, emphasizing that specific plans for the papal visit had not yet been established. But the excitement around the chancery— where a task force was quickly convened to begin planning for the papal visit—was palpable. Earlier in the year Cardinal Sean O’Malley had announced that he was inviting the Pope to visit Boston. Now his staff seemed confident that the Pontiff would accept that invitation.

On November 12 the apostolic nuncio in Washington, DC, Archbishop Pietro Sambi, crushed those hopes when he announced plans for a papal visit in April 2008 that would include only two stops, in New York and Washington. The keen disappointment among Bostonians was captured in a headline that appeared the next day in the Boston Globe: “Pope will bypass Boston in US visit.” The most salient fact about the papal trip, from the Globe’s perspective, was that he would not visit Boston.

Of course thousands of other American towns could be listed among the places the Pope would not visit. But in Boston the schedule for the papal tour seemed oddly incomplete. How could the Pontiff fail to include a stop in the city that styles itself as “the hub of the universe?”

When he made his announcement about the Pope’s travel plans, Archbishop Sambi was addressing a plenary meeting of the US bishops’ conference. While the apostolic nuncio regularly speaks at these meetings, his address is not ordinarily the stuff of newspaper headlines; the papal envoy usually lets the American bishops command the media spotlight. Moreover, the Vatican rarely offers detailed plans for a papal voyage until just a few weeks before the trip takes place. So the timing of the archbishop’s announcement was surprising. But it is not difficult to imagine why the nuncio might have chosen to break from precedent and end the speculation about the papal trip.

Just a week after their meeting in Washington, many US bishops traveled to Rome to prepare for the November consistory at which Pope Benedict would confer red hats on 23 new cardinals, including two Americans. During their spare time, prelates from the cities along the eastern coastline were expected to lobby for inclusion on the Pope’s travel schedule. Perhaps Vatican officials decided to spare themselves from the pressure campaigns by issuing a pre-emptive announcement.

In Boston, certainly, the clerics who were hoping to organize a papal visit had been speaking fairly openly about the arguments that Cardinal O’Malley could make as he pressed his case in Rome. By making an appearance in Boston, they said, the Pope could demonstrate his confidence in the leadership of the beleaguered Boston archdiocese.

But wait: hadn’t Pope Benedict already demonstrated that confidence in March 2006, when he elevated Archbishop O’Malley to the College of Cardinals in the first consistory of his pontificate? How many demonstrations of papal confidence would the Boston archdiocese need in order to recover from the devastation of the sexabuse scandal?

More to the point, why should Pope Benedict show confidence in the leadership of an archdiocese that has so clearly lost confidence in itself?

For the past several decades—beginning long before the eruption of the sex-abuse scandal—Boston’s Catholic leaders have been retreating from what was once a dominant position in the region’s cultural affairs. Indeed, the scandal itself has been a symptom, not a cause, of a calamitous decline in Catholic influence. And in that respect Boston is emblematic of the Church throughout the United States.

When he travels to the US, Pope Benedict should not be conveying a message of confidence in current Church leadership. Any such confidence would be sadly misplaced. Instead, the Holy Father should issue a stern challenge to the US hierarchy, prodding our bishops to reverse a course that has proven disastrous for the public influence of American Catholicism.

If anyone had asked me (no one did), I would have counseled against a papal visit to Boston. The public forces of anti-Catholicism are too thoroughly entrenched here—emboldened by their unbroken record of success against the Church in the past decade. The Pope would have found his enemies aggressive and voluble, his allies dispirited and unreliable.

What could Pope Benedict do, in the course of a 24-hour stopover, that would restore vigor to the Church in Boston? The archdiocese has entered the 21st century in a crippled condition. Dozens of parishes have been closed and dozens more are on the chopping block as chancery bureaucrats struggle to cope with a gaping deficit in the annual budget. Mass attendance has been falling for more than the span of a generation. Catholic marriages are breaking down; Catholic priests are ignoring liturgical guidelines; Catholic schools are encouraging students to question Church doctrine. The litany of complaints should be familiar to anyone who has recognized the travail of contemporary American Catholicism. But in Boston—once the most Catholic of American cities—the corruption of the faith is now further advanced.

Nowhere is the decline of Catholicism more evident than in Boston’s civic life. There was a time, in the mid-20th century, when a single statement from the archbishop was enough to derail a piece of legislation. Today politicians in Massachusetts bolster their campaign prospects by attacking the Catholic Church—even if they are nominal Catholics themselves. When the state legislature voted to require contraception coverage in health-insurance policies, lobbyists for the Catholic Church could not rally a single negative vote in the state senate. Nor could they find a single senator to oppose another bill requiring hospitals to furnish the abortifacient “morningafter” pill to rape victims. The voters of Massachusetts—nearly 50 percent of them self-identified Catholics—have consistently re-elected a solidly proabortion Congressional delegation, and declined to overturn a court decision that made Massachusetts the only US state that gives full legal recognition to same-sex marriage.

Since taking the reins of archdiocesan leadership in 2003, Cardinal O’Malley has done what he can to encourage personal piety, concentrating his efforts on the interior lives of the faithful rather than the public image of the Church. No doubt a papal visit could have encouraged the faithful in their private practices. But a papal visit is a public event, and a trip to Boston would inevitably have been judged by its impact on civic life. In that respect, a visit by Pope Benedict XVI was doomed to fail. The Pope could either have condemned the lax practice of the region’s Catholics and thus stirred up even more hostility, or he could have put his tacit stamp of approval on that same lax practice and thus exacerbated the problem.

Wisely, the Vatican chose not to put the Pope into that awkward position in Boston. But the papal visit will encounter similar dangers elsewhere in America.

If he had visited Boston, Pope Benedict would have been virtually forced to address the sex-abuse scandal: the single topic that has dominated discussions of the Church here over the past several years. On that issue in particular, Church officials in Boston had hoped that the papal visit would mark a return to normalcy, closing the ugliest chapter in the history of the local Church.

But once again, the Holy Father would have been confronting an impossible task. In order to restore the confidence of American Catholics shaken by the scandals, the Pontiff would have had to say that the crisis has now passed. And as everyone knows—except perhaps a few dozen American bishops—the crisis still continues.

The barrage of newspaper headlines about the sexual misbehavior of clerics might have reached its peak in Boston in 2002, when Cardinal Bernard Law resigned in disgrace and the Boston Globe won its Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the corruption of Church leadership. But the wounds are still fresh here, and the evidence of rot is still emerging in other dioceses around the country. During the past year the focus of media attention was on California— where one bishop was scolded for inaccurate filings in a bankruptcy petition, another faced contempt-of-court charges, and still another approved a staggering $660 million settlement with sex abuse victims.

Not a week goes by—even now in 2008—without new headlines that damage the credibility of the American hierarchy. How could Pope Benedict restore confidence in the American bishops, when the next week’s headlines would predictably give new reasons to doubt them?

Yes, there are programs in place now to combat sexual abuse within the Church. The US bishops, through their National Review Board, are carefully monitoring the implementation of those programs in every diocese. But what do the programs accomplish? In their five-year report on the bishops’ efforts, issued in December 2007, the National Review Board happily announced that more than six million children have been enrolled in educational programs designed to combat sexual abuse, and 1.6 million diocesan and parish workers have undergone background checks. But then the National Review Board added a remarkable caution: “What the audits do not measure is the quality of the work that the dioceses and parishes are doing.” In other words, we know that the programs are in place, but we don’t know whether they are effective.

The programs that the US bishops put in place after their memorable meeting in Dallas in June 2002 were designed to curb sexual abuse by Catholic clerics. But the programs did not address the other fundamental problem raised by the sex-abuse scandal: the devastating loss of confidence in the American bishops.

Only a small minority of Catholic priests were engaged in sexual misconduct with young people, and now programs are in place to identify those predator-priests and remove them from active ministry. But a large majority of the American bishops were implicated in the effort to cover up clerical misconduct, and most of those delinquent bishops remain in office today, with their credibility in shreds.

Nothing could be more damaging to Church authority than the suspicion that bishops would mislead their own people. Ultimately, we all received the faith from someone else, whose witness we must consider trustworthy if we are to maintain that faith. We profess the faith “that comes to us from the apostles” and still speaks authoritatively today through the successors to the apostles, our bishops. A bishop who lies to his people undermines the basis for our faith in Catholic authority, and thus undermines his own position.

A generation or two ago, Catholics formed a solid, cohesive force in American public life, particularly in the eastern cities like Boston, where the Catholic population was most heavily concentrated. The undeniable political power of the Church reflected the solidarity among the Catholic faithful, who were united in their beliefs, their practices, and their acceptance of Church authority. Catholics tended to think alike, behave alike, and so naturally to vote alike.

From the perspective of the hierarchy, this unity among the faithful had obvious practical advantages. A Catholic bishop was a figure of considerable importance in the public life of society; even if he had no particular interest in politics, he commanded the respect of politicians who recognized that the bishop could sway thousands of votes whenever he chose to do so.

Notice here that the bishop’s prestige was not derived from his political acumen nor from the force of his rhetoric. He was acknowledged first and foremost as a religious authority, and his public clout reflected the understanding that lay Catholics would follow his lead on practical matters because they were accustomed to accepting his authority on questions of faith and morals.

To protect that authority, the bishop had to ensure first that the Catholic faithful continued to accept the doctrinal and moral authority of the Church magisterium, and second that they acknowledged him personally as a reliable witness for the Church. With the doctrinal and disciplinary breakdown that followed Vatican II, American bishops began to lose the first of these necessary bases for their authority. With their dishonest response to the sex-abuse scandal, they sacrificed the second. So now the American Catholic hierarchy must restore the authority that was once taken for granted by bishops and laity alike.

Pluralist, democratic societies often have difficulty finding an appropriate way to accommodate religious beliefs. A militantly secular society resolves the problem by banishing religious beliefs from public life altogether, consigning faith to the purely private realm. The unhappy result is political discourse stripped of all moral guidance, in what Father Richard John Neuhaus famously described as “the naked public square.”

The Church has never accepted the notion that religion must be kept separate from public life, and since the time of St. Augustine the Catholic intellectual tradition has incorporated a series of fruitful reflections on the proper relationship between religious and secular authority. It is noteworthy that Father Neuhaus, even before his own entry into the Catholic fold, followed up his book The Naked Public Square with a second book, The Catholic Moment, in which he argued that the Catholic Church was uniquely equipped to handle the delicate Church-state issues of American democracy in the late 20th century.

In order for the Church to play her proper role in American public life, however, it is essential first to recognize that there is a distinctive Catholic intellectual tradition. And if the tradition exists, who can speak about it authoritatively? So once again we come face to face with the breakdown of Church doctrine and discipline and the failure of the American bishops to preserve their own rightful authority.

Would it be an exaggeration to say that Pope Benedict XVI is traveling to the US precisely to address this crisis of Catholic authority? In Boston, Church leaders suggested that the Pope’s trip might be an opportunity to help the American Church recover from the sexabuse scandal. In Philadelphia (as in Boston and New York), champions of a papal visit pointed out that it would be appropriate for the Pontiff to visit on the 200th anniversary of the establishment of that diocese; in Baltimore the same argument was made about the 200th anniversary of America’s first metropolitan archdiocese. But from Rome there has never been a hint that these considerations figured prominently in the Pope’s planning for the voyage.

Recall that the original purpose of the Pope’s trip is to deliver an address to the United Nations. Although the Pontiff will make several other public appearances, Vatican officials have continually stressed the UN speech as the highlight of the papal tour.

We do not know exactly what the Holy Father will say to the UN delegates in New York. But we can safely predict that he will emphasize the same themes that he and his predecessor John Paul II have stressed again and again in their messages to the political leaders of Europe. Democracy cannot flourish without a sound moral foundation, he will warn; political discourse cannot be divorced from religious beliefs, and human rights cannot be upheld without a shared recognition of the natural law upon which they are based.

Pope Benedict will appear before the UN not as a political leader but as a moral authority. If the UN delegates are swayed by his speech, it will be because they recognize him as an authentic and reliable witness for the truths of the Catholic faith.

The American bishops are hoping that Pope Benedict will underline his confidence in their pastoral leadership. But any such confidence would be premature. Instead, the Holy Father is likely to give the American hierarchy an example of how a genuine pastoral leader exercises, and thereby vindicates, the authority of the Church.


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About Philip F. Lawler 15 Articles
Philip F. Lawler is the editor of Catholic World News and author of the Lost Shepherd: How Pope Francis is Misleading His Flock, available now for pre-order.