By John Mallon
The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, by Philip F. Lawler; Encounter Books; 2008; Reviewed by John Mallon
(A shorter version of this review appeared in the June-July, 2008 issue of Inside the Vatican magazine.)
Philip Lawler’s book, The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, is much more than a book about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church; it is a work of history. It should be required reading in any university course on the history of religion in America, and it should certainly be required reading in seminaries, and should be read by all bishops.
It is understood that while it examines Boston in particular, that Boston serves as a microcosm for the larger Church in America, just as the sex abuse crisis tragically repeated it self in all-too-many American dioceses.
Lawler addresses the questions that rose in the wake of the crisis, not so much by answering them directly but by tracing the religious culture, attitudes and practices in Boston (and by extension throughout the Church in America) back to the Puritans. He presents these conditions in strikingly clear and concise prose that after reading the book the reader can answer the questions for himself. This in itself is a remarkable achievement, to have addressed such a complex and confusing story so clearly and with such brevity that the answers emerge clearly on their own.
The first question on everyone’s mind is “How could this have happened?” In addressing this, Lawler takes us inside the hierarchical clerical culture and shows that what happened is merely the eruption into public view of a pattern of events which caused the same question to be asked by concerned and faithful Catholics for decades: Indeed, the question “How could this have happened?” has been addressed to the problem of dissent within the Church, the virtual apostasy of many Catholic colleges and universities, as well as the refusal to take public action against Catholic politicians who publicly and proudly support abortion yet continue to present themselves for Communion. The sex abuse crisis, as the most disgraceful of these sins of omission, was merely the most public and tragic manifestation of this pattern of denial that served as a tipping point bringing it to the public.
Lawler presents the sex abuse crisis as composed of three major elements—scandals—only one of which has been seriously addressed. First, obviously, is the actual sexual abuse of young people by Catholic priests. The second scandal, Lawler says, is the prevalence of homosexuality among Catholic priests. Here, Lawler reports, that when Catholics asked questions about the sexual predilections of American priests, they were told—not quite accurately—that the issue under discussion was pedophilia rather than homosexuality. Soon evidence emerged of the existence of a “lavender mafia” which strongly discouraged any clerical whistle-blowing regarding sexual misconduct. Evidence also suggested that the number of homosexually inclined men in the priesthood was out of proportion to society at large.
What accounts for this? Was it Catholic mothers of large families noticing one of her son’s disinterest in girls and saying, “He’s my priest!” thinking he would be “safe” in the priesthood and would have respectability? Thus prodding him into the priesthood? Or was it a conscious choice of homosexual men imagining safe social cover in the company of men with no intention of chastity? Scandals of openly active homosexual priests gives credence to this. In any event, couple this with what Lawler says here and there is a clear recipe for disaster:
After Vatican II in parishes troubled by dwindling attendance and flickering faith priests had more power but less authority. They could design their own liturgies and preach their own theological theories, but why were they doing it? If they did not represent the authority of a universal faith, what was the purpose of their work? Thousands of Catholic priests felt they had been cast adrift. Many abandoned the clerical life; many of those who remained were thoroughly demoralized. These unhappy priests had enormous freedom of action, but very little sense of purpose. They were dangerous men. (P. 76).
As for the bishops, Lawler says,
When the leaders of the US bishops’ conference traveled to Rome in April of 2002 to discuss the crisis with top Vatican officials, they acknowledged the importance of grappling with the influence of homosexuality, especially in the seminaries … But even before they left Rome, the American bishops were backing away from that recognition, retreating in the face of critics who would not countenance any criticism of homosexual priests. The question of homosexual influence was soon removed from the agenda of the American hierarchy, and in their later public statements the leaders of the US bishops’ conference actually sought to deny what they had acknowledged during those talks in Rome. (P. 8, emphasis in the original.)
This directs us to the third scandal, which, Lawler says, “is the abdication of authority—or worse, the complicity—of American bishops when they confronted the evidence of clerical abuse.” Further, he says, “While a small minority of American priests has been involved in sexual abuse, a clear majority of bishops were party to the cover up … the misconduct of priests has been acknowledged and addressed, the administrative malfeasance of bishops has still not been acknowledged—at least not by the bishops themselves—and not remedied. For all those reasons the third scandal, of episcopal misconduct, is today the most serious of all.” (P. 9, Emphasis in the original.)
The primary mission of the bishop, according to the second Vatican Council is to preach the Gospel. The primary message of the Gospel is conversion: for each Christian to recognize, acknowledge, confess and repent of one’s sins, make amends and conform one’s life to Christ. The great irony that emerges from Lawler’s thesis is that this is precisely where so many bishops failed.
Pope Benedict XVI was asked about the scandal during an in-flight press conference on his first trip to America as Pope. Among other things he said, “I am ashamed.” How surprisingly refreshing this was. To this day I cannot recall any American bishop making this same, simple, yet profoundly Christian statement. They may have, but I can’t recall it. The model of leadership in the United States seems to be based on the model of political leadership, fraught with damage control, spin doctoring, and countless tactics to avoid blame, or at least responsibility. Yet with this simple phrase Benedict demonstrated the authentic way of Christian leadership. He did not say, “What happened was shameful,” he said, “I am ashamed.” He did not say “Mistakes were made.” He said, “I am ashamed, and we will do everything possible to ensure that this does not happen in the future.
The ringing message of Benedict to the United States was one of hope, and the urgent need for evangelization and conversion—for all Catholics, an ongoing daily friendship with Jesus Christ.
Whether the American bishops were caught up in the long-time problem of assimilation into American culture dating back to discrimination against immigrants in the nineteenth century, or human respect, or the plain fear of bad publicity and felt need to cover one’s own backside; it boils down to these and other issues evidently eclipsing the basic Gospel message in the exercise of their ministry—it boils down to a tragic lesson of original sin obscuring the Gospel in our own lives, and even the bishops’ lives.
Lawler has correctly diagnosed the “problem” of the Church in America as being a crisis of faith—basic belief—in this case, the bishops tolerating unspeakable crimes, treating the scandalized faithful dismissively when they demanded—even pled—for action to be taken—seemingly not trusting Jesus enough to come clean, but relying on political tactics to deflect their wrongdoing and paying a heavy price for it.
John Mallon is a Contributing editor for Inside the Vatican. His personal website can be found at
By Philip Lawler: