Reading The Signs Of The Times

Last post, while explaining the petition, I sketched the connections from local to diocesan to larger units such as the Commonwealth, the U. S., and Catholic “headquarters” based in Rome. “All politics is local” and church politics are no exception. Church officials insist that the church is above politics, whether of the secular or religious variety. Careful observation belies this claim, and not only at the macro-level, where Cardinal Dolan plays a role on the national stage.

The parishes are the building blocks of the church. Parish councils, though ostensibly formed to help the laity govern, in reality play a very different role in the Springfield Diocese. They have a gate-keeping function, and one of their assignments is to squelch unorthodox strains of thought which may erupt into public speech, discussion and advocacy, and thereby undermine (so the thinking goes) the larger good of shaping behavior based on top-down authority. Propriety and appearance are very important values in the Springfield Diocese. 

This orthodoxy is expressed in pronouncements from "spokesmen" rather than individual parishioners; in marching orders issued from Elliot St., the centralized headquarters of the bishop, rather than bubbling up from an organic base; in a liturgy where spontaneity is discouraged; in chilly  homiletics, so barren of new theological thought; in the rich clothing and ceremonial trappings of the chancery, so clearly modeled on Roman imperial might. Without question, these sentiments and displays are backwards and anti-democratic. Yet, many Catholics accept them, often with the disclaimer that “that’s the way the Catholic church operates.” 

Curiously, the suspicion that these may not be gospel values hardly comes up. Even more curious, church officials claim to be not only unwilling, but unable to change — and proud of it, to boot. 

Are we not supposed to be listening to the signs of the times? When clergy and church members turn our back on change, are we not projecting our own limitations on a limitless good? 

Many Catholics have gauged the state of the church, read the propensity for orthodoxy as fatal, put their affairs in order, and bowed out. I don't blame them. Nevertheless, my choice is to remain. I can see no other way to affect the church for the better than to continue belonging to it. 

The first task while working for reform within the church is to understand how the church hierarchy thinks, not because they lead, but because they have appropriated all of the power. Power in this sense meaning simply "the ability to do." It is obvious that the power needs to be reassigned. This task of understanding what lies behind the liturgy, the ceremonies, the boilerplate of chancery pronouncements is harder than it sounds. 

All priests are trained in the arts of persuasion: in rhetorical, logical, and oratorical skills. Not surprisingly, those who rise in the ranks have more of these skills than their peers. I have found that if you want to understand the Catholic clergy, the last thing to listen to are pronouncements from diocesan spokesmen. Nor are statements from the pulpit to be taken at face value.

No, the most fertile ground for understanding what makes official Catholicism tick is not found in church, but in court: in the Bishop's lawsuits. Study the arguments made in the lawsuits. Study what they do and do not say. 

Study the positions taken by the lawyers of the bishops, and then we will understand the bishops themselves, and their vision for what the church is and should be in these times.

Why The Springfield Diocese?

Some of the signers of the petition questioned why the goal of getting better disclosure laws from religious corporations is so specific to the Springfield Diocese. This post attempts to answer that objection.

First of all, you have to start somewhere! It’s easy to agree that religious corporations need reform — agreeing about what needs to be done is hard. Second, Brody and I have lived and worshiped in the Springfield Diocese, even if he is now a few hours away, studying at Boston College law school; so, the Springfield Diocese is what we know best. Third, the climate at the chancery offices in this Diocese is much more repressive ("toxic," in the words of one priest) than elsewhere. There are good reasons for the toxicity, as we shall see.

The petition is therefore a specific response to specific problems in a local area. In this, it follows the structure of the Catholic church, which always works from the ground up. The popular image of the church shows a pyramid, with the Pope at the pointy end. The reality is the reverse. The Pope is actually a brother to other Catholics rather than a father. The people, along with their contributions (especially their financial contributions), undergird the whole. Without a ceaseless infusion of money, the Vatican (vaunted art collections, distinguished library and all) would come crashing down tomorrow.

This emphasis on community explains why the church has such a rich heritage of providing social services; think of Christ's praise for the widow's mite (she gave from her need, not her surplus), and about his words: "the last shall be first"; "are you not worth more than many sparrows?";"do unto others", "who is my mother, and who are my brothers?" These words spawned a broad-based, inclusive ministry which always champions the dignity and the rights of the individual irregardless of their social standing, and even if they have no social standing at all. 

This communitarian ethic does three things: 1. it gives us a standard with which to measure the shortcomings of the official church, 2. it spurs us toward creating a better church, and 3. it helps us sort out the differences between civil law and canon law. 

In the immortal words of Mitt Rommney, "corporations are people, my friend." Yet, by the standards of Catholicism, corporations are never people. Canon law must always aim higher than civil law, and it is a disgrace to Catholics every time that civil law has been found more fair, more just, more humane, than the law of the church. Sadly, we've witnessed many court decisions that show exactly these results.

For another example of the difference, during the 8.5 million insurance trial, diocesan attorney John Egan failed in his bid to paint the Springfield Diocese as a branch office, or “operating unit” of the Roman Catholic Church based in Rome. Judge John Agostini ruled to the contrary, writing that the Springfield Dicoese was an independent corporation, albeit a religious one. It had no greater or fewer rights than other corporations in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is given the same license to operate as others. More significantly, it is also bound by the same regulations as other corporations. The connection of Judge Agostini’s ruling to the wording of the petition will be readily apparent.

Over and above the peculiarities of the Diocese (which we will cover in future posts), the wider Catholic church is a unique organization which has never fit neatly with the American way of life. In the early 20th century, this problem was defined by Leo XIII as a heresy called “Americanism,” and by the somewhat related heresy, “Modernism”. Almost unbelievably, the simple proposition that church and state should be separated (something we take for granted today) was the core of the Americanism heresy. 

The official church's reaction to these dangers included the imposition of loyalty oaths for both clergy and people, to be quite sure that the authority of the church was dominant, and that the respective poisons would not spread. "Error has no rights" was the slogan summarizing Leo's views.

In this Diocese, there was a flavor of this overreaction in the continued use of loyalty oaths. These persisted until quite recently on the website of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the lobbying arm of the four Massachusetts bishops, a requirement that has thankfully been abandoned.

We don’t have enough time or space to go into Americanism and Modernism, but an internet search will reward those who want to know more about the foundation of the church/state controversies that are common these days. All we want to note here is that people who think that the church/state divide is secure and unremarkable have not been following developments in the church. There has been a deliberate retreat among church officials from the mid-20th century notions championed by Murray, Rawls and others. This earlier view found many positive values in a separation of church and state, and not
 merely compromise. Today, many church officials are bent on reasserting a union of church and state, although they use different words to describe it. This swing to the right cannot be ignored, and some eccleseastical talking points show us why:

From the USCCB’s obsession with a supposed threat to their “religious freedoms” at the hands of secular authorities, to the controversial contraception mandate in the national health plan, to the desire by the Romney campaign to overturn Roe v. Wade (and an equally strong desire by the Obama campaign to sustain that decision) to the debate about what "marriage" means, the issues are real.

Nor are the issues of church and state irrelevant to those in our own little corner of the state. Here, no less than in the Supreme Court and in the Papal State, the issues are worth fighting over. 

This explanation hopefully sets the stage for more about what prompted this petition, how it was created, and what results we hope its successful adoption by the Secretary of State will bring.

What Are Your Reasons for Signing the Petition?

Maureen Dascanio Cheshire, MA
Our country was built around the separation of Church and State. It should remain that way and "churches" should not be allowed to give money to political candidates, PACs, or special interest groups whose only mission is to undermine the rights of citizens because of their race, religion, sexual preference, etc.

Richard Jette Adams, MA
The Diocese should follow the rules that apply to every other non-profit organization in Massachusetts.

Barbara Racine Adams, MA
When the Church refuses to be held accountable, you know they are hiding something.

Elaine Whitman Hancock, MA
The people who support the church should have a full accounting. Good decision making requires that the facts be available and accessible.

John Tarsa Adams, MA
The church is supported by the people therefore the books should be open to the people. This not only applies to the diocese but at the parish level too.

Mark White Beverly, MA
Accountability is one of the best ways to keep checks and balances on corporations.

Joseph Borucki South Hadley, MA
With millions of retirement money missing, donations are not going for what they were given for. Reports published in flyers do not tell the whole picture. Books should be open, and the public [given] the right to view. Every group has people who do not follow all the rules, the church is no exception. The people have given less to the churches because of the economy, but may support them more if a watchdog is created, knowing it is going where it is intended.

John Thompson NY, NY
Institutions like the Catholic Church are given tax payer money to do 'charity work' but there is no accounting how these tax dollars are spent. The Catholic Church may be the largest institution that purchases child sexual abuse insurance to keep the cost of paying for their priests who rape children as low as possible. This insurance is usually included in their 'liability insurance' so they can hide it. I do not want my tax dollars used by the Catholic Church to pay their child sexual abuse insurance premiums. The church must be made to account for every single penny of tax dollars they spend or lose their tax exempt status.

Betty Lou Kishler Chaumont, NY
Religious figures have no right to get involved with politics

Alice B Younger Stratford, WI
Because what happens in one State will affect all the State's in the US. We all need to be aware of what is happening all around us or we will end up like the Holocaust.

Katherne Goodnow Lenexa, KS
Read the article. It says it all!
[Katherine refers to: "Earthy Concerns" in The Economist]

Paul Sullivan Tega Cay, SC
The Catholic Church needs transparency on all levels as bad as they need oxygen.

Frank Walterman Hebron, KY
Transparency and accountability are needed to rebuild real trust

Tim Little Oakland, CA
The church should not be involved in politics, The church should only feed the hungry, clothe the naked and house the poor. Period!

Janet Hauter South Barrington, IL
There is sufficient evidence of mismanagement of donations. It is crucial that the Catholic Church account for its money since they knowingly or unknowingly "hide" what they spend and on what. It's time to hold them to the same rules as others.

Chris Murphy Atlanta, GA
Since the diocesan corporations involve themselves with and seek influence in political issues by spending money, they should be required to file reports as other corporations do.

Richard Byrne Staunton, VA
Churches involved in strictly civic activities need to be accountable like everyone else.

Gaile Pohlhaus Media, PA
Because we all should be accountable to one another.

Mark Crawford Avenel, NJ
Such institutions act "above the law" and their secrecy allows this "abuse of power" to flourish. Mandate reporting as we expect from ALL other institutions and organizations...transparency is the best disinfectant.

Alfred Kracher Apple Valley, MN
In a democratic society openness about anything that affects public policy is a necessity. Religious freedom is important, but it does not require secrecy to flourish.

Paula Ruddy Minneapolis, MN
Financial transparency will enhance the health of the Catholic church.

Sarah Kleman Houston, TX
Every nonprofit has to follow these rules. Corporate churches should follow suit.

Susan Druffel Western Springs, IL
Transparency is very important in any organization, but especially in the Catholic Church. Without the truth, all else fails.

William Lindsey Little Rock, AR
Churches should be transparent and accountable in disclosing the use of their finances--particularly when they engage heavily in political lobbying and political activities, as the Catholic church frequently does under its current leaders.

Fred Daniels San Francisco, CA
When an organization dedicates a significant amount of its time to political activities, and controls a significant portion of our healthcare, we should have transparency.

Anna Cannon READING, United Kingdom
It is vital that, in addition to preaching personal morality, the Church is an example of honesty and integrity within societal structures and does not place itself above the law.

Ana Vicente Estoril, Portugal
Because as a Roman Catholic I care about keeping the institutional church in line with Gospel teaching and that obviously means that bishops not only should be chosen by the community that they are to serve but also be accountable in all ways - this must be so in the universal church - USA, Europe etc.

Christopher Pett Bath, United Kingdom
Because honesty and accountability are the cornerstones of a fair and just society