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.