Philip F. Lawler
Phil is the editor of, which brings you daily news headlines from a Catholic perspective. He is the author of The Faithful Departed, a history of the Church in Boston and the scandal of the abuse of children by priests.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Belief: The Sine Qua Non

The main point I took from Phil’s book was the idea that Catholicism without faith, i.e. belief, can be a very dangerous thing. It is very easy to be distracted from what is essential, that is, maintaining your faith. For years Evangelicals spoke to Catholics about a personal relationship with Jesus, and many Catholics did not know what they were talking about. Now, thankfully, Pope Benedict XVI, long recognized as one of the Church’s leading thinkers and theologians, is now stressing that very same thing. He is constantly speaking about friendship with Jesus. This simple message is what it’s all about. This is not a private affair as Anonymous inferred in my previous posting, but a personal friendship lived out in a Church, i.e. in community, with other friends of Jesus. This community must be formed in the truth under the Magisterium.

Again, it is very easy to take your eyes off the ball of this core fact, and be distracted, even if you are a bishop and distracted from Christ by running the Church. “Church business” can be a huge distraction from maintaining one’s personal, central relationship with Christ. It goes back to C.S. Lewis’s essay “On First and Second Things.” Finally, it goes back to idolotry.

Through much of the 20th Century so much of the agenda of the Church in America was caught up in seeking acceptance and assimilation into American Society. That drive for acceptance has finally brought us to the scandal of Catholic politicians promoting abortion and surprised when they are called on it—and bishops reluctant to call them on it. Humanae Vitae was thought “unrealistic.” Dissent flourished under the rubric of “being open to other viewpoints” among people who really didn’t even know the Catholic viewpoint in a coherent way.

After 1968 and the Humanae Vitae protests, bishops were explicitly chosen who were men who “didn’t make waves” when what was needed were men who would recognize and stand against the dangerous currents in the culture. Imagine if the bishops took a united stand for Humanae Vitae in 1968. Or a stand against Roe v. Wade. Well they didn’t. And now we have to disassimilate from the cultural attitudes that embrace these things, and it comes as a shock to “cultural Catholics” who think showing up at Mass on Sunday is doing God a favor, and it’s no big deal to miss Mass.

By “disassimilate” I don’t mean leave the culture, but recover true Catholicism i.e. Friendship with Jesus. Only then can Catholics be a leven in society.

The attitude that the Church was a social and political phenomenon, instead of a spiritual reality, and an accessory to one’s life rather than the center of one’s life led to a widespread loss of the True Faith even while going through all the motions. Thus, the need not for remedial catechesis, but evangelization—perhaps for the first time—for many Catholics. A recovery of true friendship, true spousal love with Christ through prayer and personal conversion. When Benedict spoke to the US bishops he stressed fundamental basics. It’s sad that he had to do so.

Otherwise you have pro-abort Catholic pols and priests abusing children and bishops who are impotent, hamstrung and confused and don’t know what to do about it—if they even recognize there is a problem. I think this is the larger problem Phil’s book points out.


Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Unconvincing...*Updated comment

David Frum of National Review has a short notice of Faithful Departed on his own blog, and says he's not convinced by my overall thesis.
Fair enough. He's entitled to his opinion. Frum isn't writing a full review and he doesn't indicate where he finds my logic flawed or unconvincing. He just announced that he isn't sold. That's an unanswerable argument. All I can do is appeal to the other readers. Did you think that I made a convincing case?
Wait a minute. Here's how Frum sums up my argument in a sentence:
His thesis is that the Boston archdiocese was fatally infected early with excessive regard for the Catholic Church as an institution, too little for the Catholic church as a community.

No, that won't do. I'd be sorry to think that anyone who read the book carefully-- or even read the first chapter carefully-- would come away thinking that I was distinguishing between the Church as an institution and the Church as a community. Let me borrow one of my favorite lines from Flannery O'Connor: If the Catholic Church is just a community, to hell with it.

update David Frum has added a few paragraphs to his original post, in what he characterizes as a response to my thoughts above. But I don't think his response is, well, responsive. He says:
Without having checked, I would think it a very good working assumption that the collapse of Boston's Catholic culture can be shown in measureable ways to have commenced sometime between 1965 and 1975.

Good working assumption, maybe. And/or maybe it's not coincidental that Frum has made a similar argument in his own book, which I confess I haven't read. But if you've read The Faithful Departed, you know that by 1965 the corrosion was already well advanced.
The question is whether my book provides a convincing argument that the collapse of Catholic influence in Boston can be traced to the failures of Church leadership. On that score, Frum says:
I notice that Richard John Neuhaus agrees with my assessment: Lawler wrote a fine reportorial account of the misdoings of the Boston Catholic hierarchy - but that is a different thing from what his publisher advertised.

Is that really what Father Neuhaus said? Read his comments in First Things and draw your own conclusions. I'll say only this: On the basis of their comments it's clear to me that Father Neuhaus read and understood the thrust of my book and David Frum didn't.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Hearing from New Hampshire

Here's a review from the St. Benedict Center in New Hampshire.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

losing money, too

Rich Leonardi mentions Amy's review of Faithful Departed, so Google Alert dutifully called my attention to his post entitled "You can ignore? So can we." He isn't actually writing about the book, really, but he's making a point that should be familiar to any Faithful Departed reader. It's about the difficulty many pastors have in raising funds for their parishes. As Leonardi notes,

...stewardship, not to mention tithing, is predicated on fidelity. If priests and bishops aren't serious about Church teaching, should they really expect the laity to be serious about them?

If the pastor takes care of the essentials-- administering the sacraments, providing solid religious formation-- the fundraising should go smoothly, because parishioners will recognize the need to support the central mission of the Church. But if he concentrates on inessentials-- the bake sale, the ski trip, the parishioners lose sight of that central mission and consequently lose the sense that this should be a high-priority item in the family budget.

So oddly enough, if the pastor concentrates on fundraising and lets the sacramental life of the parish "run itself," he's likely to have trouble raising money. If he concentrates on the sacramental life and tosses in an occasional reminder about financial needs, he'll probably do well.

This is actually a different verse of the song I sing in Faithful Departed. There the issue is political influence. When the Church seeks influence first, and neglects spiritual matters, the net result is a loss first in spiritual vigor, and then consequently in political influence. When you take care of the essentials, the other things take care of themselves. Put inessentials first, and you don't only lose what's essential; you forfeit what's inessential too!

Monday, May 5, 2008

The Faithful Departed: Review by Amy Welborn

May 5, 2008 by Amy Welborn

First of all, this has got to be one of the best book titles, ever.

Phil Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, has written an account of the Catholic Church in Boston that focuses on the collapse of visible Catholic life in the area as well as the clerical sexual abuse crisis.

For those who have been following the Boston scandals since 2002 (or even before, with the Porter case, which was not Boston, but in the area, and reflective of the culture), there is not a whole lot new here. Some, but a great deal of the book is dedicated in detailing those particular cases. In this respect, Lawler provides a useful primer for those who don’t know the awful details and a helpful reminder for those who do.

But in another respect, Lawler does something more. He reaches back through the history of Catholicism in Boston and tries to understand exactly how and when bishops in this area lost their nerve. When and why did they start accomodating with political culture, in particular, that held so many goals in opposition to Church teaching?

If you’re interested in the answer to the question, let Lawler take you on the guided tour. It’s illuminating. Some of it might be familiar territory, but others - such as the Church’s role in the bussing wars of the 1970’s - ordering area Catholic schools to put a cap on enrollment so they couldn’t be used by parents avoiding bussing - was new to me.

To read the rest go to Amy's blog here.

Friday, May 2, 2008

from New Zealand...

... a friendly blogger offers an encouraging comment about The Faithful Departed:
"I now have the next book in the series to read, Eclipse of the Sun. But it will have to wait until I finish a riveting book by Philip F. Lawler, The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture."

It's gratifying to know that the book is turning up in other countries. I'd love to hear about sales in Ireland, where I've had several newspaper columns published in the last month.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Unbelieving Priests

RE: "I'm not sure how good it is for people to to know that their shepherds lack faith, especially given how tenuous the faith of the faithful is."

If my faith depended on the faith of priests, I'd be in big trouble. Everyone's faith is their own responsibility. That's a bit patronizing. There are more priests than I care to count who leave me absolutely baffled as to why they were ordained. Whether they thought they would find faith if ordained, or if their mother pushed them after noticing they weren't very interested in girls and wanted junior to have respectability, I don't know. Thank God for the priests with true vocations who have to live in this environment. This is heroic virtue. We are in this mess because men were ordained who never should have been. I am fed up with unbelieving priests who treat the priesthood as a cozy cover for whatever their real agenda is.

See this: