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.

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.


M. Alexander said...

There's no place on Frum's column to leave comments.

How telling.

I'm seeing a trend here with reviewers saying it's a really great book but I WANTED THE BOOK TO TALK ABOUT....

Well, this is only ONE BOOK people.

I think what is being reflected is the fact that the problems in Boston are so extensive, so overwhelming and so dire that these readers hoped Phil's book would contain the magic formula- just plug in the following numbers and the problems will be solved.

It is a reflection in their confidence in Phil, I think.

Fundraising, staffing, vocations, cathecesis, abuse, Catholic education and on and on...

It's going to take more than one book, even one great, dead on book to make all the problems of 50 years go away.

Jerry Benitz said...

NR is no surprise. They went south when Bill Buckley threw Buchanan and Sobran under the bus for being antisemites.

Phil is unclear? Right. Frum and others don't get it because they don't want to. And it continues: Barbara Kralis says a known queer was just appointed pastor in Dallas. Hello?!

Pseudodionysius said...

I think Frum needs to slow down and read Maritain's The peasant of the Garonne. The Church in Quebec could not have evaporated in 1968 the way it did unless the rot had settled in many years before. Phil's book gives the rot at the center of the American implosion. If Frum still prides himself on his knowledge of US history, which he may have majored in, he ignores the book's central thesis at his peril.

Adam said...

I'd agree that Frum seems clearly not to have read the book if he can toss off superficial comments-in-passing like that.

I found considerable similarities in the historical scope and analysis of *Faithful Departed* as I did in Conrad Black's biography of Maurice Duplessis, the premier of Quebec from 1939-1958. Have you read it? Both that biography and *FD* demonstrate, it seems to me, the long-term corruption of the Church in part by being overly concerned to influence "secular" politics.

Gabriel Austin said...

A bit late. But I think the thesis that the rot settled in earlier than the postwar years is evidenced by such as the acceptance of the Kennedys, no matter how they behaved and continue to behave.

And the number of suicides among the young Southies, the feeling of being trapped.