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A twofold disaster in a breakaway Boston parish

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | May 31, 2016

My former colleague Domenico Bettinelli hits several nails on their heads in his commentary on the long-overdue surrender of a dissident group in Scituate, Massachusetts, which had maintained a squatters’ vigil for 12 years at a parish church that was closed by the Archdiocese of Boston. The group is now planning to set up its own church, separate from the archdiocese.

As Dom points out, if you’re a Catholic who plans to separate himself from the apostolic Church, it’s probably not a good idea to pray—as the spokesman for this group prayed— “that we burn forever.” If you believe that the Catholic Church is the one true Church, the one route to salvation, you recognize the grim irony of those words.

But then—next point—it’s a matter of some dispute whether or not the vigil-keepers in Scituate really are Catholic. They identify themselves as Catholics, certainly, and the media accepts that self-identification. (The media reports frequently use that word “devout,” which seems to turn up only when the individuals in question are at odds with the hierarchy.) But when you deliberately separate yourself from the institutional Church, because you protest Church doctrines and/or policies, aren’t you something else? There’s a term for people who form their own Christian communities, apart from the Catholic Church, because of such disagreements. That term “protest” is a clue.

But rest assured that the mainstream media in Boston will continue to describe the Scituate group (which, by the way, is planning its next meeting at a local Masonic hall) as Catholics. Similarly, news stories routinely identify women who claim priestly ordination as “Catholic” priests, even though the ordination ceremonies take place in Protestant churches, and the women incur excommunication in the process. Dom wonders whether, say, the Boston Globe would accept that sort of self-identification if, say, he identified himself as a journalist for the Globe. He isn’t on the payroll, and he doesn’t accept the Globe’s editorial direction, but if he feels like a Globe journalist, isn’t that good enough?

Still, having poked holes in both the Scituate dissidents and the reporters who lionize them, Dom also finds fault with the Boston archdiocese, which has treated this entire affair as a real-estate problem, a public-relations problem, a financial problem—and not as primarily a pastoral problem. There’s been a twofold disaster in Scituate. First, the archdiocese felt obliged to close a parish, because the number of active Catholics is steadily shrinking. Second, those Catholics who were active in the parish had the mistaken impression that they were the most important thing about their church. Here Domenico Bettinelli really hits his stride, so I’ll let him speak for himself:

Our catechesis, our homilies, our music has been undeniably oriented toward us, our needs, our individuality, all consumed with not alienating the people in the pews, which ends up alienating the people in the pews. In the past 60 years in the Archdiocese of Boston, we’ve gone from 80% participation in Sunday Mass to about 10%, so it’s not like we’ve been doing a bang-up job.

Those poor, misguided souls in Scituate thought they were the magic ingredient in their parish, and as a result they’re now cutting themselves off from the Church. Now how many other people, at how many other parishes—not just in Boston—are being assured each Sunday that they are the most important thing about their parish, that they should be the central focus of Sunday worship? That’s a recipe for disaster, and in Scituate you see the result: the branches cutting themselves off from the vine.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: MatJohn - Jun. 28, 2016 6:27 AM ET USA

    It's all about ME. Humility is not in their vocabulary.

  • Posted by: JimKcda - Jun. 01, 2016 11:33 PM ET USA

    "You cannot save the Church by leaving the Church." I forget who said that, but I learned it 60 years ago in Catholic school. I believe the quote originated during the Prostestant Reformation. Does anyone know the author?

  • Posted by: rdennehy8049 - Jun. 01, 2016 7:56 AM ET USA

    The most important thing about any parish is the spreading of the Word.

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - May. 31, 2016 7:15 PM ET USA

    Yes but the SSPX has not really cut itself. There was the unauthorized ordinations thing (though, by ordained bishops) and then excommunication. Two different things, I think.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - May. 31, 2016 7:11 PM ET USA

    You could say it stopped being a pastoral problem 12 years ago when they refused to follow their shepherd.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - May. 31, 2016 4:24 PM ET USA

    "Whoever hears you hears me," Jesus told his Apostles. It's a real act of faith sometimes, but this drive to form a Catholic church away from the hierarchy is just an cannot happen. Who was teaching this to the rebels of Scituate, the SSPX contingent, and all the rest? It's not a pretty answer.