Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

Catholic World News News Feature

Sneak Preview of The Faithful Departed January 28, 2008

The Faithful Departed

The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture

by Philip F. Lawler

The following is the introductory chapter of Phil Lawler's book, which will be formally released next month-- February 2008-- by Encounter books. It is available now for pre-release orders on


Governor James Michael Curley wanted a lottery. It was the spring of 1935, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was facing a budget crunch, and Curley saw the lottery as a painless alternative to tax hikes. At the State House on Boston's historic Beacon Hill, most legislators agreed. Debate had been perfunctory. Support for the proposal was overwhelming; passage of the enabling legislation seemed assured.

Then on May 20, Cardinal William O'Connell weighed in. "I am opposed to a state lottery," announced the powerful head of the Boston archdiocese. A lottery would bring "out-and-out gambling" to Massachusetts, he said, and this would be "a tremendous source of corruption and demoralization."

Within 24 hours the lottery was dead.

On May 21 the House of Representatives-- where majority support for the measure had previously been unquestioned-- voted 187- 40 against the legislation. Prior to the vote, one lawmaker after another took the rostrum to explain that when he had spoken earlier in favor of the lottery, he had not fully considered the implications. Governor Curley admitted that he could not withstand the political juggernaut, and dropped his plan. The most prominent Boston politician who kept fighting for the initiative was tagged with the dismissive nickname "Sweepstakes" Kelly. The idea of a state lottery would not be taken seriously again in Massachusetts for nearly 35 years.

That display of Cardinal O'Connell's clout was dramatic, but not terribly unusual. The cardinal had single-handedly turned the political tide against child-labor restrictions that he saw as tinged with "Bolshevism." He would later crush a move to legalize the distribution of information about birth control. When politicians asked what "Number 1" thought of a proposal, they were referring not to the governor or the mayor, but to the cardinal.

In 1937, Curley was again the victim of the cardinal's influence. Running to regain his post as Mayor of Boston, he faced spirited opposition from Maurice Tobin. On election day, the Tobin forces placed a front-page ad in the Boston Post, quoting Cardinal O'Connell's lament: "The walls are raised against honest men in public life." The ad was framed to suggest that the cardinal was endorsing Tobin, and despite frantic last-minute protests from Curley's supporters, O'Connell did nothing to discourage that impression. Tobin rolled up a comfortable margin of victory.

The political power that Cardinal O'Connell enjoyed was not merely the product of his formidable personality. His stature reflected the public dominance of a robust community that, after generations as a scorned minority, had grown to become the single most important social influence in Boston. Soon Catholics would account for the majority of voters in Massachusetts.

Among those Catholics, about 80% attended Mass every week, and heard the doctrine of the Church proclaimed in sermons regularly. Many attended parochial schools, where their attitudes toward the world were shaped by the Sisters of St. Joseph and other religious orders. When the Holy Name Society organized a parade, 10,000 men marched through the streets of downtown Boston. A growing number attended Catholic colleges; Boston College and Holy Cross were attracting some of the brightest young men from the families of Irish and Italian immigrants. Lay Catholics joined the Knights of Columbus, the Women's Sodality and the Altar Guild. They met their future spouses at CYO dances and Newman Club social hours. They identified themselves readily as Catholics, and on religious matters they identified Cardinal O'Connell as their leader.

In 1948 Catholics became a majority in the lower house of the state legislature; in 1958 they captured the upper house as well. Moreover, Catholic social influence was still on the rise. When Cardinal O'Connell died in 1944, he left his successor with 323 parishes: 98 more than O'Connell had inherited when he took the reins of the archdiocese in 1907. Boston's new Catholic leader, Archbishop (later Cardinal) Richard Cushing, quickly embarked on an even more aggressive building campaign, in Boston and out into the distant suburbs, throwing up new Catholic churches and rectories, new schools and hospitals.

The engine of Catholic growth was running smoothly. Catholic parents had large families, and sent their children to parochial schools. From there, the religious orders attracted enough young women to supply teachers for the next generation, and the seminary drew enough young men to staff the parishes. When Cardinal Cushing announced that he hoped someday to ordain 100 new priests for the Boston archdiocese in a single year-- a level that no diocese in the world had ever reached-- his ambition did not seem unrealistic. As the number of annual ordinations crept up through the 60s and 70s and into the 80s, it seemed to be only a matter of time before it broke into the 3-figure category. By every available measure the Church was still rapidly growing, and Catholic influence in the Boston area was still increasing.

And now?

In 2006, the Catholic proportion of the population within the geographical area covered by the archdiocese dipped below 50% for the first time in since World War I. Among those Catholics about 35% now attend Mass in any given week; the number who attend every Sunday (as required by Church law) is much lower.

The Boston archdiocese has sharply contracted, giving back the gains of the past generation. There are 298 parishes in the archdiocese today: 25 fewer than Cardinal Cushing inherited in 1944. More than 60 parishes have been closed since 2002, as part of an unprecedented "reconfiguration" designed to ease a steadily mounting deficit in the archdiocesan budget. The palatial residence built for Cardinal O'Connell has been sold, along with the adjoining grounds. Twenty parish church buildings have already been sold, and a dozen more will soon go on the market. Still the deficit looms, and unless there is some unexpected reversal of current trends more parishes will be closed within the next decade.

There are more Catholics in Greater Boston (in absolute terms) than there were a generation ago. But the affluent young Catholics of the early 21st century have not been visiting their parishes often enough, or tossing enough money in the collection baskets, to pay the heating bills on churches that their working-class ancestors sacrificed to build.

Nor are they sending their sons to the seminary, or their daughters to the convents. In 2006 just 5 men were ordained to the priesthood for the Boston archdiocese: one-twentieth of the figure that Cardinal Cushing had set as his goal. Even if every parish could pay its own bills, the archdiocese would necessarily not have enough priests to staff them. The corps of clergy is aging as well as shrinking. Elderly priests are being asked to postpone retirement; there are not enough younger priests to replace them. And this problem is quickly becoming acute; in 2004 there were 130 parishes with a pastor above the age of 70.

Since most of them are not regularly practicing their faith, or supporting their faith, it would be unrealistic to expect today's Catholics to identify with the teachings of their faith-- especially when those teachings clash with the norms of popular culture. (Younger priests have been cautioned by their seminary instructors to avoid preaching about doctrine, particularly controversial doctrine, and so perhaps many Catholics do not even know what the Church teaches.) Sure enough, Catholics divorce and remarry, obtain abortions and sterilizations, use birth control and in vitro fertilization techniques, all at rates indistinguishable from those of their non-Catholic neighbors.

In the mid-20th century Catholics had established their own distinct culture in Boston. That culture molded their attitudes toward social and political life, and since Catholics were a majority, their cultural influence thoroughly shaped the society in which they lived. Now somehow that Catholic culture has dissipated.

Although they are no longer an absolute majority, Catholic voters still command by far the largest religious bloc among voters in Massachusetts. Yet the state's Congressional delegation in Washington is rock-solid in support of legal abortion. Self-identified Catholics still constitute a majority of the politicians in both chambers of the state legislature. Yet in recent months the legislature has repeatedly passed bills that the Catholic bishops opposed-- in more than one case, without a single dissenting vote.

The collapse of Catholic influence was most painfully evident in 2004, when Massachusetts became the only state in the Union to give homosexual partnerships the full legal status of marriages. To be sure, the decision in favor of same-sex marriage was made by the state's highest court; but it took effect only after a legislature dominated by self-described Catholics acquiesced in the decision.

What happened?