Friday, February 24, 2006

A New Red Hat in Boston

At least one made-for-TV movie will be due Sean O'Malley. It remains to be seen whether the title will be:
  • Friar Fix-It
  • The Reluctant Archbishop
  • Firebrand to Functionary
This week's nomination for elevation to cardinal says much about Pope Benedict. What it means for Boston, and to Massachusetts, and particularly whether the RC Church's heavy-handed political maneuvering will continue remains to reveal itself.

Ancillary to Boston Archbishop O'Malley being one of the 15 red-hat boys has been speculation — as well as a past less weighted with managerial and political chores. After coming here almost three years ago, he has found himself mired in both types of chores. As he did in Fall River, he arrived like the hired gun to clean up the town. Both cities had sexual abuse scandals and disgraced former prelates.

Lately, he has been ham-fisted both with abuse victims and with pro-gay and pro-same-sex-marriage advocates, in and outside his archdiocese's churches. He is unquestionably a penny-pincher, known increasingly for trying to minimize payouts covering decades of clerical abuse and bishops' complicity. While that makes perfect capitalist, business sense, he allegedly is here to heal a sick see. Browbeating the victims and failing to accept the church's responsibility are not very curative.

As for ordering his bishops to tell their priests to collect political petition signatures at masses, disgraceful. Merely claiming that parishioners did the actual handling of the paperwork does not clean O'Malley's hands. He is hypocritical in the extreme -- keep your laws off my church, but, oh, we're in your government.

Benny's Boys

Sean's cardinal elevator ride surprised some papal observers (vaticanologist doesn't seem to be a word). First, he hasn't cleaned up his dirty little town yet. Parishioners are pissed and protesting (and having pray-ins and sleep-ins) because of closed churches. The sex-abuse cloud still rains daily on O'Malley's rein. Money is tight and disgruntled sheep are not bringing their treasures to the chancel.

In addition, as with its port, population, business, and even Chinatown, Boston remains a second or third-tier town. We have a high percentage of Catholics, but the absolute tally is not impressive.

Yet, the 15 cardinals picked did not follow the traditional choices. For example, an astounding omission was the Archbishop of Paris. Generally, important cities get a cardinal.

Pope Paul VI set the standard at 120 voting cardinals. Benedict maxed this with his selections. (By the bye, cardinals can't vote for a new pope after they are 80.)

O'Malley was one of the two controversial ones. The other was Hong Kong's Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, a vocal critic of the mainland. "A lot of dioceses that typically get appointments didn't," said Zen. "This shows his priority for China."

Benedict said that he was showing the universal nature of the church with his group. Indeed, they were from France, Venezuela, Italy, Poland, South Korea, Spain, and the Philippines. Also, even though some think Americans are overrepresented in the College of Cardinals, he named another, Archibishop William J. Levada. That was a logical pick though, because he replaced Benedict at papal enforcer, a.k.a. prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Whence and Whither Sean?

The Boston Herald wonders whether O'Malley can parlay his red hat into greenbacks. Traditionally, cardinals bring in the bucks in capital campaigns. However, "any financial impact would be marginal" in this case, according to John Allen, Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter. "There is something psychological for Catholics about a cardinal; he is simply seen as a higher order of life. But a highly effective archbishop may raise more money than a modestly effective cardinal."

The Globe played it that Boston suddenly has a permanent Archbishop. Even though doctrinally limbo is out, that's a good description of O'Malley's position.

As the article puts it:
"Boston and O'Malley have to make this marriage work," said James M. Weiss, an associate professor of church history at Boston College. ''It's no secret that O'Malley has expressed discouragement and that lay leaders, clergy, and the local media have expressed unhappiness with him, but this is the Vatican saying to him, 'You're not moving,' and to local Catholics, 'You have to work with him.'"
Likewise, a Notre Dame history professor, R. Scott Appleby, said that the pope clearly expects O'Malley to finish cleaning up Bernie Law's mess.

Oddly, very oddly, enough, in contrast to Cardinal Law's flabby handshakes, sales personality and extreme ambition, O'Malley was as humble as any other Capuchin Franciscan friar before he was ordered to one battle scene after another. He's been a remarkable turn-around manager and to hear it told, he never asked for power, position or attention.

Given his druthers, he wears that itchy sackcloth and would sleep on a pallet or the floor. This again is in contrast to Law, who was much more like Friar tuck and a lover of food, drink and physical comfort. Meanwhile, O'Malley has kept to his vow of poverty and the attitude that goes with it.

While we in Boston still don't trust the bishop who closes churches, forces politics into the pews, and nickels and dimes abuse victims, he was very different in Washington, D.C. in the 1970s and 1980s. According to the Washington Post, our steely politician is at heart a populist progressive.

He headed that archdiocese's Latino outreach. He even moved into a slum apartment complex, where he led protests to help the tenants, by fighting eviction, tossing drug users, and getting District help in purchasing the complex.

Padre Sean, as some call him down there, is still an object of admiration to them. A former board member of the archdiocese Spanish Catholic Center said of his elevation, "There were cries of jubilation throughout the city today."

When he first arrived here, it looked like he was bringing his good-friar personality. For example, he sold the archbishop's mansion to provide money for abuse settlements.

Then, like milk left on the back porch, he turned.

So, Benedict is hard. Will his recalcitrance keep O'Malley playing the devil here?

The best alternative is from author George Weigel. He imagines that this vote of confidence from the pope can mean "even greater authority and capacity to get on with the reform of the church in Boston."

We actually should know sooner than later. The sex-abuse settlements are reaching a crucial point. Also, that mean-spirited, unchristian, and undemocratic call for an amendment to overturn same-sex marriages here is heading into the General Court. We'll see either the godly friar or the oh-my-God politician at work.

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