Friday, July 15, 2011

His Holiness Stomps

On Bastille Day, the local Cardinal chopped heads, at least figuratively. Sean Cardinal O'Malley likes folk to see him as avuncular, unlike his Pope, a.k.a. God's Rottweiler, Benedict XVI. Yet, O'Malley played sub-papa and announced he'd desanctify six Boston area R.C. churches, formally close them and sell them for profit.

As his press release puts it:
After several weeks of consultation, reflection and prayer, Cardinal Se├ín P. O’Malley has made several decisions regarding eight Church buildings in the Archdiocese of Boston. Six Churches have been relegated to profane use and two Churches have been designated or transferred by the Archdiocese for other future ecclesial uses.
One could cut that 18 different ways, but to a Bostonian, the Cardinal's message is still STFU.

Legally, there seems little question that the R.C. structure and polity gives it physical and financial ownership of its parishes' property. Except for the many Catholics around here who have been holding vigils and refusing to abandon the churches where they were baptized, wed, confirmed and on and on, where their parents' funerals were held, where their grandparents literally built the structures by hand and from their meager saving, the faithful (and holiday faithful) are with the program.

For a typical response by an area R.C., click in to Emily Rooney's radio roundup. She starts around 12:15 on how the protesters have lost and should do what they're told or cough up enough money to buy off O'Malley's team.

We should bear in mind:
  • Massachusetts still has lots of R.C. members, but is not the most Catholic state, not even in New England. That goes to RI.
  • The most common form of church polity in this area is congregational, wherein churches are responsible for their own finances, in effect with the congregants owning the works and keeping it going.
  • Neither side groks the other.
Many congregational churches do not have a big C Congregational in their name. Yet, their member still own the church and make the major decisions. In UU cases, they don't owe allegiance to precise dogma and certainly not to an authority figure like a Bishop or Pope. Yet like other congregational churches, they make it or break it on their own.

It is a true oddment to not R.C. folk to hear the parent church seizing ownership and disposing of a physical and spiritual home. Likewise, reading and listening to Catholics on O'Malley's actions, it is queer indeed to hear the blind obeisance. I suppose having a hell to threaten with gets one's attention. Alas, poor UU ministers expect you to behave well because it is right and moral and well, golden rule-ish.

Yet in this half dozen most recent R.C. churches, the bifurcation is complete, or in R.C. terms, absolute. Of course, the church can tell you what happens to the property, as they have always told you which parish you can attend. Dictates that are absolutely absurd to non-Catholics are accepted without question and with only a single comment — do what your Bishop/Archbishop/Cardinal/Pope tells you.

The wild card here is that the vigil keepers are resolute. Many have claimed ownership of their churches. They say their parents and grandparents literally built and maintained the property and buildings, that they kept them open with donations, and they are due actual ownership. Somewhere along the line, the builders and tithers formally and informally handed their church to their Church.

This is not going to end with a splash of an aspergillum or utterance of benediction. R.C. pols are saying, "Ours and not yours. Go away." From what I see, they likely have the legal right to the the real estate.

Note that R.C. pols are not alone here. Episcopals have had much the same problem in a few cases and claim that even if the deed shows congregational interest, really the Church owns the works in trust. So there.

Yet, this seems like a huge looming PR issue. The many faithful had, well, faith that their Church would keep their church open, that their sacrifices and good deeds would mean their spiritual home would continue. When O'Malley's lawyers and clerics frame it as a real-estate transaction, it's not the vigil keepers who look evil.

Commenters on Rooney's show and elsewhere note, as Catholics, that if a congregation buys out the R.C. for a property, which has been reduced from sacred to profane in Church lingo, no priest comes with it. They would have to kind of be their own clerics. Of course, in the vigil churches, they have returned to this St. Paul-style small church ministry, the proto-Catholic Church, for some years. There's no shift or shock for them.

Unfortunately for all concerned, there may be no return to the fold and flock here. The authoritarian pols have long made it plain that they own everything and are in charge of what happens with it and to the congregants. The vigil congregations feel betrayed, rejected, and cheated.

It a world headed by a doctrinally infallible leader, there's really no play in the rope. Rooney says it best on her radio and Greater Boston TV shows, the Church's view is that O'Malley has been a super guy in letting the vigil sort protest and follow the dead end to the Vatican for two years. There's no evidence that the vigil congregants feel obedient gratitude.

At an historical moment when so many American Catholics are dismayed by, disappointed by and even ashamed of their Church's clerics and pols, retrenching into military-style leadership assuages no one.

Oddly this may fit with the Pope's stated plan of a smaller, more obedient church. It would well happen that disaffected congregants who have read the Bible will go with the Apostle's model of small churches, spinning off wee but vibrant groups.

Regardless, as O'Malley made it all to clear yesterday, it's Benny's way or the highway.

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