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BOOK REVIEW

A ground-level view of Catholic dissent sparked by crisis

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley in 2004 implemented a program to close more than 80 church parishes. Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley in 2004 implemented a program to close more than 80 church parishes. (Chitose Suzuki/AP/File 2005)
By Arthur McCaffrey
July 26, 2011

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The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has probably undergone more turmoil and transformation in the last 10 years than it had in the previous 100. In 2002 Boston became ground zero for disclosures of institutional criminality shorthanded as clergy child abuse. Facing financial pressures in the wake of lawsuits over allegations of misconduct by priests, newly installed Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley implemented in 2004 a program of downsizing to close more than 80 parishes around the archdiocese, sparking anguished protests by congregations.

John Seitz was a doctoral student at Harvard Divinity School between 2004 and 2008. His studies there gave him a ringside seat as O’Malley’s parish closings rolled out, and, most importantly, allowed him to observe and record the birth and growth of a grass-roots resistance movement, as many parishioners formed round-the-clock vigils in attempts to keep their churches open. For the first time in the 200-year history of one of the most important Catholic archdioceses in the United States, parishioners rebelled against the diktat of Boston church leaders. Seitz’s thesis project became an ethnographic study of the resisters on their home turf, documented through interviews, recordings, and actual participation in vigil shifts.

A perfect storm of unique historical opportunity and academic interest combined to produce the research data that Seitz lays out in “No Closure.’’ The result is an invaluable ground-level record of a historic period for American Catholics.

The book’s structure reflects Seitz’s historian’s perspective and falls into two thematic halfs. The first half explores the historical antecedents of the crisis, and latter chapters deal with the “inner histories of protesters,’’ providing accounts of church occupation in the protesters’ own words. Here Seitz tries to locate the roots of the protest movement in larger religious and social issues of tradition and change, identity and modernity, within the larger Catholic Church and the world, over the last 60 years - particularly as those relate to the paradigm shift in Catholic thought created by Vatican II in the early 1960s.

Two key concepts mediate the postulated link from the local to the global: “sacrifice’’ and “sacred presence.’’ The tradition of sacrifice (rife in Catholicism in general, and in the Irish incarnations of it in particular) serves as the motif that church authorities use to justify parish closures for the greater good (kind of like “give up your parish for Lent’’).

The counter-motif of sacred presence is used to justify dissent by the laity in terms of their traditional attachments to sacred places and communities. Non-Catholic readers of this book may legitimately ask: Why go to all the bother of vigiling and sleeping in the pews? Why not just leave this institution and build a religious life elsewhere? Seitz’s concept of “sacred presence’’ may help them understand Catholics’ attachments to places, objects, and rituals that provide the content and comfort of their religious identity. So vigilers are not rejecting their religion; their parish sit-ins represent, instead, a rejection of church managers, the shepherds turned wolves. Given the tight “braiding’’ of structure and function in a top-heavy, hierarchical organization like the Catholic Church, the choice of resistance over separation is still a big deal.

Seitz’s zeal for thematic coherence and continuity between past and present sometimes leads him to see continuities where none exist, however. The laity’s grass-roots, activist protest movement is noteworthy precisely because it represents a break with the past and a rejection of the passive tradition of “pray-pay-obey.’’

The unique point of view of “No Closure’’ merits comparison with accounts of the Boston Archdiocese of 100 years ago. In his biography of Cardinal William Henry O’Connell, who reigned all-powerful over the archdiocese in the early 1900s, James O’Toole records O’Connell’s distaste for “ethnic Catholics’’ (Italians, Portuguese, Lithuanians) who were not as “deferential’’ as their Irish counterparts.

Fast forward to 2010 and the affirmation by the Irish prime minister, confronted with the tragic history of clergy abuse in his own country, that “the age of deference is over.’’ “No Closure’’ is a vivid testament to that ironic truth.

Arthur McCaffrey, a freelance journalist and writer, can be reached at arthurmccaffrey@yahoo.com.

NO CLOSURE: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns

By John C. Seitz

Harvard University, 322 pp., $39.95