Review of The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture by Philip Lawler

In 1985 the US bishops received a confidential report on sexual abuse by clerics, warning them that there was “simply too much at stake for the Church” for the hierarchy to ignore the issue. (From the Introduction to The Faithful Departed )

Perhaps no one but the one-time editor of Boston’s Archdiocesan paper could have written this disturbing book. Certainly, no one else could have written it with such intimate and comprehensive objectivity. It took a local Catholic writer, who lived through the worst of the sordid events that are recounted in these 258 pages, to present the painful history honestly and without attenuation. By the way, Philip Lawler didn’t last long as editor of the Boston Pilot . He explains in the second part of this book how Cardinal Law had hired him in 1986 with the impulsive marching orders to promote an “aggressive” Catholic front in dealing with public affairs. About a year later, he was forced to resign after he stirred up too much controversy, not, as he had first thought, for his editorial in defense of Humanae Vitae , but for his searing article opposing “gay rights” legislation. The official reason given for his ousting was “editorial conflict.” This book is the product of the labor of a courageous Catholic writer who refused to resign from his vocation as an active member of the Church Militant.

The Faithful Departed is a hard book to read. I do not mean in its prose but in its content. The book is not for the curious. In fact, considering the toxic depravity of the sexual offenses that are recounted, the author nobly maintained a high degree of propriety without sanitizing the foulness of the crimes. It was not written to exploit the clergy’s sex-abuse crisis in any way; it was written in order to give explanations as to the causes for the worst internal crisis in the history of the Church in America; it was written to provide correctives for the future; it was written for the sake of the victims; it was written for the sake of reparation to our offended God; and it was written to give readers hope in the strength of the Mystical Body, hope that good will triumph in a time when the scandal seems to have taken away all hope. It is a prudently written, serious analysis of the collapse of all that contributed to a once-vibrant Catholic culture in the Boson diocese and the causes thereof.

The clerical sex-abuse scandal that engulfed what once was a Catholic city, and is still undermining the Church throughout the United States, was not the fruit of one perverse generation, which just happened to have had a percentage of its bad apples infiltrate Catholic seminaries and religious orders. What Lawler demonstrates so convincingly is that the corruption of so many of the clergy is directly related to so many bishops opting to be successful administrators, public relations players, and damage control manipulators, rather than spiritual fathers animated by zeal for souls. A bishop in the United States, prior to the sexual abuse scandal becoming public, held great prestige in his community. He was invited to a variety of gala events, charitable fund raising banquets, and political socials. He often was awarded honorary degrees from secular universities, which were nothing more than a form of bribery to stay on the wide road and not venture beyond the humanist pale. It was easy to become a hireling if one was not one at the start; it was easy to become more and more ambitious.

In his Introduction Lawler makes an important distinction about the Church that must always be kept in mind by Catholics:

In everyday English usage, Catholics make this distinction – often without noticing it – by referring to the Church as “she” or as “it.” “She” is the spotless Bride of Christ; “it” is the administrative machinery. “She” is the community of believers at prayer. “It” is the jumbled collection of buildings and budgets. “She” is a living body of faith. “It” is a deadening bureaucracy. For most practical purposes this distinction may be useful (and attentive readers will notice that I use it throughout this book), but it must be handled with care.

The author cogently points out that, although there are two sides to the Church (namely, the organism and the organization), as the Body of Christ the Church is one; and in its human side, it will never heal unless there is an accounting of the bishops. The human side can be wounded and fail, but it will be reformed because it can never be destroyed, not even under the reign of antichrist. The divine side, the holy Bride of Christ, can never fail; it is spotless. Hence, the pronoun “she” is used when reference is made to the Church as Bride of Christ, formed of the blood and water that issued from His opened side on the cross. Nevertheless, as Lawler explains, when “she” is wounded by her members Christ is wounded and the whole Body suffers.

For Lawler, there are three scandals that make up the abuse crisis. The first, and most damaging for all the victims, was the abuse of children and teens, almost always boys, by priests and brothers. The vast majority of the cases involved teenage abuse, ephebophilia, in distinction with pedophilia, which is the even sicker abuse of children. It was astounding to read some of the testimony Lawler presents wherein some bishops claimed ignorance as to the criminal nature of the former immoral act. The second scandal, which our author amply demonstrates is still unattended to, is the problem of homosexual priests and brothers. (He does not mention sexually disoriented sisters, but that is another crisis that certainly has affected some of the more liberal orders of nuns.) Lawler devotes a number of pages in his book to prove how ardently the collective USCCB and individual bishops avoid any question that raises the subject of accountability in purging the seminarians of those with homosexual proclivities. Nor do the bishops address the problem of sexually disoriented priests who promote, defend, or live the “gay” lifestyle. This scandal, so directly related to the first, has also left the Church still severely wounded.

The complicity of so many of the bishops, their tolerance of the abusing priests, their condonations (even with promotions in some cases) of known offenders, their cover-ups, their self-protecting, cowardly insularism, their lack of indignation and outrage, and their inability to take personal responsibility for their sins of indifference to the gravity of the crime, or, finally, their own personal malfeasance leaves our author with no alternative but to expose the guilty. This, I believe, is one of the major contributions of this important book. It is, what Lawler calls, the third scandal, and it is a wound still festering. Quoting Saint Augustine, the author puts the problem of episcopal dissimulation very succinctly: “God does not need my lie.” In other words, enough of the evasions and blaming others. If, O shepherd, you were guilty of abuse of your sacred trust, either personally or in consort with others, confess your crime and resign. That resignation, the author insists, should not be a quiet “dash-2” (see chapter eighteen) resignation, but a public one with a public apology and confession.

In the early chapters this book provides an excellent survey of the history of the Church in Boston, its slow beginnings, its suffering from persecution, and its burst of growth due to Catholic immigration at the turn of the twentieth century. Lawler traces the causes for the “Collapse” of Catholic culture in Boston back to the days when Catholics ceased being second-class citizens, and to when from being a minority they became a majority, and to when their Church was thriving and powerful. Looking for causes, he sees the original sin in an attitude of clerical complacency that was more concerned with creating professionals and maintaining the Church’s good reputation than in making saints and cleaning house.

The Irish did have a knack for politics and seeing strength in their numbers they naturally entered the field. In the early nineteen hundreds Irishmen still remembered the days of the great statesman of Ireland, Daniel O’Connell, whose life was legend. Lawler makes note that from 1910 until today, from the election of John F. Fitzgerald, JFK’s grandfather, Boston has never had a mayor who was not a baptized Catholic. The way our author captures the personality of Boston’s favorite politician, James Michael Curley, is delightful history.

The bishops and one Archbishop of Boston prior to 1907 were humble men, good spiritual leaders who had suffered for the Faith. Lawler draws the line in 1907 with the nomination of Bishop O’Connell to head the Church of Boston. O’Connell was officious and authoritarian; having been dean of the North American College in Rome, he had Romanita, and he was very ambitious. He would soon become Curley’s nemesis. O’Connell did not just rule the Church in Boston, Lawler insists, he ruled Boston. With O’Connell began the demise of genuine apostolic leadership in Boston. Nepotism was certainly nothing new in the Church, but it was new in Boston. O’Connell gave his nephew, Father James O’Connell, the office of Vicar General and with that nephew came the diocese’ first scandal. And it was a huge one, considering the times. With that scandal, Lawler notes, the policies of episcopal tolerance, cover-up, betrayal, and evasion were launched – policies whose consequences are chronicled in these had-to-be-written pages.

Our author demonstrates an amazing ability not only to communicate necessary information but to sum up the most relevant headlines in recap mode and provide insightful analysis. He does this masterfully as he charts the progressive decline of Catholic moral values in the Boston area over the last five decades. Before zero hour 2001, at any point in this steady fall from grace, any of the past four archbishops of Boston could have stopped the decline and rallied the troops. Instead each of these archbishops added to the demise, each one dropping the Catholic standard down lower than his predecessor in order to preserve their “privileged status.”


In the 1950s, an Archbishop of Boston discouraged a priest from his energetic public preaching of a defined Catholic dogma, because some people found that dogma offensive. A decade later the same archbishop- now a cardinal- announced that Catholic legislators should feel free to vote in favor of legislation that violated the precepts of the Church. In 1974 his successor encouraged Catholic parents not to send their children to parochial schools. And in 1993 yet another Boston archbishop instructed the faithful that they should not pray outside abortion clinics. In each of these remarkable cases, the Archbishop of Boston obviously thought that he was serving the cause of community peace. But just as obviously, he was yielding ground, and encouraging the Catholic faithful to yield as well.

From Richard Cushing’s surrender to “Catholic” politicians, giving them his permission to vote in favor of state funding for artificial birth control to Bernard Law’s telling pro-lifers not to demonstrate in front of abortion clinics and his giving Holy Communion to pro-abortion Senator Ted Kennedy, the once-Catholic faithful of Boston have now fallen so low as to vote into office pro-abortion “Catholic” politicians in every election, not excluding those who openly campaigned to legalize same-sex “marriages. “The collapse of Catholic influence,” Lawler notes, “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.”

Zero hour 2001 was when Superior Court Judge Constance Sweeney ordered the courts to open the files relating to convicted felon, Father Geoghan, to the Boston Globe . The following year Lawler marks as a “watershed year” in the humiliation of the Boston archdiocese, because it was in 2002, that an impatient Judge Sweeney, tired of the delay tactics of the chancery in its reluctance to hand over incriminating documents, ordered more files on convicted priests to be opened to the media. With these additional files now in public domain, the Boston media went into blitzkrieg mode, subjecting the people of Massachusetts to a relentless barrage of abuse stories involving Catholic priests, frocked or defrocked. This daily coverage of so many sickening cases had as its final goal the indictment of Cardinal Law for aiding and abetting criminal child molesters. When it was revealed that the cardinal had moved priests around from one parish to another, whom he knew were sexual deviants, his days were numbered. Had he not resigned, he probably would have been the first bishop prosecuted – not for any personal offense of his own – but for complicity in protecting those who had broken not only their sacred trust but the law. A good portion of The Faithful Departed deals with the specific case of Cardinal Law, whom Phil Lawler knew well.

Unsavory as it is, this brief review provides just a taste of what the reader will encounter in this sad but riveting history of the last century in the life of the Boston archdiocese. If, like me, you’ve wondered how a diocese, so visibly Catholic as Boston appeared to be, could have fallen so low – now you have an answer. I would go further than Philip Lawler and add that had Archbishop Cushing supported Father Feeney in his defense of the foundational doctrine of the Faith, extra Ecclesiam nulla salus (no salvation outside the Church, there never would have been such a collapse of clerical and religious discipline nor, therefore, would there have been a collapse of Catholic culture. I would go so far as to say that even the Kennedys would not have risen to the political heights they did had Cushing early on wielded his spiritual sword against them. Lawler highlights a political strategy conference that the Kennedys held at their compound as early as 1964. This was incredible. All I could think of was the second Psalm: “The kings of the earth stood up, and the princes met together, against the Lord, and against his Christ” (vs. 2). Robert was running for the Senate in New York. Abortion was not yet a political issue in 1964, but it was looming on the horizon. That issue was the reason for the conference. Invited were a host of liberal “theologians” including Charles Curran and Robert Drinan. Why liberals? Well, as Lawler explains, they were looking for arguments that would justify taking a pro-abortion position later on. They settled on a “personally opposed, but . . . ” platform.

As to the Church’s collapse, Father Feeney did prophesy it – not to the sordid extent that has occurred, but to the extent that he did foresee the emptying of seminaries and religious houses, and the end of Catholic missions to foreign lands. With the collapse of doctrine came the collapse of morals.

I was very impressed with the way our author brought his book to a close. He ended on an inspiring call to hope and trust in God, the Holy Spirit, who will not abandon His Church. And I appreciated very much the example Mr. Lawler gave us of St. Peter Canisius. I did not know that when this great Jesuit reformer, the “second apostle to Germany,” entered Vienna only 10% of the once-Catholic city still had the Faith. With this 10% he re-converted the whole city, transforming it into one of the most exemplary Catholic cities of Christendom. St. Peter Canisius believed and hoped that if he did the work, God would provide the increase.

Lawler concludes with a comment on a quote from then Cardinal Ratzinger: “Christians today should not delude themselves, he [Ratzinger] reasoned; in Europe today they are a minority in a society that has lost contact with its Christian heritage. And yet, he continued, ‘The future of a society often depends upon creative minorities.'”

Every priest and bishop should read this book. Every serious Catholic should read it. It is provocative. It is medicinal. Let us all keep in mind the wise counsel of the great bishop and doctor, Saint Augustine: “God does not need my lie.”