The indifference of Catholic elected officials to Church teachings is so common that it rarely attracts attention, but there are occasional exceptions.  When at least five fervently pro-abortion politicians took Communion at papal Masses this April, from the hands of the Pope’s representative to the United States, even the New York Times and the Washington Post had to take notice.

During Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to the United States, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senators Ted Kennedy, John Kerry, and Christopher Dodd received Communion at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., while former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani did so at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.  In Giuliani’s case, this was especially troublesome, since the unabashed defender of abortion rights only sporadically attends Mass and is married to a third wife even though his second marriage was not annulled by the Church.  Edward Cardinal Egan issued a statement saying, “I deeply regret that Mr. Giuliani received the Eucharist during the papal visit here in New York,” and indicated that he had admonished Giuliani to stay away from the Communion rail when he became archbishop in 2000.

Yet pro-abortion Catholics are unafraid to receive Communion even in the presence of the Pope, who said last year that “The killing of an innocent human child is incompatible with going into Communion in the body of Christ.”  Worse, Church leaders are unwilling to stop their most famous and powerful parishioners from so publicly flouting Church teachings.  Nowhere is this more common than in Massachusetts, the home of Kennedy and Kerry, which is the second most Catholic state percentage-wise and arguably the most liberal in matters pertaining to the sexual revolution.

It wasn’t always this way.  Veteran Catholic journalist Philip F. Lawler opens The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture by recalling that Massachusetts politicians once strove to be obedient to the Church.  In 1935, Gov. James Michael Curley proposed a state lottery as a way of resolving a budget shortfall.  Support for the idea was strong in both houses of the legislature, where it appeared likely to pass overwhelmingly with little debate.  William Cardinal O’Connell had other ideas.  “I am opposed to a state lottery,” the head of the Boston archdiocese announced.  Cardinal O’Connell feared it would result in “out-and-out gambling” as well as “corruption and demoralization.”  “Within the twenty-four hours,” Lawler writes, “the lottery was dead.”  The next day, the Massachusetts House of Representatives voted 187 to 40 against it.  Governor Curley was forced to withdraw his support for the plan.  And the commonwealth was without a lottery for the next 35 years.

At the peak of Catholic influence in Massachusetts, this was nothing unusual.  The cardinal “single-handedly” defeated child-labor restrictions he thought were too close to “Bolshevism.”  Cardinal O’Connell similarly stamped down a proposal to legalize the distribution of information about birth control.  When the cardinal was perceived as having endorsed Curley’s opponent in Boston’s 1937 mayoral election, Curley lost in a landslide.  Today, the commonwealth’s Catholic elected officials routinely promote legal abortion, taxpayer-funded research that involves the destruction of embryos, government recognition of homosexual partnerships, and antidiscrimination laws that in effect discriminate against faithful Catholics—all without fear of censure.

While The Faithful Departed discusses in great detail the Boston archdiocese’s priestly sex-abuse scandal, the book is mostly a story of this transformation: How Catholic leaders, seeking to comfort the powerful and conform to the culture, ended up ceding all influence and losing the culture wars.  Until at least the middle of the 20th century, the biggest political division in Massachusetts often was not between Democrats and Republicans or between the left and the right; it was between Yankee Protestants and ethnic Catholics.  The Catholics prevailed demographically—Lawler discusses Massachusetts’ immigration-fueled conversion from majority Protestant to majority Catholic—but the moral values that today govern Massachusetts could have emanated from the musty Unitarian or Congregationalist churches now crumbling away in obscurity.  Lawler makes the case that the Boston archdiocese is a microcosm of the American Church as a whole.

By the time of Cardinal O’Connell’s tenure, Catholics had become a majority of Massachusetts voters and by far the leading social influence in Boston.  Lawler reports that 80 percent of area Catholics attended Mass every week, and many attended parochial schools.  In 1948, Catholics for the first time captured a majority in the lower house of the state legislature.  They took the state senate in 1958.  When Cardinal O’Connell died in 1944, he left behind 323 parishes—98 more than he had found nearly 40 years before his elevation.

In 2006, Catholics dipped below 50 percent of Massachusetts’ population for the first time since World War I.  Just five priests were ordained in the state that year.  There were 25 fewer parishes than when Richard Cardinal Cushing took over as archbishop from O’Connell.  More than 60 have been closed since 2002.  Only about 35 percent of area Catholics attend Mass in any given week; even fewer do so every Sunday.

Politically, the Church’s clout is at its nadir, even though professing Catholics still dominate every elected branch of the government of Massachusetts.  A majority of state legislators still identify themselves as Catholic, but, as Lawler notes, “in recent months the legislature has repeatedly passed bills that the Catholic bishops opposed—in more than one case, without a single dissenting vote” (emphasis his).

The only statewide elected official who opposes abortion is the auditor of the commonwealth, whose portfolio does not include social issues.  Only one member of Massachusetts’ congressional delegation, a Catholic Democrat from South Boston, consistently opposes abortion—and he voted to authorize an unjust war in Iraq.

What went wrong?  In Lawler’s telling, the Kennedys emerge as early villains.  He describes patriarch Joseph Kennedy as “a ruthless businessman and noted philanderer” who was proud of his Irish Catholic heritage even as he was indifferent to the moral teachings of his Faith.  Kennedy, “like many successful Catholics of his generation, saw the Catholic Church as a public institution and as the object of his personal loyalty,” but not necessarily “the repository of truth about the human condition and the ultimate arbiter of moral law.”

The Kennedys’ ability to compartmentalize their faith did not prevent them from being very close to Archbishop Cushing.  They were generous donors to the Boston archdiocese and were celebrated as the city’s leading Catholic family.  Thus, Cushing “formed an important and highly visible public alliance with a layman who was conspicuously Catholic but not at all religious.”  This advanced the aspirations of individual Catholics at the expense of the Church’s witness.

Never was this clearer than with John F. Kennedy’s famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association during the 1960 presidential campaign.  Kennedy promised his Protestant audience that his Catholic faith would not affect any of his public-policy positions.  They had good reason to believe him.  Kennedy already supported publicly funded birth-control programs, opposed diplomatic relations with the Holy See, and considered taxpayer aid to parochial schools unconstitutional—all positions that put him at odds with American Church leaders.  Kennedy’s speech was a political success, helping him narrowly to defeat Richard Nixon without alienating the Catholics who would give him more than 80 percent of their votes in November.

That success came at a price, Law­ler contends:

Campaign tacticians admired the Houston speech because it proved politically expedient.  Protestant fundamentalists liked it because it conceded the force of their argument against Catholic Church influence.  Secularists liked it because it removed religious principles from public debates.

It also helped begin a process whereby Catholic politicians divorced their supposed religious beliefs from their conduct in office, while Church leaders were increasingly reluctant to criticize them or to endanger their flock’s political ambitions.

Lawler is as critical of Cushing as he is of the Kennedys.  He traces the logic of Mario Cuomo’s 1984 “personally opposed” speech at Notre Dame—in which Cuomo argued that he could, as a matter of personal religious principle, disapprove of killing unborn children while legalizing and subsidizing the practice—to a statement the cardinal made almost 20 years earlier while the Massachusetts legislature was considering legalizing the sale of contraceptives statewide.  Though he reaffirmed Church teaching on contraception, Cushing said, “I am also convinced that I should not impose my position—moral beliefs or religious beliefs—on those of other faiths.”  He offered this advice to Catholics in the legislature: “If your constituents want this legislation, vote for it.”

The compartmentalization reached new levels after Fr. Robert Drinan was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1970.  Wearing his priestly collar, he defended legal abortion and Roe v. Wade.  After his retirement from the House in 1980—forced upon him by Pope John Paul II’s directive that priests must not hold elected office—Drinan even supported partial-birth abortion, until his Jesuit superiors demanded a retraction.  During the 1970’s, Massachusetts Catholic leaders were more effective in advocating the demolition of South Boston’s neighborhood schools through forced busing than in repudiating Drinan’s pro-abortion congressional voting record.

Some high-profile Catholics dissented.  Longtime State Senate President William Bulger, Boston Mayor Raymond Flynn, and one-term Gov. Edward King spoke out against abortion, homosexuality, and condom distribution in the public schools (though King was frequently criticized by the archdiocese because of his unstinting support for capital punishment).  Neglected by Lawler is former House Speaker Thomas Finneran, the most recent—and perhaps the last—Democratic leader in the state legislature to oppose abortion and homosexual “marriage.”  Fewer courageous voices could be found in the Boston media.  Lawler writes,

There were two tradition-minded Jewish columnists (Don Feder and Jeff Jacoby), and a conservative Baptist (Joe Fitzgerald), but not a single prominent newspaper columnist or talk-show host who could plausibly be described as a Catholic conservative.

Similarly, non-Catholic voices were the strongest in decrying homosexual “marriage”: the campaign against the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s Goodridge decision was led by out-of-state evangelicals, including the Georgia Baptist preacher who ran the Massachusetts Family Institute.  The politician who most strongly defended traditional marriage, however ineffectually and opportunistically, was the Mormon governor Mitt Romney.  By then, Catholics had been effectively sidelined by the clerical sex-abuse scandals, making the recognition of the heterosexual nature of marriage by the Commonwealth a casualty of the toleration of homosexuals in the priesthood.

Lawler’s book makes a compelling case that the sex-abuse scandals were a symptom rather than a cause of the Church’s eroded moral authority.  He is equally sound on the scandal itself, explaining that it involved not only the abuse of children but the complicity of bishops and an acquiescence to a homosexual subculture.  Lawler, a former editor of the Boston archdiocese’s newspaper, the Pilot, is generally unflinching in his criticism of area Catholic leaders such as Bernard Cardinal Law.

Unfortunately, Lawler focuses only on left-liberal cafeteria Catholics in his scathing but judicious indictment, while ignoring neoconservative ones.  And he never asks whether the lost Boston he mourns might not itself have been guilty of a degree of cultural accommodation, which set the stage for eventual crowd-pleasing positions by the bishops.  But he has done valuable work nevertheless in showing that the compromises of Kennedy Catholicism cannot hold.


[The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture, by Philip F. Lawler (New York: Encounter Books) 280 pp., $25.95]