Do They Really Pay, Pray, and Obey?

Last week The New York Times told the story of a bunch of Catholics protesting the closing of various parish churches in Boston. They have locked themselves inside one church for more than four years now. According to the Times: “There are sleeping bags in the sacristy at St. Frances Xavier Cabrini Church and reclining chairs in the vestibule, but no one gets too relaxed. ‘Please be ever vigilant!’ a sign by the door warns, and the parishioners who have occupied the church since it closed more than four years ago take it as seriously as a commandment [italics added].”

In announcing the closings in 2004, Archbishop Sean O’Malley blamed the usual sad litany of too few priests, too few parishioners, and too little cash. Others would suggest flight to the suburbs as a contributing factor. Obviously, the priest sex abuse scandals figured in, too. The Times reports that the Archdiocese of Boston hoped to recoup $200 million by the sale of church property. Parishioners of this church do not dispute that these considerations are valid, but say they are being specially singled out because the resale value of their church and water-front property is so high.

Parishioners of St. Frances are not alone. According to the Times, the Boston Archdiocese shuttered a few dozen churches in 2004. Theirs is not the only protest either but it seems to be the longest: over 1500 days since protesters discovered the archdiocese forgot to lock a fire door when the church was closed in October 2004.

So far the archdiocese has not gotten rough. It has kept the electricity, heat, and water on, and has not called the cops. There was another Times story last week about a church down south where cops dragged protesters away in handcuffs.

Protesters spend their days sitting around, working on jigsaw puzzles, or walking laps around the sanctuary. Of course they grumble. Seventy-eight-year-old Margy O’Brien told the Times: “My generation of Catholics have paid, prayed, and obeyed, but you get to a point where you’ve had it.”

It is hard not to sympathize with people who are getting tossed out of the church where they were married and their children baptized and maybe someone dear was buried. But is it true that they paid, prayed, and obeyed? Does the blame lay only with a power-and-money-hungry archbishop?

Do they pay? Many folks still pitch a dollar into the collection basket each week. That is likely the same dollar they saw their dad toss in forty years ago and that their grandfather tossed in sixty years ago. That 1948 dollar is now worth about 11 cents. To match granddad’s buck someone today would have to give almost $9. And what about the tithing that our Protestant brothers are so good at? Catholics don’t even talk about that.

Do they pray? Mass attendance in the United States is higher than in Europe, but it sure isn’t anything to be proud about. According to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, on any given Sunday fully 70 percent of Catholics are not going to Mass.

Do they obey? One of the protesters mentioned by the Times is “Karen Virginia Shockely, 43, who participates in the vigil with her two teenage sons.” I am not going to point fingers at Ms. Shockley, who very well might have ten children at home. But if she does, she is in a distinct minority, even among Catholics. Likely as not, Catholics have chosen not to obey their Church when it comes to matters of human sexuality. Most Catholics are indistinguishable from their highly secular neighbors. They have two children and in that common and artless phrase that signals their turn from the Church on sexual ethics, they “are done.”

These same Catholics will complain about a lack of priests but where do they think priests come from – mid-air? They think they can keep their schools and churches open with tiny families and almost universal contraception? They are shocked when their schools and parishes close. They stand outside and weep. They take over buildings. Above all they complain about the bishops. But they rarely look toward themselves.

Other smelly little heterodoxies peeked out in that New York Times article and they explain a lot. Some parishioners propose buying the church from the archdiocese. To what end – to become Congregationalists? One lady said, “I cannot go back to the priest and the vestments and that, I always felt, prince-of-the-church approach. I’ll always be Catholic, but I may not be able to worship in the mainstream Catholic Church.”

And these folks are surprised their church is closed?

Austin Ruse is the President of the New York and Washington, D.C.-based Center for Family & Human Rights (C-Fam), a research institute that focuses exclusively on international social policy. The opinions expressed here are Mr. Ruse’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of C-Fam.