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Sunday, October 2, 2005

Purifying the church, one 'liberal' priest at a time.

Remember how tactfully the Boston Archdiocese handled the closure of a parish elementary school this spring? They abruptly shuttered the place two days before graduation — with the children's pets and projects and diplomas locked inside — for fear that parents would hold a vigil protesting the school's announced closure. That won friends for the church all up and down the city's Catholic political ladder: "Reprehensible," said the mayor; "unconscionable," said the City Council president. Deft, Archbishop O'Malley!

Having honed his tactful leadership on the schoolchildren of Our Lady of the Presentation School, Archbishop O'Malley last weekend axed the Rev. Walter Cuenin, one of the most capable — and liberal — priests in the archdiocese. Why? Apparently the Newton parish's openly reported financial practices — reviewed by the archdiocese in multiple regular audits — included a $500 monthly stipend and a leased Honda Accord for the priest that the archdiocese now says violated its rules. Did they ask Cuenin to have the financial practices amended to conform with the archdiocesan policies? No. Better to ask him to resign and demand repayment of 12 years worth of stipends.

That's one way to show a priest that welcoming 1,800 people to Mass each week is simply unacceptable. Last year, the archdiocese canned another liberal priest, the Rev. Ron Coyne, who had revived a struggling parish, rekindled many people's Catholicism, and made the parish vibrant and financially secure. Remember how that story played out? The archdiocese closed St Albert the Great, put Coyne on some sort of indefinite suspension, and then — after a ten-month, 24/7 vigil by the parishioners — reopened the parish and gave them the priest who preceded Coyne. That's visionary leadership, folks!

The archdiocese claims that Cuenin's forced resignation had nothing to do with his public criticism of the archdiocese's negligence in the child sex abuse scandal, or with his parish's sponsorship of Voice of the Faithful, or with his statements welcoming married same-sex couples to take an active part in the parish. Sure it didn't.

Naturally, Cuenin is being replaced by Cardinal Law's former spokesman, who presumably drives a Civic.

For a while I simply couldn't fathom why the archdiocese would want to close large, financially secure parishes like St Albert the Great, or why it would want to demoralize large, vibrant places like Our Lady, Help of Christians in Newton. Isn't it insane to attack large, lively, healthy congregations? But then I realized: The Church isn't simply trying to get rid of so-called liberal priests like Ron Coyne or Walter Cuenin; they're also trying to "purify" the church of liberals altogether.

Peter Boyer's New Yorker article about Pope Benedict XVI ("A Hard Faith," 5.16.05, posted on a Call To Action website) suggested that Benedict wants to "prune" the church down to a fervent, orthodox insurgency against modernity. The church's militant conservatives like to claim that liberalism weakens the church. Boyer writes:

Evidence for the traditionalists' argument that those corners of the Church which cling to tradition have fared better, even prospered, tends to be anecdotal, because Church records do not distinguish between "conservative" and "liberal" parishes or seminaries. It seems clear, however, that some "conservative" religious orders have suffered no shortage of vocations, or callings to serve the Church.

"The more you present Christ faithfully, they're going to come," Raymond L. Burke, the Archbishop of St. Louis, told me. "Young people, particularly, are very responsive. And they don't want a watered down version. In some sense, if it's not hard they suspect it and they're right to do that, because our faith is demanding."

I don't dispute the idea that many young people want to be shown a religious path that gives them discipline and substance — that's been one of my themes as a Unitarian Universalist! — but I do dispute the suggestion that a faith must be authoritarian, reactionary, traditionalist, and repressive in order to be "hard."

Many people were drawn to the "liberal" parishes in the Boston area precisely because they had seen what the authoritarianism of Cardinal Law had given them: decades of cover-up and denial about child-abusing priests. They were tired of the "hard" faith of trusting that a clearly deceitful hierarchy would make the right decisions for them. If priests like Cuenin and Coyne weren't "presenting Christ faithfully," the archbishop should accuse them of heresy or apostasy — but I suspect they were faithful disciples who simply didn't believe that dishonesty and deceit are Christian virtues.

Think about what we've witnessed in the Boston Archdiocese. Our Lady, Help of Christians — Cuenin's parish — wasn't faltering; it was growing. Under Ron Coyne's leadership, St Albert the Great had surged back to life, completed a capital campaign, put money in the bank, and helped many disillusioned people rediscover a place in the church. Coyne empowered the laypeople so successfully that they kept the place running seven days a week for ten months after O'Malley shut them down and banished him. That's a hard faith.

Look: One of the reasons that conservatism is thriving in the church today is because some members of the hierarchy (urged on by militant independent Catholic organizations) are deliberately squeezing out whatever "liberalism" they can find, no matter how dynamic, faithful, and evangelistic that so-called liberalism might be. The little Ratzingers who are cheering on Catholicism's retrenchment aren't pruning away dead wood; they're chopping off live branches. They're not just trying to get rid of priests like Cuenin; they want the liberal laity in his parish out, too.

P.S. Here's the Boston Globe's coverage of Cuenin's resignation: "Church Critic Resigns: Says Archdiocese Alleged Impropriety," Michael Levenson and Lisa Wangsness 9.25.05; "Archdiocese Names Insider to Replace Outspoken Pastor; Newton Parish Protests Ouster," Michael Paulson 9.27.05; "Letter May Shed Light on Ouster of Pastor: Suggests His Views on Gays Played Role," Michael Paulson 9.28.05; "Ousted Priest Gets a Show of Support from Fellow Newton Clergy: Non-Catholics Assail Decision," Matt Viser 9.30.05; "Parish Plans Rally in Support of Cleric," Matt Viser 10.1.05; "Dislocation, Scrutiny of Priests Raise Fears: Archdiocese Denies Politics Behind Moves," Michael Paulson 10.2.05. Boston Globe commentary: "Smear Tactics," Brian McGrory 9.27.05; "Editorial Journal: A Priest's Leadership," Thomas Gagen 9.30.05; "Reality Sets In—Rome Rules Boston," Joan Vennochi, 10.2.05.

Update 10.27.05: Cuenin asks the parish to stop asking for his reinstatement [AP 10.27.05].

Update 11.13.05: A parishioner has called my attention to the organization committed to Cuenin's exoneration: Our Lady's Friends.

Update 1.12.06: The parish's Finance Committee has issued a report criticizing the archdiocese's justifications for removing Cuenin, according to the Boston Globe:

[The report] criticizes the policies used as the basis for his removal as being vague, inconsistent, and not readily available.

The committee, for example, requested updated copies of archdiocesan policies, and said it had been told by the archdiocese that "they cannot be located."

The report also says that it could find no written prohibition against a parish providing its pastor with a leased car, though the archdiocese said that policy was implied in regulations about reimbursements for mileage involved in clerical and pastoral visits for the parish.

The committee also says that the $5 per day limit on stipends is ambiguous. "Based on past practices in the archdiocese, this limit has been seen by many as not applying to stipends/offerings given for marriages, baptisms, and funerals," the report said, arguing that priests in active parishes receive much more than $5 per day.

("Parish report denounces ouster of Newton priest," Matt Viser, Boston Globe 1.12.06, reg req'd)

Copyright © 2005 by Philocrites | Posted 2 October 2005 at 9:43 AM

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October 2, 2005 06:14 PM | Permalink for this comment

Sad times for the Catholics.


October 3, 2005 04:22 AM | Permalink for this comment

Any chance the Catholic Church will split in two (again)? If "the Ratzingers" succeed in getting rid of all the liberals -- what will happen to them? where will they go?

To me, it seems pretty clear the conservatives have Gone Over To The Other Side, but I don't really believe in that stuff....

Clyde Grubbs:

October 3, 2005 10:46 AM | Permalink for this comment

In my opinion,
The Catholics won't split, they will continue to hemorage members.

So many new Episcopalians, UUCs and UUs are grieving ex Catholics.


October 9, 2005 07:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

I heard about this on an NPR program (here and now?) and all the folks who talked about it, including another preist and a strange editor of something or other who supported the firing of this very nice liberal preist didn't even discuss the "improper" stipend or car, and instead discussed how it was directly related to the liberal priest refusing to have folks sign anti-gay-marriage petitions in the church. It was slightly amusing and strange in the sense that the Catholic church whom you would think would somehow support honestly and truth, was being so dishonest and obviously just lying as to why the priest was being removed. I was just a little surprised (I'm always so naive about the idea of religious folks trying to be good and truthful and all) that the church wasn't more forthright about why he was getting fired considering how amazingly obvious it was that it had nothing to do with the car or money. My only hope is that this new nasty pope makes things so bad in the church that there is a revolution of reasonableness and compassion and something is forced to change..........
We can dream...............


October 20, 2005 07:45 AM | Permalink for this comment

Update: "Priest Was Eyed for Ouster Prior to Audit," Matt Viser, Boston Globe 10.20.05, reg req'd.

Bill Baar:

October 20, 2005 08:33 AM | Permalink for this comment

I'm pretty cynical about these priest transfer stories. We read them often in Chicago usually over very charismatic Priests.

I think it was Cardinal Mundelin who first put term limits on assignments for Priests in the Chicago Archdoices in the 1920s or 30s. His objective was to prevent local power bases, especially among ethinic parishes, and prevent growth of local power-broker Priests who would oppose his efforts to Americanize the Church.

The power to assign Priests one of the Chief reasons for the sex abuse scandels. I think Father Greely has written something to the effect the best thing the Church could do is let the laity assign Priests and let the Priests deal with Theology and Pastoral work. I think he's right.

Anyways, when I read these kinds of stories, just as I read those with Father Pfleger in Chicago my betting is it is the power struggle and politics inside the Church more than fights over doctrine.

I'd be less cynical about today's Liberal Churches (I don't think they're very Liberal with little faith in univseral human rights.) if they had the guts to standup to people asking Churches to withdraw investment in Israel and state the obvious about Gay Rights in the middle east as nicely explained in this post on Queers against Terror.

Chatting with a 21-year-old Palestinian man in a gay bar in Tel Aviv was the most interesting moment of my summer vacation. There isn't much social interaction between Arabs and Jews these days because of the ongoing terrorist war against Israel, but the gay scene is a little bit different.
Why do Arab and Jewish homosexuals mix in Tel Aviv? Because Israel is the only country in the Middle East where homosexuals can live in freedom.
While those on the Left indulge Palestinian totalitarianism, President George W. Bush, DC (Yale '68), rejects it. His vision is the only hope for freedom and peace in the Middle East: defending Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state while supporting a democratic Palestinian state that eschews terrorism.


November 13, 2005 07:57 PM | Permalink for this comment

A parishioner from Our Lady, Help of Christians, called my attention to the organization founded by parishioners dismayed by the forced resignation of Father Cuenin. Check out Our Lady's Friends, which is calling for "Rev. Walter Cuenin's reinstatement and exoneration, a vibrant Our Lady's Parish, and financial accountability in the Boston Archdiocese." Roman Catholics will be especially interested in the petition at the site.

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