The 'Boston 58'

A lesson in being 'not nasty'

On the second Wednesday of Lent at Saint Augustine Church in Andover, Massachusetts, Father Alfred Ellis offered up a special intention at the early morning Mass. "Let us pray for those who have strayed from the faith, that they may be reconciled with the church and with God," he asked. Concern about people’s faith is, of course, what you’d expect from a priest. In those early days of Lent, Ellis gently reminded us of the ways of worshiping reverently, for example, the proper positioning of hands when receiving the Eucharist and the importance of offering the sign of peace only to people nearby. (No handshaking in the aisles or waiving to friends in back pews allowed.)

I relate this not to show how extraordinary Ellis is, although he is, but to show how ordinary he is, as pastor and preacher. Shy and soft-spoken, he preaches about love and forgiveness, respect for life, and the merits of a life lived in pursuit of holiness. I could say the same about the other Augustinian friars in our town, north of Boston, and many others who wear the collar. Yet this is no ordinary time for Catholicism in America. Last December, in what we parishioners know to have been a spiritual struggle for him, Ellis, along with fifty-seven other priests in the Boston archdiocese, signed a letter calling on Cardinal Bernard Law to resign.

According to some, signing that letter means that Ellis is unfaithful and morally corrupt.

These insinuations were made by two exceedingly influential Catholic intellectuals and subsequently reported on the front page of the Boston Globe (Michael Paulson’s "Priests Who Asked Law to Quit Attacked," March 8). Father Richard John Neuhaus and columnist and papal biographer George Weigel have been leveling brutal accusations against the so-called Boston fifty-eight who helped bring down the cardinal following his dreadful handling of the clergy sexual-abuse crisis.

Writing in the February issue of his journal, First Things, editor-in-chief Neuhaus said of the fifty-eight, "they represent the subculture of infidelity that is the source of priestly miscreance in doctrine and life." That is to say, these priests are not only infidels but quite possibly moral degenerates as well. (The only comic relief in this latest episode came when Neuhaus commented to the Globe that his criticism was "not nasty.") Meanwhile, in his syndicated column that ran in the Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, Weigel stressed that "men who had repeatedly and publicly denied the church’s teaching on the moral truth of things were among the signatories." The slight verbal hedging—"among" is fairly vague—didn’t do much to lessen the impression that practically all of the signers were notorious truth-deniers and faith-rejecters.

Weigel and Neuhaus, neoconservatives practiced in the art of controversy, have reputations for saying uncharitable things about people with whom they disagree. This latest rush of rancor verges on calumny.

I cannot vouch for all or even most of the fifty-eight priests, but it happens that five of them live within biking distance of my house, four at the parish rectory in town and one at the Augustinian friary up the road. I am fairly new to the parish, but longtime members with whom I’ve spoken could not recognize Ellis or his associate, Father Harry Erdlen, or any of the other friars, in Weigel’s and Neuhaus’s accusations. One fellow who is active in the Knights of Columbus, not known as a doctrinally subversive organization, told me, "Father Al is painfully shy. For him to speak out the way he did, he had to think and pray long and hard about it. And, this idea that he’s some kind of rebel is just ridiculous on the face of it."

Parsing the priests’ letter, Weigel observed that the Boston 58 praised Law for his support of causes including interreligious dialogue and abolition of the death penalty, but neglected to mention Law’s pro-life witness. "This particular non-barking dog clearly demonstrated where these fifty-eight priests were coming from, so to speak—and where they wanted the Archdiocese of Boston to go," he wrote. Here we are supposed to infer that "these fifty-eight" reject the church’s teaching on abortion. Having heard dozens of homilies at Saint Augustine’s, including one by a guest preacher from the organization Priests for Life, I cannot imagine this to be true. More to the point, how would Weigel know?

Weigel told the Globe that he wrote his column after "extensive consultation" with knowledgeable people in the archdiocese. I do not know what he considers extensive, but he seems not to know the Augustinians of Andover. He lives in Maryland and is senior fellow at the Washington-based Ethics and Public Policy center. How rigorous could his inquiries into the views and souls of the others have been from such a distance? Weigel and Neuhaus, who edits First Things from New York City, might think their remote research gives them room for deniability, in case their blanket condemnation of the fifty-eight is found to be spurious (or libelous). They have no deniability. By what authority can they besmirch the reputations of people about whom they know next to nothing?

For the sake of further disclosure, I should say that, as a reporter who writes about religion and society, I have known both Neuhaus and Weigel most of my adult life. I have written things about them that are favorable and things that are unfavorable. Both have found John Paul’s teachings on consumerism, economic rights, and world peace hard to digest, although that hasn’t stopped them from trying to give the pope’s teaching their own distinctive twist. What everyone who read the recent Globe article should understand is that these sorts of accusations are polemical business as usual for these two (who, when they are not hurling accusations of bad faith, actually have worthwhile things to say about many moral and cultural issues). I’d be stunned to learn that Weigel or Neuhaus agonized before cranking out their columns, as Ellis agonized before signing that letter.

I do not defend the Boston 58 as heroes; they are a motley bunch. I don’t doubt that Weigel and Neuhaus had the goods on some of the signers, though I could scarcely name one who should be subject to such vitriol. At any rate, they smeared them all. Why?

Weigel and Neuhaus are eager to refute any suggestion that pressure from clergy and laity influenced Rome’s decision to accept Law’s resignation. Rome, they argue, paid no attention to the signers because it knew where all of these miscreants "were coming from." That argument has been rehearsed before, most forcefully in Weigel’s latest book, The Courage to Be Catholic, which asserts that insufficient orthodoxy is the source of the sexual-abuse crisis. Weigel’s theory about the pernicious nature of theological "dissent" should not surprise anyone familiar with the neoconservative theory of the "New Class," which holds that an adversarial class of "symbol specialists," composed of academics, journalists, and liberal clerics, is subverting American values. I suspect that these latest salvos have more to do with an obsessive devotion to favorite theories and theses (which have some merit), than with "extensive" knowledge of the Boston 58.

Yes, there are people here in Massachusetts who agree with Neuhaus and Weigel. Carol McKinley, for instance, speaks for Faithful Voice, a conservative lay group organized in opposition to the much-publicized Voice of the Faithful. She makes a sincere and passionate case, but reasons within a tight circle. With no hedging, McKinley told me that the priests who signed the letter have "well-documented histories" of doctrinal dissent. When pressed for evidence, she fell back on the fact that they signed the letter to the cardinal: "By simply the fact that they did what they did—that’s a rejection of the teachings and the faith," said McKinley (who, on the matter of my pastor, also sees him as suspect because he allowed a Voice of the Faithful chapter in his parish). The logic is underwhelming, and I am afraid the discourse will get even nastier. That’s because the Boston 58 is reportedly regrouping to try to influence the selection of the next archbishop.

One thing is clear. At a time when Catholics of many theological stripes are striving for healing and unity, the last thing the Archdiocese of Boston needs is the long-distance carping of people like Weigel and Neuhaus.

Published in the 2003-03-28 issue: 

William Bole is a journalist and co-author, with Bob Abernethy, of The Life of Meaning: Reflections on Faith, Doubt, and Repairing the World.

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