The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture

By Philip F. Lawler

Encounter Books, 2008

325 pages, $25.95

To order: encounterbooks.com

(800) 786-3839


Next to New York and L.A., Boston may be the most high-profile American archdiocese. Perhaps to a greater degree than the others, it has suffered from the most tarnished reputation. Philip Lawler catalogues the decay of the archdiocese in The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston’s Catholic Culture.

Lawler, editor of Catholic World News, was editor of The Pilot, the diocesan newspaper, during the 1980s, when the sex scandals were beginning to fester. The archdiocese did not need background checks “to identify John Geoghan and Paul Shanley as abusers; the evidence in the priests’ personnel files was more than enough to warn the hierarchy,” he writes. “Parents and parishioners did not need much instruction in reporting sex abuse.

“They had reported it, and their reports had been brushed aside.” The problem with the Church bureaucracy, Lawler argues, is that it became more bureaucratic and less identifiably Catholic.

But one of the book’s strengths may also be one of its weaknesses. Lawler shows how Boston fits into national Catholic trends, which are mostly negative. Rather than use national averages to frame the book, though, he interweaves them throughout.

Though Lawler’s narrative may go out of sequence, the book is reliable and well documented. “Since most of them are not regularly practicing their faith, or supporting their faith, it would be unrealistic to expect today’s Catholics to identify with the teachings of their faith — especially when those teachings clash with the norms of popular culture,” he writes. “Younger priests have been cautioned by their seminary instructors to avoid preaching about doctrine, particularly controversial doctrine, and so perhaps many Catholics do not even know what the Church teaches.

“Sure enough, Catholics divorce and remarry, obtain abortions and sterilizations, use birth control and in vitro fertilization techniques, all at rates undistinguishable from those of their non-Catholic neighbors.”

Thus, in Lawler’s back yard, the term “banned in Boston” has taken on a whole new meaning. “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,” writes Lawler. “A decade later the same archbishop ... 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.”

Lawler’s book should be read by those who are concerned about where the world is going — and what the Church needs to do to help get it back on the right path.

Malcolm Kline is director of

Accuracy in Academia.