Philadelphia story

On the eve of more bad news for the crippled Archdiocese of Philadelphia, its archbishop gave a brave and bracing speech to the Catholic Press Association. 

The keynote speaker at a dinner marking Our Sunday Visitor’s 100th anniversary and the start of the annual Catholic Media Conference, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput painted a stark picture of the archdiocese he has headed less than a year: 

“Our laypeople are angry,” he said. The anger starts with the sexual abuse scandals, continues through the financial troubles and parish closings, and is rounded off with the lack of transparency that has afflicted too many of the large Eastern dioceses in particular. 

Mass attendance in Denver, his previous diocese, was 40 percent, the archbishop said. In Philly, it is 18 percent. More than two-thirds of its parishes have operating deficits, and more than a third are in financial distress. The projected deficit for 2013 is $17 million. In the last nine months it has spent $10 million on legal fees. And the list goes on. 

Unfortunately, so dire is the situation in Philadelphia that the same week the archbishop was speaking to Catholic media leaders, he also had to close a historic diocesan newspaper, The Catholic Standard and Times. In the past 10 months, he has closed schools and parishes, laid off 45 employees, and put the cavernous mansion he inherited up for sale. 

All of this is bad, but none of it is as bad as the news that broke before his arrival that the archdiocese had not properly examined the cases of 22 priests against whom abuse allegations were made. Those cases were followed by the June 22 conviction of Msgr. William J. Lynn, at one time a senior archdiocesan official, on the charge of endangering children by assigning an abuser priest to a parish. 

“As a bishop,” Archbishop Chaput said, “the only honest way I can talk about the abuse tragedy is to start by apologizing for the failure of the Church and her leaders — apologizing to victims, and apologizing to the Catholic community.” 

But there are multiple layers to the crisis facing an archdiocese like Philadelphia, and it is too easy to blame its current malaise only on abuse. 

One truth is that it has for too long been almost toxically clerical, with no transparency or accountability. The long list of archdiocesan problems did not arise over night. It took the neglect of more than a generation to arrive at its current precarious state. 

But it is also true, as the archbishop said last week, that the problem is not just scandals or debt or poor leadership. The problem is also a dullness that has “seeped into Church life, and the cynicism and resentment that naturally follow it.” 

“These problems kill a Christian love of poverty and zeal. They choke off a real life of faith,” Archbishop Chaput said. “The result is that Philadelphia, like so much of the Church in the rest of our country, is now really a mission territory — again.” 

This point was made on a larger scale by John Garvey, president of The Catholic University of America, earlier in June when he told the U.S. bishops that the crisis of religious freedom in some ways reflected a societal crisis of faith not just in its elites, but in its working class as well. More and more residents of the Western world are simply wandering away from their faith, which means that what is happening in Philadelphia is a microcosm of a more disturbing erosion. 

The real Philadelphia story, Archbishop Chaput is suggesting, is that the threats to religious liberty and the meltdown in Philly are related. Without a conversion of heart, starting with ourselves, we may never truly address the heart of the current crises.

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.