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Parish closings inappropriate topic for Globe editorial

Posted by Mark Leccese  July 25, 2011 10:09 AM

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I’ve been an avid and respectful reader of Globe editorials since not long after I learned to read, and the Globe has one of the most thoughtful, persuasive and distinguished teams of editorials writers in the country. When the Globe talks, people listen.

But the editorial writers should stick to matters of public policy and not give the newspaper’s opinion on internal Catholic Church matters, as it did in a Saturday editorial urging parishioners of six area Catholic Churches to give up their fight against the scheduled closing of their parishes.

In this country, the decisions of the Catholic Church are not matters of public policy by definition. Advising the Church or its members on Church business is inappropriate for editorial boards.

You probably remember the word “disestablishmentarianism” from a U.S. History or Civics class. If you do, you know the argument carried the day during the founding of the United States, and no church is recognized by the U.S. government as the nation’s official church (like the Church of England in England, for example). That means internal debates in any church or organized religion are not matters for the government or for public policy discussion. They are matters only for the church or religion itself.

To continue going all Constitutional on my readers, I recognize the Globe has a clear right, under the First Amendment, to editorialize on the plans and actions of the Catholic Church or any religion. My argument is that because an institution like the Globe can editorialize on any matter, even ones that are not public policy questions, doesn’t mean it should.

On July 15, a Globe story reported that Cardinal Sean O’Malley was “moving to sell six shuttered churches belonging to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, removing the sacred standing of the church buildings through decrees made public yesterday.”

As a Catholic in the Archdiocese of Boston, I actually agree with the Globe’s editorial position on the church closings. I do. But the issue is one for we Catholics, not for the public at large and not for the Globe editorial board.

The Globe Saturday editorial began:

They have been praying for a miracle for more than six years. It didn’t happen, and now it’s time to face reality.

Cardinal Sean P. O’Malley is finally moving to sell six long-shuttered churches belonging to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. It’s a sad outcome for those committed to their old parish communities, but simple economics makes it inevitable.

If the Archdiocese does sell those churches and their land, and the buildings and land are bought by companies that propose to redevelop the sites, that is a matter of public policy: zoning, land use, the effects on the municipality.

What makes the Catholic Church, a non-profit institution, different from — for example — a hospital, which is also a non-profit? Would it be appropriate to write an editorial about a controversy at a local hospital: Whether, for example, a hospital CEO should step down? Yes, because hospitals are licensed and regulated by government, making the operations of a hospital a public policy matter.

I’m not talking about columnists and op-ed writers. They give their personal opinion, and readers understand that. And I am certainly not saying the news media should not report on the controversy surround the closing of the parishes — that is a matter of community interest — or the Archdiocese of Boston’s decades-long sex abuse scandal. The Globe deservedly won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003 for its investigations into the scandal. That scandal resulted in both criminal and civil courts cases, and thus became a governmental story.

I’ll say it again: The internal workings of the Catholic Church have nothing to do with civil government. The last sentence of Saturday’s Globe editorial shows how far the editorial writers strayed into argumentative territory they don’t belong.

O’Malley did show patience throughout the long, drawn-out appeal process. During the six to seven years since the closing of the parishes, he waited for resolution of the appeals and dispatched personal representatives to talk to disgruntled parishioners. Still angry and unsatisfied, some Catholics are threatening to start the appeal process all over again. As they mull their options, they should accept that the answer to some prayers is no.

Whether prayers are answered is not a public policy matter, it is a theological question. The difference is, and should be, incalculable.

Follow @mleccese on Twitter.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Mark Leccese, a journalism professor at Emerson College, covered Massachusetts politics, business and the arts for more than 25 years as a newspaper reporter, editor and magazine writer. He has More »

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