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Earlier stories

Spotlight Report

  Joan Vennochi  

Sinner vs. Sinner: Whose is bigger?

By Joan Vennochi, 8/13/2002

ANOTHER SUNDAY. Another mortal sin.

It feels odd, but also oddly peaceful. No rushing around. No chasing everyone into the car. No slinking in through the back of the church when the chasing fails to promote a timely departure. No poking an openly bored and yawning teenage boy. No ugly looks - his or yours - shot at his squirming younger sister.

No standing, sitting, kneeling, the timeless pattern that survived Latin to English, sacred hymns to folk music, remote islands of individual prayer to outstretched handshakes of peace.

Without Sunday Mass, there is definitely something missing. But there is also something gained; time, for one thing. And in the aftermath of the clergy sexual abuse scandal there is freedom, freedom from that burn-in-hell-if-you-don't-go sense of obligation. Or is there?

The Boston Archdiocese is trying to rekindle the fear. In a recent editorial, The Pilot, the official newspaper of the Boston Archdiocese, rebuked Governor Frank Keating of Oklahoma, the chairman of a national panel on the church's handling of clergy sexual abuse, saying Keating urged Catholics ''to commit a mortal sin'' by suggesting they boycott Sunday Mass. But the thinking Catholic cannot help but wonder, what is the bigger sin? Failing to attend Mass or failing to protect children?

This is what the church hierarchy, still exemplified most diligently by Cardinal Bernard Law, still doesn't understand. Catholics are ranking their sins against those of their leaders and deciding that when it comes to sin, they are at least equals. This sin-to-sinner assessment may even lead some - not all - Catholic lay people to conclude they are more virtuous than their priests. So why should they listen to them?

Lack of moral authority continues to be Law's problem. If he didn't understand it before, he should after reading Sunday's New York Times. There on Page 1, Jack Connors, chief executive of Boston's Hill Holiday advertising firm, a devoted Catholic and daily Massgoer, said he sent money to Voice of the Faithful right after Law refused to accept contributions from that group. ''I think he has a classic tin ear. I think he doesn't particularly care what people think.... Everybody has lost faith in this cardinal,'' Connors said about Law.

That is the establishment speaking. And the words show that beyond a doubt, the Boston establishment is now lost forever to Law. In losing it, he loses his only true constituency. The cardinal's elitism turned off average Catholics long before the facts of the clergy sexual abuse scandal provided a concrete reason to reject his leadership. ''Out of step, as usual,'' a church-going friend quipped about the newspaper photograph of a dancing Law during the recent Catholic youth rally in Toronto.

But does rejecting Law's leadership necessarily lead to boycotting Mass and committing a mortal sin? Obviously that is not the universal reaction to date, and I am not advocating that it should be. Individual by individual, each makes his or her choice.

Will it be rebellion or compliance? The people behind the Voice of the Faithful walked a fine line, a line the more rebellious watched with interest. How would the church deal with polite challenge? How would it deal with people who wanted the church they loved to be a more responsive church? As it turned out, the hierarchy dealt with polite challenge the same way it deals with impolite challenge. It wanted no part of it. And it showed it by rejecting the one thing the Catholic Church does not usually walk away from: money.

Polite challenge is not going to change the Catholic Church any more than impolite challenge will. Sustained challenge from the masses coupled with outspokenness from wealthy, established Catholics like Boston's Jack Connors will eventually lead to Law's removal. But the church is going to resist real, substantive change as long as it can. And it can and will resist as long as people fill the pews for Sunday Mass.

I do miss it, you know. It is soothing in its routine and timelessness. Its rhythm is comforting, as is its offering of eternal peace. Eternal damnation is no pleasure to contemplate. But I can't go back; not yet, mortal sinner that I am.

Maybe next Sunday.

Joan Vennochi's e-mail address is "> .

This story ran on page A15 of the Boston Globe on 8/13/2002.
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