Recent Review of No Closure in Church History

Several reviews of No Closure have come out lately. American Catholic Studies, Catholic Historical Review, National Catholic Reporter, Journal of American History, and most recently in   

Church History 81:3

Sept. 2012

 Thanks to all the folks who worked hard to write these reviews! 

 

No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns. By John Seitz. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2011. 315 pp. $39.95 cloth.

Richard Gribble CSCa1

 

a1 Stonehill College

 

In No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns, John Seitz, Assistant Professor of Theology at Fordham University, provides a scholarly analysis of the on-going occupation of five parishes ordered closed by the Archdiocese of Boston in May 2004. Using extensive interviews from occupiers, principally from two of the five parishes, and exhaustive secondary sources, Seitz crafts an insightful monograph that seeks to answer two questions: “why did people resist closures of these parishes?” and “what does resistance to Church closings tell us about modern American Catholicism?” In a tightly written and extensively footnoted text, Seitz ably accomplishes his basic purpose while significantly adding to the literature of contemporary American Catholic life.

Seitz presents his description and analysis of the Boston parish closings in a highly informative introduction, five chapters, and an epilogue. While mention is made of various parish closures, Seitz’s primary analysis centers on two specific faith communities: Mount Carmel in East Boston, and St. Albert’s in Weymouth. Seitz first looks at the concept of sacrifice as the basic “pill” that the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, asked the parishioners of parishes scheduled to be closed to swallow. In this discussion, the author makes a clear distinction between the two contesting parties: the archdiocese and the so-called occupiers of these parishes. The archdiocese asked parishioners to see the “obvious” signs that led to the decision to close certain parishes—lack of clergy, dwindling Mass attendance, and the poor material condition of many churches that possessed insufficient economic resources to repair them. While difficult, parishioners were asked to display the heroic sacrifice as many of their ancestors in the faith did at a time of crisis. For those who resisted, however, Seitz clearly points out that the loss of sacredness of the church building itself, its contents, and the locale was not merely a sacrifice, but rather perceived to be spiritual abuse. He writes, “for the resisters the shutdowns were an attempt to shut down memory and, therefore, a subversion of religion” (80).

The author’s analysis continues by showing how resistors defended their action in the light of history, while always maintaining themselves to be fully within the Catholic family. While he discusses reasons for the demographic shift leading many parishes to close, Seitz emphasizes the concept of sacred presence as the mantra for those who resisted. He looks at how competing orientations, some seeing the church as a shell or building, others viewing the church as living stones of people, were negotiated by those who occupied churches. Seitz explains how the concepts of sacrifice and church authority played out among the occupiers. As in one example he describes the tension among the occupiers with respect to the use of married “priests” for Sunday celebrations. Some had no difficulty with such actions, but others believed such invitations were inappropriate and preferred to celebrate communion services on their own in the occupied churches.

One of the more significant achievements of this book is how Professor Seitz connects the Boston experience to American Catholic history. His concentration in this realm is most apparent in discussing how Catholic laity understood the transformation of their role in the wake of Vatican II. Through the “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity,” Vatican II placed greater responsibility on the laity, not only through physical manifestations of ministry, but most importantly by asking lay men and women to serve as a leaven for the Church within contemporary society. Negotiating the movement from a clerical to a more lay-dominated church, the challenge originally put forward by Peter Steinfels in his 2003 monograph, A People Adrift (New York: Simon & Schuster), was constantly in the minds of those who occupied churches. Thus, the occupiers saw their actions completely consistent with the teachings of Vatican II.

No Closure makes an important statement about contemporary American Catholic life and the situation of the Church in the early 21st century. Seitz says directly that he has no desire to evaluate the propriety or impropriety of the shutdowns or to establish boundaries for “true” or “false” Catholicism, yet in his ambitious agenda a message is communicated. Seitz hammers home the message, the constant conviction held by the occupiers, that the sacredness of objects and locales with respect to their parishes could not be violated and that actions by the parishioners were consistent with past tradition. While some attention is given to past controversies between parishioners and church hierarchy, for example the lay trustee controversy of late 18th and early 19th century America, coverage is not extensive. While central to his argument that the actions of the occupiers were consistent with the post-Vatican II understanding of the laity, the author’s extensive digression in explaining details with respect to the rites of consecration of churches was, in this writer’s opinion, a bit off point. Nevertheless, despite a few incorrect or misleading references, such as Pope John XXIII “opening the Council in 1959,” Seitz’s research, analysis, and discussion are instructive and highly valuable.

Written for scholars of American Catholicism and those interested in contemporary church issues, especially in New England, No Closure makes a significant contribution to American Catholic literature. Seitz has been fair and evenhanded in walking a difficult tightrope of impartiality. He is to be commended for his accomplishment in providing a balanced and instructive text on a significant and ongoing reality in the American Catholic Church.

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