Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why Arlington? Historical Context of Clerical Madness 1

Thomas J Welsh, First Bishop
of Arlington

I think the thing that has most worried me about this whole episode of a “fidelity oath” that allegedly was to be imposed on catechists and their teaching aides—some of whom are only in their early teens and would have no idea of what they were being asked to swear to—was the expectation that such an “oath” would apply not only to the public or external forum (what we say, write, publish, teach) but to the internal forum (what we believe to be true and by which we direct our moral actions) and this would break new and dangerous ground in the Church.  The internal forum—matters of conscience—are traditionally sacrosanct in our Catholic tradition and are dealt with only with one’s confessor and/or spiritual director but are never subject to public appraisal.  I was struck in a recent book edited by Jesuit historian John O’Malley (Vatican II: Did Anything Happen?, New York: Continuum, 2011 )  by his insight that in all the anathemas imposed by ecumenical councils from the first, Nicea, to Vatican I (Vatican II did not threaten with anathemas) that they always applied explicitly to what one said or denied or taught or in some way did observably—that is to the external forum—and never to what one thought or held interiorly, i.e., the internal forum.   What was so disquieting in the Arlington kerfuffle was how quick some were to take up the crusade against others with whom they disagree and with how much anger they wanted to push those who disagree with them to the margins of the Church, or even beyond.  One person wrote on the blog of a friend of mine “If your conscience prevents you from teaching what the Church teaches, then perhaps you are a better Protestant than a Catholic. There are a hundred thousand alternatives. Take your pick ”as if she could not too quickly be rid of the company of others whose understanding of our Catholic faith differs from hers.  There is a noxious air in the Arlington Diocese, an atmosphere of anger and self-righteous pseudo-orthodoxy, that is rooted in a curious combination of the American “Culture Wars” and the particular circumstances in which the Diocese has its roots. 
Arlington Diocese, of course, is a case somewhat of itself.  If one knows the history of Arlington, the diocese was conceived in sin and over the decades of its existence has probably needed an exorcist more than a bishop.  Back in the early ‘70’s when Richmond Bishop John Russell who had been a Council Father at Vatican II was retiring and Walter Sullivan—a known progressive—was named to replace him, a group of Northern Virginia pastors used their influence with the Apostolic Delegate to split the Richmond diocese and create the Diocese of Arlington from the Washington DC suburbs and the northern half of the State of Virginia.  To be fair, it was probably time to create a second diocese in Virginia, and these particular pastors had been strategizing about it for a period of time, but the way in which the split was organized and the intentions behind it laid the groundwork for today’s rancorous divisions in the new diocese. 
Monsignors Justin McClunn, T.P.Scannell, Richard Burke among other conservative pastors were by no means the ideologues of today’s Arlington right-wing clerics but they were appalled at the extremes to which some Richmond priests were going in liturgical experimentation.  When one looks at the churches they built—McClunn’s St. Louis in Alexandria or Scannell’s St. Michael’s in Annandale—these were not men trying to undo the liturgical reforms proposed by the Second Vatican Council but neither were they the sort to go along with exotic escapades of the likes of Fr. Tom Quinlan who one Christmas dressed as a “Blue Angel” (remember Marlene Dietrich?) or one Palm Sunday drove a Volkswagen Beetle down the aisle in his Procession of Palms.  This is not to say that McClunn and company were simply “High Churchmen”—while they embraced the new liturgy (done according to the established norms of the times), they were not of the temperament to share decision making with the laity in their parishes nor to be “transparent” about finances.  (Scannell was a financial wizard whose foresight in acquiring property all over Northern Virginia served the new diocese well when it came time to open new parishes.)    Let me also say that McClunn, Scannell, Burke and associates were, at least in my memory (I was quite young then and only an observer to the diocese being a grad student in DC but with many ties to Northern Virginia and its clergy) were gentlemen.  While I would at the time not have agreed with them on very much about the Church and where it needed to go, and while most of my clergy friends were in the opposition camp to them, I found them unfailingly hospitable and gracious men.  I cannot say that about many in the current crop of their heirs among the Arlington crazies.  
It was a disappointment to this coterie of monsignoral conservatives that McClunn was not, as expected, named the new bishop.  And perhaps, in retrospect, it was too bad that he wasn’t.   Philadelphia auxiliary Thomas Welsh became the first bishop of Arlington.  Welsh was not a bad man nor a retro bishop.  Granted, he was one to put the brakes on, but not to put the car in reverse much less turn around and make hell-bent-for-leather into the days of preconciliar Catholicism.  Nevertheless, the clergy being given the option of with which diocese to affiliate, most of the progressives fled south to Richmond leaving Arlington with a clergy somewhat skewed to the right.  It was not time yet to panic however.  Most of the Arlington clergy were moderate in their conservative views.  Conciliar and post-conciliar reforms—the RCIA, the 1974 revisions in the Rite of Reconciliation, the use of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, the option of receiving communion in one’s hand, all were introduced as they were elsewhere.  Altars faced the people.  New churches were being built in designs that reflected the congregational role of participation in the liturgy.  Arlington may have been moving somewhat slower and more cautiously into the emerging Church of Vatican II, but it wasn’t resisting it or even dragging its feet.  But that was before the proactive campaign to recruit recidivist clergy that would take place under Arlington’s second bishop, John Richard Keating.  More on that to come. 

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