No Closure

November 8, 2012 at 2:24 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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The following is a review of No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns by John C. Seitz. Harvard University Press, 2011.  Hardback, $39.95; e-book, $30.44.  248 pp. 

Much has been written about the relationship of the Roman Catholic Church to the “modern world.” One stream of conversation has it that the church “entered the modern world” at Vatican II. But the church helped to create the modern world as well. The Spanish monarchs who sent Columbus off, for example, were Franciscan tertiaries, while Michel Foucault argues that the Catholic practice of private confession was fundamental to the construction of the individual, that lynchpin of modernity. It’s closer to the truth to say that the church decided to exit the modern world when the liberal revolutions of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries made evident the high cost of participating in that world. But exiting an era in which you’ve played a major role for five hundred years is tricky. Even the reintroduction of the “perennial philosophy” of St. Thomas Aquinas was as much a mimicking of the clarity of the Scientific Revolution as it was a return to Aquinas’s work which had been both ground-breaking and controversial in its time.

Reviewers will tend, I suspect, to portray John C. Seitz’s book, No Closure: Catholic Practice and Boston’s Parish Shutdowns, as a study of the laypeople who resisted the closure of a number of churches by the Archdiocese of Boston beginning in 2004. Indeed, the ethnographic interviews Seitz conducted with a range of former parishioners serves as the foundation of the study. Yet even the ethnographic nature of the book, as Seitz acknowledges, is complicated, since he not only interviewed the occupiers, (or vigilers, or resisters, as they are also called) but participated in the occupations—sometimes sleeping all night in the churches and taking part in tasks like cleaning the churches and fixing broken objects..

Like the nature of Seitz’s ethnographic role, No Closure’s argument itself is not a simple one, though it is well worth the effort required to comprehend it.  By situating the Boston church occupations within the very changes and continuities of post-war Catholicism, Seitz offers one of the most valuable readings yet published of the complex nature of the relationship between the church and “the modern world.” As he writes in his introductory chapter, his project “intends to understand resisters as they carried…the imprint of wider struggles related to changes in the church and society across the twentieth century” (17).

Seitz accomplishes this by “braiding” together what readers might expect to be highly divergent actions, motivations and beliefs on the part of occupiers and representatives of the archdiocese as well. While some might assume the refusal to give up two different Italian parishes, in North and East Boston, to be motivated by traditional or conservative beliefs in saints, statues, and relics, for example, Seitz shows that the occupiers were equally motivated by a Vatican II sense of themselves as “the people of God.”

On the other hand, it may seem that the archdiocese’s demand that people leave their parishes behind is a classic instance of episcopal authoritarianism based in traditional, pre-Vatican II theology.  Drawing on a nuanced comparison of pre- and post-Vatican II texts for the ritual dedication of a church, however, Seitz shows that the authorities intent on shutting down the churches had shifted from centuries-old Catholic language about the sacredness of places and objects to a distinctly modern, post-Vatican II emphasis on the primarily symbolic nature of those places and things. The authorities then used this “modern” framework to justify their call for what may be construed as highly traditional obedience and sacrifice.  One of the most revealing parts of No Closure involves the discovery, by the occupiers of one of the churches, of altar relics consecrated at the dedication of the church but discarded in a sacristy drawer as the church was being “closed.”  The recent return to traditional reverence ostensibly expressed by kneeling during the canon of the Mass is not terribly evident in this apparent dismissal of the communion of saints.

Seitz’s interpretation of the vigilers’ practice of bringing consecrated hosts supplied by anonymous priests into the occupied churches for legitimate lay-led communion services also embodies the complexity of the resisters’ Catholicism.  In a review in the National Catholic Reporter, Kathleen L. Sullivan quotes Seitz in such a way as to suggest that practices like this were really tactics by the occupiers to appear “more Catholic” than archdiocesan authorities.  But in the context of the book’s larger argument, this importation of the Body and Blood of Christ was also a genuine expression of devout Catholicism, over against the archbishop’s cavalier closing of what the occupiers had longed believed to be the center of their faith, the parish. Seitz’s reading here suggests that Catholic reform groups who base their claims to legitimacy on apostolic succession, or who allow only officially ordained but married priests to celebrate the Eucharist, are also, in some respects, adhering to traditional Catholic beliefs.

It’s not possible in a review of this length to do justice to Seitz’s nuanced reading of the interrelationships between continuity and change, between tradition and modernity, in the beliefs and practices of the Catholics who occupied Boston Catholic churches, and for that matter, in the beliefs and practices of the archdiocesan authorities who ordered those closings and the parishioners who accepted them. Considering the ways in which the title of the book itself embodies such Catholic “braiding” may be a good way to bring these brief reflections to a conclusion, however.

At the simplest level, of course, No Closure communicates the fact that some Boston Catholics did not allow their parish churches to be closed. Yet Seitz knows well and acknowledges that while a few of the churches survived, sometimes with diminished status, others did close, or would eventually; indeed, one of them, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel in East Boston, saw its occupation ended in April, 2012, seven years after it began.

But No Closure means more than this. It even means more than that some of the occupiers of Our Lady of Mount Carmel have continued vigiling outside their recently closed church.  As Seitz details in his moving epilogue, there is also “no closure” for those who moved, either promptly or eventually, from their closed parishes to new parishes, to Protestant churches, or to no churches at all.  Their complex, braided, modern-premodern-postmodern Catholic experiences are never again going to fold neatly into some clear, essentialized Catholic identity, if in fact they ever did.

This leads to a final meaning of No Closure, the one that is, for me, most moving. From time to time we encounter in the media suggestions that indictment or execution of or even apology from those responsible will bring “closure” to families who have lost loved ones.  Such references too often make mourning sound quick and easy, which, of course, it’s not. Neither will some quick and easy closure bring an end to the mourning of American Catholics, whose losses since Vatican II have been profound, as John Seitz’s fine book makes abundantly evident.

(This review appeared originally in the October 2012 issue of EqualwRites, the newsletter of the Southeastern Pennsylvania Women’s Ordination Conference.)

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