Don’t Let the Door Hit You, Your Eminence, on the Way Out

040207 article gibson Don’t Let the Door Hit You, Your Eminence, on the Way OutBy this Monday, on the occasion of his 75th birthday, Cardinal Edward Michael Egan, Archbishop of New York and the 12th man to occupy the cathedra of St. Patrick’s in the 200-year history of the diocese, will send the Pope an official request to be relieved of his duties.

The resignation is, as Cardinal Egan himself concedes, “a form letter,” a mundane bit of curial paperwork mandated by the Code of Canon Law. Pope Benedict XVI will take the letter under consideration, and will let Cardinal Egan know when Rome has chosen a suitable successor. Sit tight till we call.

Still, no amount of routine can quash the pervasive sense that Cardinal Egan’s departure, and the prospect of a new leader of the 2.5-million-strong tribe that is New York Catholicism, is a milestone.

As the chief authority in the archdiocese, answerable only to the Pope, an archbishop really can change things, and thus an imminent transition rekindles long-frustrated hopes. The next archbishop will finally hear our pleas, the thinking goes, and enact our agenda, and in the process restore the church to some dimly remembered but undoubtedly brilliant former grandeur.

What makes the current anticipation that much greater is that Cardinal Egan himself is so unpopular. Never an inspiring or even lukewarm persona in the best of times, Cardinal Egan still might charitably have been judged a cipher to much of New York until late last year, when he picked a nasty fight with his priests.

The dispute was touched off by an anonymous letter ostensibly written by a so-called “Committee of Concerned Clergy,” who ripped Cardinal Egan as an “arrogant and cavalier” churchman who had abdicated the public bully pulpit entrusted to him because of his “unnatural fear of the media.” It called on the priests to issue a vote of “no confidence” in his leadership and on the Vatican to replace him posthaste.

Most pastors would have tossed the letter in the trash and moved on. But, in the ensuing series of meetings and rebukes and letters of seigniorial self-justification, Cardinal Egan effectively confirmed every ugly tale told about him.

“Egan is all prelate,” said a former church official who came out on the short end of one of the cardinal’s power plays. “Which is why he’s such a shitty priest.”

And so, just months away from slipping off into a comfortable retirement, Cardinal Egan instead treated the city to a full monty of his inner demons. And he continued to live down to his reputation, using heavy-handed tactics during delicate parish closings in February and ensuring that if New York Catholics weren’t anxious to see him leave before, they were more than eager to show him the door now.

BUT EVEN AS RELIEF OVER CARDINAL EGAN’S departure grows apace with perfervid speculation over his successor, it might be useful to ask a more far-reaching question: Can any cardinal of New York—the “Archbishop of the Capital of the World,” as Pope John Paul II once called the job—restore the glory days?

Other religions in the city may have had more prominence (Judaism) or more wealth (Episcopalianism) per capita. But none had the sheer size and clout and hard-earned respect of the Catholic Church. So are we witnessing the end of New York Catholicism as we knew it?

The short answer is yes.

“I don’t think the Catholic Church will ever occupy that prominent position again,” said Notre Dame’s emeritus professor Jay Dolan, the dean of American church historians. “It’s lost it.”

The longer answer may be: “Good.”

The reasons for the decline and fall of imperial Catholicism in New York are manifold and, at least for the foreseeable future, irreversible.

First off is the well-documented transformation of Catholicism in the wake of the upheavals of the 1960’s and the simultaneous reforms of the Second Vatican Council. Whereas close to three-quarters of all Catholics used to attend Mass weekly, that observance disappeared along with a compact enclave culture. If the “pray, pay and obey” descriptor of American Catholics was overdrawn before, it is, as they say, no longer operable, especially among the generation of Catholics that will come of age under the next New York cardinal.

Along with the spread of this so-called “cafeteria Catholicism” also came the breakdown of the political consensus that once lent the term “Catholic bloc” real heft. For more than a century, American Catholics have constituted the largest denomination group by far (now closing in on 65 million)—about a quarter of the voting electorate. And for much of that time, they voted reliably Democratic, especially in the big cities like New York.

Today, however, Catholics are as likely to vote Republican as Democrat, and, in fact, Catholics are often battling each other over almost anything. Once, Catholics presented a united and formidable front against a regnant and hostile Protestant society. Now, a culture of dispute and disagreement has displaced one of communion and consensus.

Moreover, there is really no one who could deliver the Catholic vote, even if it existed.

It is easy to see past churchmen, like the fearsome 19th-century bishop “Dagger John” Hughes, or the 20th century’s quintessential ecclesiastical operator, Cardinal Francis Spellman, as exemplars of what a real New York prelate was, should be and could be again. But those men reigned over a world that no longer exists.

Even the more recently departed Cardinal John O’Connor died in 2000, the year before the clergy sexual-abuse scandals broke, a “Long Lent” that has drained whatever influence the hierarchy had left. “Having your picture taken with a bishop these days is a liability,” said Mr. Dolan.

ALL OF THIS IS WELL KNOWN. What has often gone unremarked upon—perhaps because the trend is so tectonic, perhaps because the soaring infrastructure of New York Catholicism continues to fill our field of vision—is that the center of gravity in American Catholicism has been shifting away from traditional power sees in the Northeast and Midwest and toward the South and West. The migration largely mirrors the overall population migration in the country, but it is especially pronounced in the Catholic Church.

For example, while the Catholic population of New York grew in the past quarter-century from 1.8 million to 2.5 million, that 28 percent increase barely kept pace with the nationwide rise in the number of Catholics, and it pales in contrast to the huge spikes elsewhere.

The Archdiocese of Los Angeles, for one, has more than doubled, from two million to 4.4 million Catholics, cementing its pole position among dioceses.

On top of that, shortly after his election two years ago, Pope Benedict named the Archbishop of San Francisco, William Levada, to fill the slot that the Pope vacated at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome. Not only is Cardinal Levada the highest-ranking Yank ever in the Roman Curia, but he has a major say in picking bishops for the U.S. church, and has shown that he favors the people he knows from the West Coast.

Yes, the next Archbishop of New York will surely be made a cardinal in due course. But he may not have the cachet that was a divine right of his predecessors.

In church terms, New York and other urban centers in the Northeast look like the Rust Belt of American Catholicism, a “mature industry” focused on the painful process of downsizing. There is, of course, wealth and vibrancy in Catholic New York—the archdiocese remains America’s fourth-largest and comprises more than 400 parishes stretching from Sullivan County to Staten Island.

But much of that is dispersing to the suburbs, where the dynamics are far different than in an earlier era. Not so long ago, Catholic New Yorkers used to identify themselves by their parish rather than by their neighborhood. Now they often pack up their car on Sundays to drive to the church of their choice.

Moreover, the practice of the faith in New York fares poorly in comparison to other places. In 1980, for instance, New York priests baptized more babies (31,000) than they did in 2005 (28,000), despite the 28 percent rise in the Catholic population. That decline runs across the board: There were nearly 10,000 church marriages in 1980, and under 6,000 in 2005; there are fewer children under Catholic instruction today, and far fewer nuns to teach them, and the number of priests has declined from 2,700 to just over 1,500.

FINALLY, AND PERHAPS MOST DOLEFULLY to the longstanding self-perception of New York Catholics, the Irish who were the architects of the golden age of Catholicism here and in much of the nation are giving way to a variegated, truly universal Catholic Church that will be more Hispanic than Irish, more devotional than dogmatic, more populist than hierarchical.

The Irish who dominated American Catholicism were able to do so for so long in large part because they got here first and staked their claim with a “bricks and mortar” Catholic infrastructure and a tribal pride that had been honed by terrible persecutions at the hands of the English. Irish Catholics were Mass-and-sacraments folk whose lives revolved around the parish. They derided the Italians as Catholics who went to church three times in their lives—to “hatch, match and dispatch.” Otherwise, Southern European Catholicism was all about street processions and popular devotions that the diligent Irish saw as kin to superstition.

Irish Catholics, on the other hand, brought their own priests with them—and kept bringing them. In 1900, two-thirds of the U.S. hierarchy was of Irish descent, and in 1970 the Irish still accounted for half of all U.S. bishops, according to Mr. Dolan of Notre Dame.

In that world, New York’s cardinal was king. No longer. The archdiocese has had only one non-Irish leader (a Frenchman who died in 1842), and the odds are strong for another Irishman to follow Cardinal Egan.

But times are changing. Much of the Irish “aristocracy” that supported New York Catholicism has moved to the ’burbs, and the same trends of disaffiliation that afflict the rest of the church are at work among Irish Catholics as well. For generations, New York Catholics wanted nothing more than to assimilate, and now they’ve gotten what they prayed for.

So is all of this such a bad thing?

“It’s a natural development that’s healthy,” argued Christopher Bellitto, a church historian at Kean University in New Jersey. “One could argue that the collapse in power is the salvation of the church.”

In the new era, New York Catholics—and their new leaders—will be gauged by the depth of their spirituality and the ability to get along with each other, rather than by their reflexive piety and parochial loyalties.

“It does call for an archbishop who can accept a different kind of a role,” said Monsignor Harry Byrne, who was ordained as a priest in New York over 60 years ago. “This is an entirely different deck of cards that we have, and they have.”

It won’t be easy to navigate this new world, but Monsignor Byrne, like many other veterans of the archdiocese, sees the challenges and changes as providential. “We can’t go back to the old days, but it is important to try to let the tensions co-exist peacefully,” he said. “The only thing without tension is a corpse.”

David Gibson is the author of The Rule of Benedict: Pope Benedict XVI and His Battle with the Modern World.