Readers of the print edition of Sunday's New York Times were met with the headline, "On Bowery, Church’s New Focus Leaves a Void for the Needy." Online readers got a similar message: "On the Bowery, Questions About the Catholic Church’s Shifting Mission."
So, how is the Church changing its mission, according to the Times? Is it altering its outreach to the poor?
Well ... maybe.
The Archdiocese of New York has closed down a single social-services center for homeless men, replacing it with an arts center. This, according to Times "Side Street" photo-essayist David Gonzalez, appears to be a sign that the archdiocese is forgoing its mission to the poor in favor of the yuppification of the Lower East Side -- or something. While he does not editorialize in the manner of the Times' headline writers, the message comes through via the people he chooses to narrate the story:
Thus, the story so far:
- A house run by Catholic Worker (which operates independent of the New York Archdiocese) is helping the homeless on the Lower East Side.
- A formerly homeless man who helps the ministry believes that the "hipsters" and "yuppies" who are "infiltrating the neighborhood" and are "gentrifying the neighborhood" want nothing to do with the homeless.
I think it is safe to say that, for most Times readers (even those in the fly-over hinterlands), none of the above is news. But now comes the meat of the story:
Here we have it: A longtime diocesan-funded center for the homeless on the Lower East Side has been repurposed as a hipster haven. Instead of being part of the solution for poor men on the Bowery, the Catholic Church is now part of the problem -- or so it would seem, based on the testimony of Fred Armour, a homeless man who, since the closure of Holy Name, has been reduced to washing himself in the sprinklers at a local park:
The second half of the story focuses upon the efforts of St. Joseph House volunteer Heidi Hynes to convince the Archdiocese to let the homeless take morning showers at the Sheen Center, and the polite rebuffs she has received. She is the only person in the story who is presented as a good Catholic, listening to the Pope and praying a novena:
Finally, as Gonzalez approaches the story's last paragraph, he gives us something approximating a judgment of a "new focus" or "shifting priority" for the Church:
And that's about the size of it. "What is happening on the Bowery," according to the Times, is that "hipsters," "yuppies," and "rich people" are taking over -- and the Catholic Church is hopping on the bandwagon, in defiance of Pope Francis's desire to have a church that is poor and for the poor.
I don't want to be unduly harsh on Gonzalez, an award-winning reporter who, as GR's Mollie Hemingway has noted, has done outstanding religion journalism in the past. But I think his story has a problem akin to that which GR's D. Pulliam described when commenting on another article of his:
The questions I have about Gonzalez's Bowery piece are:
If the demographics of New York City really are changing, as Dolan says, then is the Archdiocese opening up new social-service centers in areas where the numbers of poor are increasing?
Dolan's response to Hynes would seem to indicate that this is the case. Gonzalez doesn't tell us whether he asked the Cardinal for evidence of the Church's response to the demographic shifts. In fact, he doesn't indicate that he even tried to reach Dolan; he only quotes the cardinal's letter to Hynes.
Is there any evidence to show that the Catholic Church is reducing its homeless outreach overall?
The Church's outreach is run by Catholic Charities, which, although part of the Archdiocese, has a separate budget. The last three years of Catholic Charities budgets posted online -- 2010, 2011, and 2012 -- show that the organization's budget for homeless programs remained fairly stable during those years. In 2012, for example, Catholic Charities oversaw $72 million in services for "feeding the hungry and sheltering the homeless," serving 140,000 people.
Is the transformation of Holy Name Center the only instance during the past few years in which a diocesan building has been repurposed for a different Church-sponsored use?
In the past, the Archdiocese has enabled nonprofits such as the Sisters of Life to take over disused convents to give housing to pregnant women in need or who are threatened by domestic violence. Does that sort of repurposing of buildings for charitable use still go on? Or does the Archdiocese now repurpose buildings only to gentify them?
Finally, as a member of the Catholic faithful, I have to ask:
Couldn't Gonzalez find one member of the Sheen Center staff, or one of those "well-dressed" patrons of the center, to give their side of the story?
To paint Hynes as the only Catholic in the story who follows the Pope and prays novenas seems to me a bit disingenuous. Doesn't anyone who is part of the Sheen Center, or patronizes it, have a faith life? Do they see the center as fulfilling any part of Francis's vision for the Church? It's not hard to find quotes from Francis about the need to evangelize through the arts -- Evangelii Gaudium 167, for example.
I'm afraid that, in failing to address any of the above questions, Gonzalez's piece, for all its good intentions, approaches the "gotcha" attitude that former New York Times religion reporter Peter Steinfels observed in CNN's "expose" on archbishops' pricey homes. Your thoughts?