A Cardinal in full -- well, almost

cardinalAs I wrote a few months ago, I appreciate any serious newspaper profile of the local Catholic bishop or cardinal. Not to bash my hometown press unnecessarily, but I don't remember the Bay Area media in the 1980s or '90s ever doing so. And this in a region where not too long ago, the San Francisco bishop could name the city's police chief or captain of the fire department. So I read with interest The Boston Globe's profile of Boston Cardinal Sean O'Malley. Reporter Michael Paulson gave readers a many-sided portrait of O'Malley. Whether his portrait was full, let alone complete, is another question.

One virtue of the story was its presentation of reality from O'Malley's point of view. Paulson sat down with the Cardinal for an interview, and this allowed him to portray O'Malley intimately and on his own terms, which are religious and spiritual. (Check out his blog.) His lede is a good example:

Some bishops would have attended an anniversary celebration. Others would have held a public Mass. Cardinal Sean P. O'Malley skipped town, checked into a monastery, and prayed.

Five years after he was installed as the Roman Catholic archbishop of Boston, O'Malley remains in many ways the most unusual of public figures ... He arrived in Boston on July 30, 2003, confronting, for the third time in his career as a bishop, a diocese thrown into crisis by clergy sexual abuse. But if the situations confronting the Fall River and Palm Beach dioceses had been grim, the situation in Boston was ruinous. So bad, in fact, that when Pope John Paul II asked him to move to Boston, O'Malley unsuccessfully sent a plea to the pope to reconsider.

"I dropped the phone . . . it was quite a shock," O'Malley said in an interview Tuesday. "I did ask him to reconsider, and it came back immediately with, no, this is what he wants you to do."

Another virtue of the story was its summary of O'Malley's accomplishments and problems as Boston's top prelate. Any reporter in Boston might have done the same as Paulson, and if anything Paulson might have underplayed the Cardinal's successes, as O'Malley in his interview mentioned accomplishments not listed in the story.

Yet at least Paulson wrote about O'Malley's record and did so in a serious and fair way. His descriptions conveyed a key truth about Catholic prelates -- their job is primarily administrative, as this passage below illustrates:

He sold the archdiocese's leafy 64-acre campus in Brighton to Boston College, and used the proceeds to settle abuse cases. He closed one-fifth of the parishes, acknowledging that the archdiocese no longer had the worshipers, the priests, or the funds to justify 357 churches, and he closed multiple parochial schools that he said had become too small to survive. He replaced nearly every top manager in the archdiocese, reduced the size of the administrative staff by about one-quarter, spun off eight Catholic high schools, and tried unsuccessfully to sell the Catholic hospitals. He cut administrative spending from $51 million the year before he arrived to $35 million last year, and slashed the annual deficit from $24 million the year he arrived to $2 million last year.

He moved from the traditional archbishops' mansion in Brighton -- which he then sold -- to a shabby rectory in the South End; he traded down the archbishop's car to a Toyota Avalon, and he continues to wear the brown hooded robe and sandals that symbolize the vow of poverty he took as a Capuchin friar.

What the story did not, however, was include many different voices. While it features quotes from two the presidents of two local Catholic colleges, the mayor, a business leader and a national sex-abuse leader, it has none from independent conservative, liberal or traditional Catholics. This absence was evidence of the story's Establishment mindset.

I would have liked to have seen a quote from, say, Philip Lawler, the former editor of the archdiocese's newspaper and author of a well-regarded book on Boston's Catholics, or Ray Flynn, the city's longtime former mayor and former ambassador to the Vatican. What do they think of the Cardinal's administrative, spiritual or political record?

Yet these criticisms are minor. At least this story not only acknowledges that a Catholic Establishment exists, but also seeks to understand its leader.

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