In 2004, following an extended period of data collection, interviews and meetings among practicing Catholics, financial reviews and strategic planning, the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Boston announced plans to shut down sixty-five of its remaining 357 parishes; in the eighteen preceding years, some forty-five parishes (more than half of them “national,” that is, ethnic parishes) had already been closed or consolidated. The 2004 decision turned even more draconian when seventeen more parishes were added to the list in a few weeks’ time. The official spin from the archdiocese was that Boston’s Catholics were being asked to do what their forebears had done in the heroic age of church-building: make sacrifices for the greater good, with an eye to the future.
No Closure gives an account of the handful of parishes that resisted the hierarchy’s decisions—resisted to the point of physically occupying the church buildings literally for years. John Seitz, a church historian at Fordham University who lives in the Boston area, undertook extensive ethnographic fieldwork in the resisting parishes, eventually taking on the role of an occupier himself at Our Lady of Mount Carmel parish in East Boston on a number of occasions.
Surprisingly, over the course of this substantial book, the testimony of the vigilers themselves is relatively soft-pedaled. Even when we do hear from them, there is little that impresses a reader: the transcribed interviews and the like are seldom inspiring, or for that matter, even very articulate. Just the same, parishioners who might have fumbled to explain their motivations to Seitz were resolute in their commitment—as one would expect of people who spent up to five years sleeping on floors and squatting in church buildings in defiance of their church. Nor was there a clear ideological tilt; some vigilers were extreme liberals, some were reactionary conservatives. All were conscious of need to present themselves as faithful Catholics.
Perhaps most surprising, despite the non-stop headlines of the time—and for that matter, despite the introductory paragraph on the book’s dust jacket that links the events—the sexual abuse scandals in the Boston archdiocese constitutes only a minor theme in the narrative. Seitz provides some jaw-dropping numbers about the dire financial state of the diocese, but the sale of properties was no windfall. The most damning discovery was the report that, although the archdiocese insisted that [End Page 826] the closures were part of a strategic plan and not primarily a cost-cutting measure, at least some of the monies raised would in fact go to pay legal settlements, or to staunch the hemorrhaging of funds exacerbated by the scandals.
And yet, this inequity does not seem to have outraged the vigilers. At points, some characterized the parish closings as a “second abuse.” But the overriding sense was not of being victimized, but of being neglected: they saw the church hierarchy as turning its back on the experience of those in the pews. That lived experience anchored itself in places.
Seitz tracks a significant shift in Catholic thinking about place in the wake of the Second Vatican Council in the early 1960s. Before the council, the physical structure of the parish was “not just a place where people gathered to worship, but was ‘the Church in miniature,’ ‘a family’…for U.S. Catholics the parish was the beating heart of the tradition.” Post-council, Catholic teaching de-emphasized places and stressed “the people of God,” a universal community that extended across time and rose above the purely local. In this model, the exalted particularity of any parish was subtly, or not so subtly, diminished. Church buildings and the objects they housed were no longer seen as “unique sites for contact with efficacious sacred presence,” but instead as “simply the ‘house of the church’.”
What was not foreseen is that the Catholics in the pews—most of whom welcomed the post-Vatican II changes, and welcomed its corollary of a greater voice for the laity in their own religious practices—continued to...