When Catholic Leaders Abandon the Faithful

Earlier this year I warned that New York City’s centuries-old St. Patrick’s Day parade up 5th Avenue could soon be shut down for violating the human rights of gay groups. It never occurred to me that the parade’s organizers would unilaterally surrender the issue.

A political and public relations battle has raged for decades between the parade’s organizers—with historic ties to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-Catholic fraternal organization—and groups which sought to march in the parade under banners proclaiming their sexual preferences. I thought the city’s progressive politicians would work to scuttle the parade’s legal basis by revoking permits and forbidding public workers such as police and firefighters to participate in the annual celebration of New York City’s patron saint. Wednesday’s announcement that the parade committee had caved and would let openly gay groups march under their own banners spared them that effort.

By now it’s common knowledge that the Catholic Church does not select who marches or otherwise have an official role in running the parade. But March 17 is a feast day on the Christian calendar set aside for celebrating and commemorating the holy life of Saint Patrick. The parade begins with a Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the seat of the archbishop of New York and the mother church of an archdiocese comprising 368 parishes and 2.6 million Catholics. This year, in a vexing display of political naiveté, the parade will actually be led by New York archbishop Timothy Cardinal Dolan, recent former president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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Suffice to say it’s a very Catholic parade. But for decades, New York’s Catholic leaders—including John Cardinal O’Connor and Edward Cardinal Egan—implored the faithful to stand tall and support the parade committee’s unpopular policy on the grounds that the parade is, and should remain, a non-political celebration of the Irish Catholic experience in New York. Hence, no pro-life banners, no pro-gay banners, no 9/11 truther banners, no anti-globalization banners—none of that.

Now, apparently, they’ve changed their minds.

My mother used to say, “There’s no sense in being Irish if you ain’t thick.” I guess I’m pretty Irish, because it never occurred to me that Cardinal Dolan—who once said of non-faithful Catholic politicians, “I am a pastor. I don’t want to embarrass you and you don’t want to embarrass me”—would, in the end, embarrass those faithful Catholics of his archdiocese and beyond who supported the parade committee’s staunch insistence that the event was no place for political posturing. I confess to being pretty confused. I thought the Church wanted us to stand for something. I thought we were told we’d be universally hated on account of Jesus’ name.

Ah well. Times change, I guess.

What really burned me up, though, was Dolan’s declaration at his press conference accepting the job of grand marshal. “I have no trouble with the decision at all,” he said, as if nothing of consequence had been heatedly debated over the past several decades. “I think the decision is a wise one,” he added. Aren’t those of us who put ourselves out on a limb to defend this parade owed a slightly more robust explanation of what happened than that? If Cardinal Dolan’s thinking on this subject has evolved, could he possibly enlighten those of us who view him as the de facto leader of the American church as to the reason why?

Absent an explanation, we get to hear the New York Times call the decision to drop the ban “a measure of changing attitudes in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church.” I’m not sure how they know that, but I do know that a great many faithful Catholics in New York City and across the country are feeling now like they got left holding the bag. How many of us defended the parade committee’s stance over the years, both in public and in private, only to have them suddenly and without warning reverse course? How many of us have suffered being called bigots and worse for supporting the parade’s historic Catholic identity only to have local Church leaders suddenly do an about-face and give blessing to the demands of crude, libelous, and disingenuous activist groups?

The Times reported that NBC/Universal, whose contract to air the parade on television expires next year, pressured the parade’s organizers to allow a group of its gay employees to march under a gay-themed banner. Reports had it that last year Guinness similarly withdrew its sponsorship of the parade.

So—what’s a faithful Catholic to conclude—it all comes down to money? If that’s true, I can’t think of anything more disheartening for an American Catholic community beaten down by six years of relentless attacks by the president and his HHS mandate, decades of relentless scrutiny stemming from the sexual abuse scandals, and a dominant culture intent on painting us as insensitive, backward, hate-mongers.

How many more lumps are we expected to take before our spiritual leaders demonstrate some commitment to principle? Why do we have to lose all the time?

In 2010, on the occasion of his first St. Patrick’s Day as archbishop of New York, Cardinal Dolan wrote a letter to the archdiocese. In it, he noted that the feast “should be a day of particular prayer” as well as “a good occasion to look at how we are living the Catholic faith that has been handed on to us by so many generations.”

A good occasion indeed.

(Photo credit: NYPD march in the 2014 St. Patrick’s Day parade with gay protest banner in background / David McGlynn.)


  • Matthew Hennessey

    Matthew Hennessey is a writer from New Canaan, CT, and a graduate of Hunter College and Fordham University. You can follow him on Twitter @matthennessey.

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