When an historic meeting on the future of the Roman Catholic Church ended last month, Pope Francis talked about a “dream” church, one with open doors that welcomed everyone without judgment.
Right now, a church like that is only a dream. But it’s one to which Jack Connors, the longtime Boston power broker and philanthropist, can relate. At 81, Connors believes in the power of the church to do good things. But to survive and grow, Connors also believes the church must change. Priests should be able to marry, he told me in a recent interview. Women should be able to serve as priests. The sacrament of marriage should be open to all Catholics, no matter their sexuality. The church should be there “for everyone,” he said.
Those thoughts come from someone who has both challenged the church establishment and been part of it. Twenty years ago, Connors, a confidante of then-Cardinal Bernard Law, called him out for his role in protecting pedophile priests. Earlier this month, Connors was celebrated alongside Cardinal Sean O’Malley for essentially rescuing Catholic education in Greater Boston. And now he’s speaking up for transformative change, at a time when the battle over how far it should go rages on between Pope Francis and the keepers of the status quo.
The October meetings on the church’s future, known as a Synod of Bishops, began with great promise, since for the first time lay people, including women, were invited to participate. But it ended without clear positions taken on controversial topics like women deacons and the status of the LGBTQ community. Afterward, Francis approved a Vatican document that stipulates that transgender people can be baptized, serve as godparents, and be witnesses at church weddings. And just a few days ago, Francis removed one of his biggest critics, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, from that post.
Strickland’s firing came after the pope noted the resistance he faces from conservative Catholic leaders in the United States, telling an August gathering of Jesuit priests in Portugal, “I want to remind these people that backwardness is useless, and they must understand that there’s a correct evolution in the understanding of questions of faith and morals.”
With that papal sentiment, Connors also agrees. “I think the Pope and I are on the same page. I think the Catholic Church in America has gone too far to the right,” he said. Those conservative bishops, he added, “need to be inspired by what Francis said a few years ago. ‘Who am I to judge?’ He’s the pope. If he didn’t need to judge, why do local bishops like the one in Worcester need to impose their conservative will?”
Does it matter what Connors thinks? It did 20 years ago — up to a point. After it became clear that his support system was crumbling, Law resigned. But he was also given a post in the Vatican, which he kept until he died. Since then, the church has taken steps to address the clergy abuse scandal, but is still dogged by it.
Yet Connor still believes in the church’s ability to transform itself. “I think if the church stopped and looked at itself, [church leaders] would understand it’s on the way to what the Catholic churches are, in general, in Europe. They are museums,” he said. On one hand, he views the need for change from a private sector perspective. “In the business world, whether it’s Nike or Budweiser or Coca-Cola, it exists for a period of time. But then something else comes along and takes its place,” he added. “... Change and adaptation are critical.”
But change is also the path to a church that better understands its mission, said Connors. For example, he suggests closing the seminaries and have future priests study at universities: “Why don’t they not have to be together with just the boys for four years? Why don’t they be with people? Because they’re being trained to serve people. So why don’t they train them in the environment in which they will eventually serve?”
As Connors acknowledges, no one has asked him to design a future church. “But in my church, men and women will be equal,” he said “Today, in my church, women are second class and gays need not apply, even though many of the priests are gay.” If that basic model doesn’t change, he said, “they’ll send more and more people away, when they are supposed to be bringing them in.”
Pope Francis described his dream church as one that “welcomes, serves, loves, forgives; a church with open doors that is a haven of mercy.” To those who support that dream, every voice in favor of it is welcome. To those who oppose it, every voice in favor of it is a threat. Can Connors work from the inside to soften the resistance to change that divides the church? That will be harder than forcing out a cardinal or turning around a Catholic school system.