Reclaiming America’s cathedral

St. Patrick’s is, arguably, the most famous Catholic cathedral in the United States. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is, arguably, the most beautiful. But Baltimore’s Old Cathedral, now the Basilica of the Assumption, is indisputably the most historic.

It was conceived by Archbishop John Carroll, the founder of the American hierarchy, whose diocese originally encompassed the entire United States. Archbishop Carroll wanted the first Catholic cathedral in the new republic to embody the nation’s commitment to religious freedom and turned to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol (and son of a Moravian minister), the leading architectural practitioner of the day. Latrobe designed the building to be bathed in light; Thomas Jefferson may have helped inspire Latrobe’s design of the Old Cathedral’s unique double-dome and skylights. Like similar projects down through the ages, the Baltimore Cathedral was originally financed by a lottery; and as luck would have it, Archbishop Carroll, reaching into hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lottery tickets to choose the winner, picked his own ticket — and promptly gave his winnings back to the building fund. (Nary an eyebrow was raised.)

In the most extensive Catholic exercise in conciliar decision-making between Trent and Vatican I, the bishops of the United States met in seven provincial and three plenary councils during the 19th

century; every one of those councils began and ended in the Baltimore Cathedral. Thus the Old Cathedral saw the bishops legislate to met the needs of immigrants, erect the parish system, mandate parochial schools, launch the Catholic University of America, and commission the famous Baltimore Catechism, which taught generations of Catholics the basics of their faith. No other Catholic edifice in America can claim to have seen so much history made within its walls.

My own experience of the Old Cathedral began early: when I was 6, to be precise, and began attending the Cathedral School, just across Mulberry Street from the great building. Under Latrobe’s magnificent dome I made my first Communion; under that same dome I graduated from college; my son was baptized in the Old Cathedral in 1987. But the building I first knew as a boy was not the building Carroll and Latrobe had planned. Years of leaks in the dome — caused, it now seems, by imprudent fiddling with the innovative drainage system Latrobe had devised — led to the skylights being removed after World War II. Two redecorations, however well intended, made the Old Cathedral a dark, shadowy place, rather than the living symbol of the light of religious freedom Carroll wanted and Latrobe provided. There was no access from the interior of the building to what should have been one of the great Catholic shrines in America: the crypt, where such giants as Carroll, Archbishop Martin John Spaulding, and James Cardinal Gibbons are buried.

All of that is now changing, as Baltimore’s Old Cathedral is undergoing a massive restoration, the completion of which will be marked with appropriate ceremony in November. The dome’s skylights are back, and their restoration, combined with a brave decision to restore the original plain glass to the basilica’s windows, will let 21st-century Americans experience the luminosity that Carroll and Latrobe intended. The rear of the apse will now open into the crypt, so that 21st-century Catholics can pay their respects to the men who laid the foundations of Catholicism in America. The Old Cathedral’s decorations and furnishings will follow Latrobe’s original plans, so that for the first time in a very long time, pilgrims, parishioners, and visitors will experience this religious and architectural gem as it was intended to be.

A restoration project of this magnitude — which includes modernizing all the Old Cathedral’s operating systems — is enormously expensive. And as the Basilica of the Assumption belongs, in a sense, to every Catholic in America, the thought occurs that many Catholics today might want to participate in its restoration to glory. If, as we begin Lent 2006, you would like to help reclaim the most historic Catholic building in America, go to, or mail your tax-deductible contribution to the Basilica Historic Trust, 408 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21201.

COMING UP: Sin, suicide and the perfect mercy of God

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I love my hair stylist. 

She’s a devoted Christian. So, when I see her, we tend to have much deeper discussions than the usual gossipy hair stylist sessions. And, because it’s a small shop, the discussions often branch out to the other people within earshot, waiting for their appointments or waiting for their color to process. Because she tends to attract a smart and faithful clientele, the discussion is always interesting. 

Yesterday, at my bimonthly appointment, we somehow got onto the topic of suicide — specifically, the insidious way that it spreads among teenagers. One suicide often leads to another, which leads to another. I made the comment “It is demonic.” 

At that point, a woman in the waiting area chimed in. “I disagree. I’m Catholic. It used to be a mortal sin, but they changed it. It’s not any more. It’s mental illness.” 

If a nice Catholic lady at my hair salon could be confused about this, I figured perhaps some of you out there may be as well. Which made me think perhaps it’s time for a little review on the nature of sin — both in general, and specifically as it applies to suicide. 

First, sin in general. The fundamental point here is that the Catholic Church has no power to decide what is a sin and what isn’t. It’s not like there’s a committee that meets periodically to review the list of sins, and decide if any need to be promoted from venial to mortal, or demoted from mortal to venial, or dropped from the list entirely. 

Sins are sins because they are outside of God’s will. And they are outside of God’s will because they have the potential to do tremendous damage to people created in His image and likeness, whom He loves. We know they are sins because it was revealed to us in Scripture, or it has been handed down from the time of Christ in sacred tradition. Sometimes the Church must apply these timeless, God-given principles to new situations, to determine the morality of technologies undreamt of in ancient times. 

The Church has the authority to do that because she received it from Christ, her bridegroom. And once she does declare on a subject, we believe it is done through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, who is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. So the Church isn’t going to change her mind. Something can’t be a sin, and then suddenly NOT be a sin. 

“But,” you ask. “What about eating meat on Friday? That was a sin, and now it isn’t.” This is an example of a discipline of the Church. Eating meat has never, in itself, been an objectively sinful behavior — on Fridays or any other day. But the Church was calling us, as Jesus calls us, to do penance. And the Church selected that penance as something we could all, as a Church, do together. The sin was never in the ingestion of the meat. It was in disobeying the Church in this matter. This particular discipline has been dropped. But it doesn’t change our obligation to in some way do penance for our sins and the sins of the world. 

Now, on to suicide. It is obvious that something must have changed in the teachings of the Church. Because, in the olden days, a person who committed suicide couldn’t be buried with a Catholic funeral Mass. And now they can. So what gives? 

Here’s the situation. Taking innocent human life is always a grave evil. (I add the “innocent” qualifier to distinguish this discussion from one about self defense, or about the death penalty — which in a sense is self defense. But those are separate discussions.) God is the author of life, and it is He who decides when our lives will end. To usurp that power always has been, and always will be, a grave moral evil. 

But there is an important distinction we must understand. There is the objective gravity of the sin — the nature of it, and the great damage done by it. Then there is the question of the individual’s moral culpability of that sin. In other words: a great evil was done. But is the person who did it liable to judgment for it? Or were there extenuating circumstances that mean that, while the evil was indeed done, the person who did it was somehow functioning in a diminished capacity that reduces or eliminates their moral responsibility? 

For a person to be culpable for a mortal sin, three conditions must be met. First, the objective act must be gravely sinful. Second and third, the person committing the sin must do so with full knowledge of the sinfulness of the act, and full consent of the will. In the question of suicide, we have learned to much about the psychological condition of a person driven to such a horrible deed. The instinct to self preservation is strong. In order to overcome it, the mental and/or physical suffering is frequently very intense. There may even be, as my friend at the salon mentioned, mental illness involved. All of this can drastically reduce a person’s mental and intellectual capacity to make rational decisions. 

And so, while an objectively horrifying act has occurred, God may very well have tremendous mercy on that person’s soul, given the extreme states of agitation and pain that led up to the act. 

Know that I write all of this as someone who has lost one beloved relative and several friends to suicide. And I am tremendously optimistic in my hope that they are with God. Not because they didn’t do something terrible, or that what they did was somehow justified. But because the God who loves them sees their hearts, and knows that pain and suffering can drive people to acts they wouldn’t possibly consider while in their “right” minds. 

And this is why the Church offers the Rite of Christian Burial to those who die by suicide. Because they need the prayers. And their families need the comfort. And because the Church, too, believes in that the God who embodies perfect justice also embodies perfect mercy. 

And we live in great hope that they are with Him.