A Tale of Three Centers

Transparency is more appealing in concept than in practice—at least as it applies to backstage doings at the Sheen Center.

Judging from email responses, the Sheen is a great yawn to readers of First Things. No grand Truth is at risk in the matter. No heady policy positions. The only truths in play are those gnarled and spotted ones of human designs. Besides, mention of co-founder and erstwhile director Michael Hull points to disagreeable details better left in the dark. Do we need another scandal? Let’s not feed anti-Catholicism. Please, can’t we all just stick to the smiling aspect of things?

Scene from The Way of the World (1901). Museum of the City of New York.
Scene from The Way of the World (1901). Museum of the City of New York.

Yes, of course we can. And we do. The genteel tradition persists bi-weekly in Catholic New York. House organ of the New York Archdiocese, the sheet is an amiable blend of public relations and parlor talk. Reading it reminds me of Sinclair Lewis’ description of William Dean Howells: “He had the code of a pious old maid whose greatest delight was to have tea at the vicarage.” If Catholic New York were really a newspaper, it would lift the fog of picturesque edifications long enough to inquire into the Sheen’s costs and—most interesting—its original intentions.

Apparently, Cardinal Dolan inherited the Sheen project from his predecessor. Cardinal Egan and his protégé Msgr. Hull purportedly collaborated on the original concept, with the chancery in the loop. If what I am told is accurate, plans initially included a permanent space for the Gianna Center for Women’s Health and Fertility.

A pro-life clinic founded in 2009 by family physician Anne Nolte, the Gianna opened under the sponsorship of St. Vincent’s Hospital. Its prenatal care programs provide medical support to the region’s crisis pregnancy centers. As its name suggests, it also aids women seeking to conceive or to practice Church-approved family planning methods..

When St. Vincent’s declared bankruptcy in 2010 the Gianna lost its angel and needed lower cost space than it already occupied in mid-town. The Sheen, still taking shape, was a likely place to house the sponsorless Gianna. No such accommodation happened.

Illustration for Theatre World (September 1927) by Bovey.
Illustration for Theatre World (September 1927) by Bovey.

Hosting the Gianna would have been an inspired use of archdiocesan property. Why? Because the Sheen, at 18 Bleecker Street, is next door to the Margaret Sanger Center, a prominent Planned Parenthood division at 26 Bleecker.

What happened to that reputed first intention? Are reports of it accurate? Or does the truth lie in claims that the Sheen meant only to provide temporary housing for the Gianna Center? Or maybe not at all? The story gets murky. All that is clear is that the Sheen arrived strictly devoted to the performing arts. And Gianna, committed to live performances of another kind, has found a new sponsor in St. Peter’s University Hospital, New Brunswick, and is again operating at its initial location on 40th Street just off Fifth Avenue.

This past January, Cardinal Dolan appointed Dr. Nolte to his Pro-Life Committee. Was the appointment a consolation prize of sorts? Last week, the cardinal presided over a fundraising gala at the New York Athletic Club to kick-start the Gianna’s regeneration uptown.

Illustration for Theatre World (January 1926) by Bovey.
Illustration for Theatre World (January 1926) by Bovey.

Lord Acton was as hostile to secrecy-on-high as to the corrupting influence of power. Addressing his cautions to the Church, he descried bureaucratic secretiveness on grounds that it degenerates keepers of the secret: “Nothing is safe that does not show how it can bear discussion and publicity.” Good will—what Santayana called “the great American virtue”—is not enough.

At stake in the evolution of the Sheen Center is the way the chancery oversees and uses the monies it solicits from you and me. The archdiocese is obliged to account for its management of parishioner donations. Disclosure to donors is a moral obligation that is especially keen while parishes are being closed or merged. At the same time, transparency would help distinguish between the demands of evangelization and the ambitions of men seeking a stage.

I am caught here in futile wondering about the road not taken. Gianna’s presence within the Sheen could have placed a damper on the Sheen’s rental income. It might also have saved lives. Saved some, touched or unsettled others. It would have witnessed—in stone—to alternatives to the abortion “services” offered by the friendly, caring staff next door. (The Margaret Sanger Center has recently expanded its hours. The Sheen, meanwhile, set about re-renovating its theater space as soon as it opened.)

Transparency is its own justification. The men who instruct us in Truth cannot be slippery about lesser truths on which so much depends. Credibility is the linchpin of evangelization, now as ever. There is nothing new about it.