The Archdiocese of Baltimore, the mother ship of American Catholicism and, for more than a century, a refuge for progressive Catholic thinking, has a new archbishop - Edwin Frederick O'Brien, a man who has made no secret of his concerns about gays in the priesthood and one who has spent much of his career ministering to the tradition-oriented U.S. military services.
So the question arises: Are Maryland's liberal Catholics likely to feel less comfortable with their new leader?
The answer, some liberals and conservatives in the archdiocese agree, is that most Catholics are likely to continue to peacefully coexist here, regardless of ongoing debates within the church over practices and politics.
"Whenever a new man comes there is going to be concern," said the Rev. Richard T. Lawrence, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul at 120 N. Front St. in Baltimore.
Lawrence, who runs the oldest Catholic parish church in continuous service in the city, doesn't flinch when described as a liberal. His church runs an outreach program that feeds and finds jobs for the unemployed.
"People were apprehensive about [Cardinal William H.] Keeler when he arrived," Lawrence noted in a phone interview Thursday afternoon, "But he turned out great. Keeler adopted to the Maryland model for accepting diversity that goes back to [the country's first Catholic bishop, John] Carroll.
"Two things most characterize Baltimore's diversity," said Lawrence: "self-confidence that comes from being the mother church and a long tradition of understanding and close relationships with other religions."
Lawrence traces the Baltimore archdiocese's modern liberal heritage back to Cardinal James Gibbons, who headed the church here from 1877 to 1921. Theodore Roosevelt praised his leadership, Lawrence noted.
Indeed, Gibbons was famous for his support of the labor movement in the United States and for teaching a liberal theology.
H.L. Mencken, who reserved his harshest criticism for Christian ministers, wrote in 1921, after Gibbons' death, "More presidents than one sought the counsel of Cardinal Gibbons: he was a man of the highest sagacity, a politician in the best sense. ... He had Rome against him often, but he always won in the end, for he was always right."
In a more recent era, Cardinal Lawrence Shehan, who led the diocese from 1961 to1974, became a leading liberal figure in the American Catholic Church. A native of Baltimore, he banned segregation in all of the diocese's institutions, walked in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 and maintained good relations with Judaism and Eastern Orthodoxy.
He was a leader at the Second Vatican Council, noted for liberalizing church practices and dogma, and condemned the Vietnam War.
Shehan's successor, William Donald Borders, continued Shehan's liberal practices, delegating significant leadership roles to three auxiliary bishops and adding a number of advisory bodies.
Cardinal William H. Keeler, who succeeded Borders and is now retiring, is generally believed to be more traditional in his views, but Lawrence believes he has fostered a spirit of "live and let live" in the archdiocese.
He noted that when Keeler petitioned the Vatican for permission to allow the Latin Mass to be said in a Baltimore church, the liberal St. Vincent's parish council signed a letter of support.
Keeler has done a good job buttressing the church's finances, restoring the historic Baltimore basilica, reaching out to Jewish leaders and representatives of other faiths while avoiding serious damage from scandals like those that have devastated archdioceses in Boston and New York, an array of church leaders agree.
"Keeler did some very good things for the diocese," said the Rev. Michael J. Roach, a more tradition-oriented pastor at St. Bartholomew's Catholic Church in Manchester, Carroll County. "He was betrayed by his health or he would have done a lot more in his last two or three years."
Most Baltimore Catholics are fairly conservative, Roach asserted in a telephone interview Thursday. "Baltimore's establishment is a liberal establishment but most churchgoers are fairly orthodox. It's a straight city."
Roach sees O'Brien as a seasoned church leader who is unlikely to be carried away in his new role. "I'm not sure this man is strong on charm," he said, "but he wouldn't have the job if he were likely to become a dictator."
The church here will become more conservative, Roach predicts, as older, liberal priests retire and younger, more conservative priests take their place.
Some liberal Catholics hope O'Brien will take a more active role in promoting peace and social justice, in Baltimore and nationally.
Chuck Michaels, who was archdiocesan coordinator for justice and peace under Borders from 1982 to 1986, notes that Keeler eliminated that position in 1989.
"I would agree with those who are concerned about the perceived shift of the Catholic hierarchy toward more traditional politically conservative positions," Michaels said Thursday. "but there are larger issues overshadowing those concerns.
"I would hope that any new arrival to this position would commit himself to well-established church policies on peace and justice going all the way back to Pacem in Terris [a famous human rights encyclical issued by Pope John XXIII] and echoed by American bishops' pastorals going back 25 to 30 year on everything from nuclear policy to racial justice to cultural violence to economics and immigration policy."
Michaels, who is now Baltimore coordinator for Pax Christi, a liberal Catholic advocacy group, said he wishes the new archbishop well. He added that in his personal view O'Brien would do well to reestablish a justice and peace office to help promote long-standing church views on social issues.