Monday, September 04, 2006

La Dolce Vita for Cardinal Law?

In this month’s Boston Magazine there is an article about Bernard Cardinal Law, the former Cardinal of Boston, titled Our Man in Rome, by Francis X. Rocca. Some excerpts:
In his new home, Bernard Cardinal Law has built a pretty comfortable life for himself, presiding over a stunning basilica, mingling with admirers—and enjoying as much power as ever...

Nearly four years removed from the clergy sex-abuse crisis that finally forced him to resign as archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Law remains a highly respected member of the Catholic Church’s hierarchy in Rome. As archpriest of St. Mary Major, he runs one of the Eternal City’s four patriarchal basilicas, a post that offers him a worthy setting in which to express his well-known flair for liturgical ceremony. The church, which features a special altar reserved for the use of the pope, predates the fall of the Roman empire and contains 15 centuries’ worth of priceless art. Surely the man who raised a $1.5 million private donation to refurbish Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross appreciates the privilege of offering Mass surrounded by fifth-century mosaics and an ornate ceiling that is said to have been gilded with the first haul of ore Columbus brought back from the New World...

In December 2002, few would have predicted that Cardinal Law would have any future at all in Rome. Days after his resignation as archbishop of Boston, sources told John Allen, senior correspondent in Rome for the National Catholic Reporter, that a Vatican assignment was unlikely for someone so “politically wounded.” Some critics even called for Law to resign from the college of cardinals, something that had not occurred since 1927.

Law’s first position after leaving Boston hardly augured continued prominence within the Church: He became chaplain of a convent in Clinton, Maryland, trading stewardship of an archdiocese of 2.1 million Catholics for the company of a few nuns. The obscure job seemed intended both to humble him and to remove him from the public eye; though the convent was located in a suburb of Washington, DC, the cardinal was rarely seen in that city or Boston during the following year. He did not attend the installation of his successor, Archbishop Seán Patrick O’Malley, in July 2003. That November, for the first time in years, he skipped the semiannual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

But the cardinal was hardly in seclusion. During those same months he made several trips to Rome, attending a historic Latin Mass at St. Mary Major as well as a Mass in St. Peter’s Square. A few weeks later, Law met with the pope—his first official audience since his resignation. On these sojourns, he also attended meetings of some of the Holy See’s highest administrative and policy-making bodies.

In retrospect, it’s not surprising the Vatican was unwilling to let the cardinal fade into irrelevance. Law had long been known as one of Pope John Paul II’s favorite American prelates, and though the ailing pontiff reportedly made few decisions for himself near the end of his life, his small circle of advisers clearly thought that the former archbishop of Boston deserved more dignified employment.

When the St. Mary Major appointment became official in May 2004, Law’s Boston critics blasted the move, accusing the Vatican of callousness at best, and at worst of rewarding Law’s efforts to cover up for predator priests. Few laypeople were convinced the cardinal had properly atoned for his sins. One abuse victim told the Globe: “I can’t even explain to you the pit I felt in my stomach.”

It was not only the position’s prestige that aroused objections, but the luxury that reportedly went with it. Internet chatter described the archpriest’s apartment, housed in a building attached to the basilica’s south side, as “palatial,” with “frescoes on the wall.” Those who’ve visited say the space consists of six or seven nicely appointed rooms—a far cry from the four-story mansion on Commonwealth Avenue that Law lived in here, but nonetheless a decent spread in the Esquilino neighborhood, where real estate easily runs upward of $400 per square foot….

Law again sparked controversy back in Boston the following April, when he celebrated a memorial Mass for Pope John Paul II in St. Peter’s Basilica. Many American Catholics were outraged to see Law so front and center. “We don’t believe it’s appropriate for him to be in any position of power or trust in the Church,” said Barbara Blaine of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests to reporters in St. Peter’s Square at the time of that Mass. “If things had happened differently in the United States, he might well have landed himself in jail.”

Law now sits on eight of the Curia’s “dicasteries,” or policy-implementing committees, a total far above average; Boston’s Archbishop Seán Cardinal O’Malley, for instance, is a member of only two. Cardinals living near Rome typically belong to more dicasteries than those overseas, so it is a measure of Law’s ambition that in his last year in Boston he served on no less than nine. Thanks to his new station, his participation is more intense than ever. “Since he’s in Rome he can attend the meetings on a regular basis,” says Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit priest and scholar of church administration. “He couldn’t do that when he was in Boston. So his ability to influence has actually increased.”

The cardinal’s dicasterial work covers a broad range of policy areas, from Catholic teaching on the family, gender, and reproduction; to the governance of religious orders, such as the Franciscans and the Jesuits; to oversight of the church’s missionary work, including the appointment of bishops in much of Africa and Asia. He sits on the Congregation for Catholic Education, which issued last fall’s controversial document banning gay men from seminaries—a policy many commentators suggested was a response to the sex abuse crisis. As a member of the Congregation for Divine Worship, Cardinal Law will have a say in the new English translation of the Mass, which U.S. bishops approved in June, a project beset by years of controversy over issues including the use of gender-neutral language. Father Reese speculates that Law could make a significant contribution to this particular debate: Despite his reputation as a conservative, the cardinal has a progressive record on questions such as inclusive wording and the role of altar girls.

By far the most consequential of Cardinal Law’s roles is his membership in the Congregation for Bishops. While the appointment of prelates is ultimately up to the pope, he chooses almost all of them on the recommendation of this body. Each of the congregation’s 36 members has a vote on appointments, but members reportedly defer to colleagues from a given country on appointments in that land. The congregation has five American members, though one, William Wakefield Cardinal Baum—Cardinal Law’s mentor in the early 1970s and one of his oldest friends in the hierarchy—reportedly suffers from failing eyesight and other ailments that limit his participation. Cardinal Law, therefore, is one of a handful of men in charge of choosing the hierarchy of the American church...

“It seems to me unfortunate that he is where he is,” says Philip F. Lawler, editor of the Lancaster-based Catholic World News, who worked for Law as editor of the archdiocesan newspaper in the late 1980s. “We’re still waiting for the evidence that he understands what happened in Boston. And if he doesn’t understand what caused his resignation, that raises questions for me about his perceptions of other problems, his ability to recognize what’s good for the Church.” Under Vatican policy, cardinals must give up their dicasterial work when they reach the age of 80. Law turns 75 this November.

In contrast with attitudes in Boston, where many see Law as hopelessly tainted and unrepentant, the mood at the dinner confirmed what those in Rome have seen these past few years: In his supposed exile, Cardinal Law has found a measure of forgiveness. “I don’t know anyone at the Vatican who would defend Law’s handling of the sex abuse case,” John Allen says. “But many people in Rome would say that he paid the price in the form of his resignation and that there’s no reason that he shouldn’t make a contribution.”

According to one Cardinal’s diary, Cardinal Law was reputed to have received one vote on the last ballot in the 2005 papal conclave.


Liam said...

This kind of insensitivity and obliviousness is why I pay very little attention to the pastoral teachings that come out of the curia. And they talk about moral relativism!

Crescentius said...

I just hope that his "ambitiousness" is rooted in the pain he helped cause in the people of Boston and in deed the world, and his recognition of this pain. He does have the opportunity to share that pain with his fellow members of the policy making boards and to hopefully put policy in place that ensures that this pain does not happen again. I can only pray that this is what is happening. Do I sound too idealistic? Maybe so, but as a Franciscan I have to pray for all the people on the margins, those who were placed there and those that did the placing.

Crescentius said...

Come to think of it, maybe I am naive. Thank you sharing these excepts. I really enjoy your blog

Mike McG... said...

Sociologist Peter Berger has written extensively about the importance of 'plausibility structures,' structures that lend authenticity and legitimacy to belief systems. Law's utterly clueless behavior and Rome's toleration of same savages the capacity of young adults from Catholic families to identify positively with the institution.

I endorse Liam's comments without reserve.

Jeff said...

Crescentius, welcome. As I've told Don and Minor Friar, I am always proud to have Franciscans visit me here.

Liam, Crescentius, Mike... Very good comments, guys. I hesitate to even comment about Cardinal Law. We live in the Archdiocese of Boston. This topic is still very raw, very emotional here. Let it suffice to say that when I read an article like this, it becomes difficult for me to continue to say to non-Catholics, ex-Catholics, and disgruntled Catholics alike that Cardinal Law has merely been "kicked upstairs".

I give Bernard Law his props for the Civil Rights work he did in the South early in his career, but I think Philip Lawler said it very well in the article (and Philip Lawler is about as conservative and traditional as they come) when he notes that:

"We’re still waiting for the evidence that he understands what happened in Boston."

That is very true. If you've followed this story at all, it still seems as if Bernard Law and his entourage have never really understood what they have done and what they are responsible for.

Furthermore, Bernard Law had a way of throwing his weight around the Amreican heirarchy that was not to his credit, from the humiliation of Archbishop Hunthausen to the scuttling of Cardinal Bernardin's Common Ground initiative.

Please, Rome... You need to learn to listen.

cowboyangel said...


Tough reading this. I suppose I'm one of the disgruntled Catholics you mention. I can't even begin to talk about the sex-abuse scandal without slipping into sheer rage at the Church. (Ask poor Liam, who's had to listen to me.) Even writing this, I start to boil over. As C.S. Lewis has Screwtape say, "The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighborhood of the Holy. . . . Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar." If you ask me, this whole episode will go down as one of the very lowest points in the Church's history. The fact that Law is in his current position rather than in jail shows how utterly out of touch with reality Rome can be.

And who's the Bishop where I live? None other than Law's right-hand man, William Murphy.

Sorry to vent.

Jeff said...


It's been very difficult here, to say the least. It feels like we've been in free fall for about four years now.

You live in Rockville? Funny that you should mention Bishop William Murphy. I know him slightly. See, while he was in Boston he was in residence for years at my parish, St. John the Evangelist, which incidentally happens to be the birthplace of the VOTF. Boy, did that stick in his craw... that he preached the 10:30 every Sunday for years and they went and started the VOTF on him...

I haven't read Jimmy Breslin's book, but I understand he rips him apart as "Mansion Murphy" for the palatial digs he set up in Rockville.

cowboyangel said...

No, not Rockville. Port Jefferson. He's Bishop for much of Long Island.