Cardinal at a turning point
After 5 years, influence in Rome raises hope, concern
By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 3/5/1989
First of two articles on Cardinal as Boston's archbishop.
ive years after he was appointed archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard F. Law has established a reputation as a defender of Catholic orthodoxy, becoming the nation's best-known advocate for unswerving loyalty to the pope.
As a result of media attention, the respect of other bishops and his own enthusiasm for the role, the 57-year-old prelate is regarded by both liberals and conservatives in his church as a symbol of the restoration of traditional Catholic disciplines sought by Pope John Paul II.
Like the pope, he is a frequent traveler. He has visited Poland, Cuba, Mexico and Nicaragua, returned suddenly and secretly to Cuba last week and plans trips to Portugal and Ireland later this month. Official business often takes him to Rome -- last month to help prepare a catechism he proposed in 1985 to standardize church teaching worldwide and again this week to deliver one of the talks at an unusual meeting of the pope with 35 American bishops.
The cardinal is well known among the clergy and religious orders for his unannounced visits to the sick or bereaved, and he has quietly intervened to help defuse tensions at the state prison in Walpole and to help secure a federal grant for low-income housing at Columbia Point.
But with the reorganization of local church government completed and expectations heightened by the adulation generated by his often skillful use of church and secular media, Boston's Catholic archbishop stands at a turning point.
Admirers see a chance for him to play the role once enjoyed by Cardinal Francis J. Spellman, who shaped a generation of Catholic bishops because of his influence in Rome. Cardinal Law is credited by some observers with playing the decisive role in the appointment of Archbishop J. Francis Stafford in Denver and of Archbishop William J. Levada in Portland, Ore.
Critics see a lack of substance behind the public style. Church observers complain that he has painted himself into a corner ideologically vis-a-vis other church leaders, repeatedly disappointed hopes for more substantive initiatives and raised fears that his recently lower public profile is a sign of ambition for higher office in Rome.
Born Nov. 4, 1931, in Torreon, Mexico, the cardinal is the son of a US Air Force colonel and aviation pioneer who opened many air strips around the Caribbean Sea. The family's longest single stay was three years in St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands, where the young Law, an only child, attended high school. After college at Harvard and seminary in Benedict, La., and at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, Ohio, he was a parish priest and diocesan newspaper editor in Mississippi, where he faced threats because of his editorials on racial justice.
Cardinal Law later served in the ecumenical office of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in Washington and spent 10 years as bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., before being appointed archbishop of Boston. He was installed March 23, 1984.
Nationally, "he's clearly identified as a very effective and articulate spokesman for the John Paul II bishops," said one source about the cardinal's role among the bishops appointed or promoted during this pontificate.
A few months after he arrived in Boston, Cardinal Law led the bishops of the Boston province -- Massachusetts and northern New England -- in advising that abortion was the preeminent issue of the 1984 presidential election, downplaying the "consistent ethic" approach by which leaders of the bishops conference tried to link issues such as abortion, nuclear weapons and the death penalty to better housing and medical care for the poor.
Last year, Cardinal Law led a strong group of bishops who dissented from a position paper on AIDS in which the bishops conference said the church could tolerate education about the use of condoms as a public health matter. The Boston archbishop, with Cardinal John J. O'Connor of New York, objected that the church's teaching on sexuality allows no exceptions, a view strongly backed by Vatican officials.
Despite his identification with a faction, Cardinal Law is one of the six most influential bishops in the country, said the source, who is familiar with the politics of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. That would rank the Boston churchman with Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago; Cardinal O'Connor of New York; Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles; Archbishop John May of St. Louis, now president of the bishops conference; and Cardinal James Hickey of Washington.
And in the Vatican, "he is one of the American bishops attended to whenever he has something to say," said the source. "He manifestly has a close personal relationship with the pope himself."
Locally, he has thoroughly revamped the bureaucracy of the archdiocese, appointed a large number of lay men and women and religious sisters to jobs once held only by clerics, and invited lay people and parish priests to join archdiocesan officials in a synod that has set new goals for the archdiocese and its more than 400 parishes.
Donations jumped about 50 percent after his first year in Boston, now have about doubled and will be bolstered again by the archdiocese's first capital fund drive.
Yet his high-powered celebrity status has alienated a number of priests. "It's like seeing Robert Redford play the part of the archbishop of Boston," said one cleric. "He's in a helicopter, flying around the archdiocese, while he's got a whole garage full of people back at the chancery that he's installed at $40,000 or $60,000 salaries."
"He came on so strong at first, with such impact because of the media and his personal charm," said another Boston priest. "But except for the synod there have been no creative programs."
Although Cardinal Law speaks often about the role of a bishop as teacher and guardian of the faith, he has published only a single pastoral letter, a statement on Sunday worship that most of his priests regarded as routine.
"Nobody's turning to Boston for examples of pastoral initiative," said a veteran Catholic journalist about the cardinal's national reputation. "He may be doing any number of interesting things, but they haven't had any effect outside his archdiocese."
"He may be the sort of bishop who believes in gathering the reins of experience and power to get his own house in order, and erupts onto the national scene only when prodded, as on the condom thing," the journalist said.
"He has not rocked the boat on any real issues," said a priest familiar with the archdiocese. "He has carefully cultivated his patrons in Rome -- Cardinals William Baum, Joseph Ratzinger and Jerome Hamer -- and surrounded himself with Roman-educated priests at home who present an image of gleaming power.
"I don't know if he wants to go to Rome, or whether he realizes he wants to go to Rome, but he is well situated to go higher if he wants to," said the priest.
But even his critics are reluctant to pigeonhole the cardinal. "He is a bit of a loner," said the journalist. "He appears temperamentally unwilling to be the leader of anybody's faction, someone who is in a group but not of it. He still sees himself as a liberal of a sort on many issues, at least as a moderate. Finally, I think he has painted himself into a corner with other bishops because of the issues thrust upon him, such as the condom issue."
Others see him as extraordinarily successful in defending a tightly disciplined, hierarchical view of Catholic life that is only a little more popular among priests and bishops in the United States than among laypeople.
"It is true that he is not a scholar or intellectual on the model of Pope John Paul, but he is an extremely intelligent and articulate man, with a good sense of humor," said a church worker who has known the cardinal since he served in the US bishops ecumenical office in Washington in the 1960s.
"Although he takes issues seriously he does not take himself overseriously," the source said. "There is nothing pompous or self-regarding about the man.
"Given his beliefs and strongly held convictions, he tries hard and successfully not to alienate other bishops, even those who disagree with him. He is sincerely interested in finding ways that all the bishops can function effectively and collegially, rather than contributing to divisiveness, polarization and conflict."
His most effective interpreter remains Rev. Peter V. Conley, a former member of his cabinet and now rector of Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston's South End.
The reorganization of 90 archdiocesan agencies, more than half of which once reported directly to Boston's archbishop, "may seem prosaic," said Father Conley, "but it has provided closer collaboration than at any time in the past and freed him to do other pastoral outreach and play a civic role in the larger community.
"He has raised the role of the laity in archdiocesan leadership, not only in the chancery but on myriad boards of trustees, and shown sensitivity to women and minorities in doing so," he said. "And not since the 1930s has there been as much attention paid to the ethnic diversity of the archdiocese, Hispanic, Vietnamese, Korean, black Catholics."
Compared to his first two years in Boston, Cardinal Law recently has kept a much lower public profile. "There is no planned strategy to be any more quiet," said John B. Walsh, a layman who succeeded Father Conley as communications director last fall. "Not all of his business can be conducted in the glare of publicity."
After launching the Boston Leadership Conference in 1987 as a challenge to leaders from the public and private sectors to cooperate on issues affecting metropolitan Boston, ranging from housing to health care to education, the cardinal "has now turned over the reins to other leaders," said Walsh.
"While he still has an interest in remaining a partner in their efforts, the cardinal is taking his place alongside the others in that project," he said.
But overall, the highly visible, energetic style of his leadership leaves his clergy strongly ambivalent about the cardinal, especially as the successor of a man criticized for a lack of initiative on church and social problems. "The bottom line is that I don't think we can criticize him for doing what we criticized Cardinal Humberto S. Medeiros for not doing," said one pastor.
"He is visible on Beacon Hill. He's going to be in and out of the Bush White House because of his longstanding friendship with Barbara Bush. And even if there are doubts about whether we can really afford him, there is always a certain electricity about him."
Praise for priests before leaving for rome
To prepare for a special meeting this week during which the American archbishops will discuss issues facing the church in the United States, Cardinal Bernard F. Law met last week with a group of six priests to talk about their ministry.
At the meeting in Rome, "I am going to try to say something about all the tremendous things our priests have done in the 25 years since the Second Vatican Council," Cardinal Law said in an interview Friday afternoon at his residence in Brighton.
The cardinal will deliver one of a series of addresses on evangelization, the theme of the March 8-11 meeting between Pope John Paul II, 35 senior American bishops and heads of Vatican agencies.
One of those who met with Cardinal Law has been a priest for 45 years. "It was great to hear him speak in such positive tones about how much richer his ministry is now than in the earlier style of ministry," the cardinal said.
"Over 25 years, we have developed an understanding of the mystery of the church, as people, parish and diocese, expressed in new structures, like the Presbyteral Council and parish councils, and in the way we relate to each other, and the involvement of the laity."
Cardinal Law said his talk will also focus on some of the problems the church faces in its efforts to spread the Gospel message. But he said he had found it "a tremendous thing to be able to pass on all that priests are saying today about the change in relationships in the church."
This story ran in the Boston Globe on 3/5/1989.