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Spotlight Report

Law affirms church doctrine to youths

Cardinal touches on suicide, female ordination, gays

By Michael Paulson, Globe Staff, 7/27/2002

Cardinal Bernard Law dances and sings with teenagers from Dedham following a Mass at St. Benedict's Church in Toronto, Ontario on July 26, 2002. (AP Photo)
TORONTO - Cardinal Bernard F. Law, dancing and singing with an exuberant crowd of young Boston Catholics, yesterday declared that those who believe the church's teachings on divorce, women's ordination, and other hot-button topics will change when the pope dies are mistaken.

Law, making his first public appearance during World Youth Day, told a group of about 550 young adults from Boston that the church's teachings come from God, not popes, and are therefore immutable. In response to questions from the local pilgrims, he offered staunch and empathic defenses of the church's opposition to suicide, homosexual sex, and the ordination of women.

''It's not the pope - some people think that certain things are going to change when the pope changes, and all of a sudden divorce is going to be allowed, we're going to be able to ordain women, we're going to be able to do this, we're going to be able to do that,'' he said. ''It's not going to happen.''

Law appeared boisterous and enthusiastic as he spoke before the raucous crowd of archdiocesan young adults, who applauded wildly, banging their hands on the pews and rising to their feet when he entered St. Benedict's Church in Etobicoke, near the airport hotel where the Boston pilgrims are staying.

Interviewed afterward, the young adults gave a variety of explanations for their applause, with some offering unmitigated support for their archbishop, and others saying that they are critical of Law's handling of sexually abusive priests, but still wanted to show their support for him as their bishop or their gratitude to him for accompanying them to Toronto.

''As Catholics we have been taught to forgive, so even though he has messed up, he's a good cardinal,'' said Francisco ''Quico'' Sierra, 18, of Dedham.

Mariangela Sullivan, 18, of Wellesley, said, ''because of his status as cardinal, and because he's leading the Mass, he got the applause. It's not because we support him - many of us don't.''

Law, whose Masses in Boston this year have generally been greeted by protesters unhappy with his past failure to remove abusive priests from ministry, seemed delighted to be among a large group of young people celebrating their shared Catholic faith. He attempted, somewhat awkwardly, to join the youngsters in a rhythmic set of claps and hand gestures to a set of religious rock songs. He then taught them the verses and led them in singing a more traditional Christian praise song, ''Spirit of the Living God.'' After Mass ended, he spontaneously broke into a circle of dancers around a statue of Mary, asking the dancers, members of a global evangelical Catholic movement called the Neocatechumenal Way, to show him their steps.

Law did not mention clergy sexual abuse during his religious education talk or his homily at Mass, and he was not asked about it by the young pilgrims. His spokeswoman told reporters that the cardinal would not talk to the media on any subject, and Law walked angrily back inside the church when a reporter tried to ask him a question.

But he willingly fielded questions from the young pilgrims about some of the church's least-understood, or most-contested teachings, including the church's belief that bread and wine is literally transformed into the body and blood of Jesus at Mass, as well as the church's positions on suicide, homosexuality, and women's ordination. Two of those in attendance used the question-and-answer period simply to praise Law, and their remarks were greeted with applause.

Law was adamant that women will never be ordained as Catholic priests, no matter who the pope is.

''It's one of those things that I don't think about, because it can't change,'' he said. ''I know it can't change, I know it won't change, and I know to be thinking in those terms is to deceive oneself and to waste one's energy.''

Polling of American Catholics has repeatedly shown that a majority support the ordination of women and married men and disagree with church teachings on a variety of matters of sexual ethics.

Many reform advocates are hoping the next pope will be more open to change on these issues than Pope John Paul II, who is 82 and ailing.

Law said women cannot be priests because Jesus was a man and priests are icons of Jesus, and because ''Jesus established this order of service and it has been an unbroken tradition.'' But he said he understands why some people believe the church's teaching is wrong, and he said the ban on the ordination of women does not diminish the prophetic role played by women such as Mary, Saint Catherine of Siena, Saint Therese of Lisieux, and Mother Teresa.

''Just rest comfortably in the faith, and understand that this has nothing to do about equality,'' he said.

One woman asked Law how Catholics should live out the church's teaching that Christians should love homosexuals, but oppose homosexual acts, and whether it would be OK to attend commitment ceremonies held by gays and lesbians.

''We are called to love and accept every human being,'' he said. But he said that the church expects every unmarried person, gay or straight, to be celibate.

''Any acting out sexually outside of a marriage, which is a lasting union between a man and a woman, is not in accord with the teachings of Jesus and the church,'' he said. ''Anything else that calls itself a marriage isn't a marriage, from our perspective, so that for us to give public recognition to that in any way would be to affirm a pattern of living that is not ordained by God ... It would be inappropriate for us to be supportive of organized efforts to indicate that it really doesn't make any difference, that it's just up to personal choice.''

Law offered an unsolicited critique of violence toward gays and lesbians.

''We need to be very clear that we don't approve of the kind of terrible negative actions and violence against those persons who proclaim themselves to be homosexuals, and the violence of words that occurs - that's totally unacceptable, and that's against the gospel of Christ,'' he said.

Asked by a young woman about the church's teaching on suicide, Law said suicide is wrong when it is freely chosen, but that people who are battling depression or mental illness may not be acting freely when they decide to take their own lives.

Michael Paulson can be reached by e-mail at

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 7/27/2002.
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