Mourning the pope
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Posted April 11, 2005 at 3:37 p.m. CDT
Law’s activities, positions
illustrate “clash of cultures”
between U.S. and Rome

By John L. Allen Jr.

If ever one needed a classic illustration of the “clash of cultures” between the United States and the Vatican, the fact that Cardinal Bernard Law celebrated a Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica on April 11 in honor of the deceased pope, one of the nine Masses prescribed for the novemdiales, or nine days of mourning, makes the case.

Law’s appearance generated considerable controversy in the American press, though the event itself seemed almost anti-climactic. Only a handful of protestors materialized, and Law’s homily was deliberately spiritual and meditative, without so much as a trace of reference to the scandals that plagued his tenure as archbishop of Boston.

He did have one fine moment during the Mass, recognizing that April 11 is the liturgical observance of the Polish St. Stanislaw, using that as an occasion to thank Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, the pope’s private secretary and close collaborator, for his four decades of loyal service. The reference drew strong applause from the assembly in St. Peter’s Basilica.

So what was Law doing there in the first place?

Straight away, the point should be made that no one in the Vatican chose to give Law this platform. Instead, the Mass for the deceased pope on Monday is celebrated on behalf of the patriarchal basilicas in Rome, and custom dictates that it is the archpriest of St. Mary Major who celebrates that particular Mass. Since John Paul II appointed Law to that position on May 27, 2004, it was custom and precedent, rather than a specific Vatican decision, that put Law in this position.

It should also be noted that when Law resigned as archbishop of Boston in December 2002, many Americans had the impression that this terminated all of his roles in the church. In fact, it simply meant that he was no longer in charge of the church in Boston; he continues to be a cardinal in good standing, with, among other things, the right to cast a vote for the next pope.

He also continues to serve as a full member of several Vatican congregations and councils. They include:

  • Congregation for Eastern Churches
  • Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments
  • Congregation for Bishops
  • Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples
  • Congregation for the Clergy
  • Congregation for Consecrated Life and the Societies of Apostolic Life
  • Congregation for Catholic Education
  • Council for the Family

Ironically, while his appointment to St. Mary Major triggered a wave of criticism in the United States, his membership in these Vatican offices has been almost entirely overlooked, even though it is far more consequential in terms of church politics. As a member of the Congregation for Bishops, for example, Law is in a position to influence the appointment of bishops to the American church. On the Congregation for Education, Law will help guide policy on the apostolic visitation of American seminaries, which was triggered by the very crisis of which Law has become the leading symbol.

Serving as archpriest of St. Mary Major, on the other hand, essentially means that Law ensures the lights are on for Sunday Mass. It is not seen as an especially prestigious position, and Law’s appointment to the job was, in effect, interpreted here as a way of “letting him down gently.”

None of that, of course, sits well with people still outraged by the sexual abuse crisis and its aftermath

Seen from the point of view of some American Catholics, especially victims of sexual abuse and their advocates, Law is the face of the crisis that gripped the American church beginning in 2002. The fact that he has not been stripped of all his privileges in the church, the fact that he has been visible throughout the illness and death of John Paul II, indicates to them that the Catholic church has not learned its lesson. They argue that Law has not been held accountable, and that until the church sends a clear signal that there is no future for bishops who fail to intervene aggressively to protect children from abuse, the crisis will never be resolved.

Hence to some victims, Law’s prominence during this period suggests that the church has, in effect, exonerated him. They see it as an affront to their own suffering.

Many in the Vatican, on the other hand, put the debate surrounding Law in an entirely different content. While no one in Rome defends Law’s mishandling of accusations of sexual abuse by priests under his jurisdiction, many tend to say that these failures have to be balanced against a lifetime of faithful service to the Catholic church. He paid his penalty, they say, when he resigned as Boston’s archbishop, and he has apologized for the harm he caused. To shun or ostracize him, they believe, would be to capitulate to an exaggerated lynch-mob mentality driven more by rage and hurt than by sober judgment.

If Christianity believes in redemption, they argue, then there must be redemption also for Bernard Law.

Finally, another illustration of the cultural gap: If the Vatican were at all sensitive to public relations in the conventional sense, they certainly would not have issued what was, in effect, an engraved invitation to the American press to resurrect the sex abuse story after a week of uninterruptedly positive coverage tied to the life and legacy of John Paul II. If the Vatican were a Fortune 500 corporation, someone in the public relations office would be out of work. Obviously, however, the Vatican simply does not think in these terms.

On the other hand, from a PR point of view, the Vatican probably gets a free pass on this story, because by tomorrow speculation about the next pope will no doubt once again supplant the Law story, which will be no more than a tiny footnote to the week’s events. The larger issues it illustrates, on the other hand, are certainly not going away.

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