Cardinal Law replaced: the Vatican has sent a message

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 21, 2011

There’s something very curious about the replacement of Cardinal Bernard Law in his post at a Roman basilica.

Cardinal Law is no longer the Archpriest of St. Mary Major basilica. That much is clear from today’s Vatican announcement. Archbishop Santos Abril y Castello now has that job. But what happened, exactly?

“The Vatican announced the resignation of Law, 80, today,” reports the Boston Herald. But the Vatican announced no such thing. That’s what makes this story so interesting.

A somewhat confused AP account illustrates the problem:

The Vatican said Monday that Pope Benedict XVI had accepted the 80-year-old Law's resignation as archpriest of St. Mary Major basilica…
… The Vatican announcement made no mention of Law's resignation, though, merely noting in a perfunctory, two-line statement that Benedict had named a new archpriest for the basilica.

Well, if the Vatican announcement didn’t mention Cardinal Law’s resignation, it couldn’t very well have said that the Pope accepted that resignation, could it? We infer that the cardinal resigned, and it’s a very reasonable inference, since someone else now has his job. But the resignation was not announced; Cardinal Law’s name was never mentioned. Is that significant? I think so.

The Vatican press office has a standard formula for announcing appointments. There are twin statements: one announcing that Bishop A has been named to Position X; the other saying that Bishop B, the previous occupant of Position X, has resigned—say, upon reaching the age limit. In 15 years of reading announcements from the Vatican, I can’t recall ever noticing a variation from that formula. Until today.

Suppose you wanted to replace a subordinate, but you didn’t want to call attention to him in the process. What would you do? You’d probably announce the new appointment, without mentioning the name of the man who was being replaced. Right? Hmmm.

Pope Benedict had good reason to want Cardinal Law removed, and this month the Pope had his first convenient opportunity to make it happen quietly, as I explained in this space a few weeks ago:

Tomorrow, November 4, is the 80th birthday of Cardinal Bernard Law: the former Archbishop of Boston, now Archpriest of the basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. Since he remains the only American bishop forced to resign because of his mishandling of the sex-abuse scandal, Cardinal Law stands today as the symbol of a gross betrayal by the American hierarchy. It’s true that objectively speaking, other American bishops were guilty of the same offenses and that brought down Cardinal Law. Nevertheless he is the poster-boy for the sex-abuse scandal, and his appointment to a high-profile post in Rome was a serious misstep: an indication that the Vatican still did not understand the justifiable outrage of the American public. Pope Benedict did not make that appointment; he inherited an awkward situation. But now, with Cardinal Law turning 80, he has an opportunity to eliminate an unnecessary irritant, by accepting the American prelate’s resignation promptly.

Some reporters have suggested that Cardinal Law’s replacement was automatic: that all Vatican officials step down at the age of 80. Not so. The two previous archpriests of St. Mary Major stayed at the post until after their 82nd birthdays, and in 2009 the Pope accepted the resignation of Cardinal Andrea Cordero Lanzi di Montezemolo, the Archpriest of another major Roman basilica (St. Paul Outside the Wall) just short of his 84th birthday. Cardinal Law could certainly have stayed on, if that was the Pope’s wish. It wasn’t.

To have replaced Cardinal Law earlier would have caused comment; it might have been seen as an implicit criticism of Pope John Paul II for having given him the honorary Vatican position. Making the change now, after Cardinal Law’s 80th birthday, looks more like a routine personnel shift.

But then again, the announcement was definitely not routine. So perhaps the Vatican is sending a subtle message: that the prelates who bear responsibility for the sex-abuse scandal will not intentionally be subjected to further disgrace, but neither will they be given a ceremonial send-off. The business-as-usual attitude—the assumption that a cardinal will be given high honors regardless of his track record—is no longer in place.

If my suspicion is correct, and the Vatican is indeed trying to send that message, there would be a simple way to drive it home. There’s another ceremonial post at the Vatican that could be filled—with or without the resignation of the incumbent.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: koinonia - Nov. 22, 2011 8:15 AM ET USA

    It would seem so. When Pope JP II died, we saw an amazing display that despite the distractions and frenetic pace of today's world, the Roman Catholic Church remains transcendant as an institution in the eyes of a great many people. Consequently, this type of scandal and its magnitude is particularly damaging and hurtful. This is one reason it is futile, in my opinion, to make statistical comparisons with other institutions. Hopefully, the Church will "move on" with a valuable lesson learned.