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What to make of Cardinal Law?

By Diogenes (articles ) | Apr 14, 2005

I've read a number of thoughtful columns and blogs in the past few days discussing the reaction, or over-reaction, to Cardinal Law's celebration of the novendiale Mass at St. Peter's Basilica last Monday. Some have maintained that objecting to Law's public appearances is overkill, given the fact that he's out of harm's way. I want to argue that Law's brother bishops -- not the Cardinal himself -- have done the Church a disservice and it's they who deserve the blame.

One's stance on Law's current position depends on one's view of the reason he deserved (or didn't deserve) to lose his former one. Part of the cross-talk stems from the fact that some believe he was ousted as a result of his mistakes, others that he was ousted as a result of sins. What kinds of mistakes he is deemed to have made, what kinds of sins to have committed, will affect one's judgment as to the justice, or appropriateness, of his continuing to serve in a post of public honor. The competent commander whose XO rams a tanker, the incompetent physician who poisons twenty children, the cop who lies under oath to protect his buddies, the traitor who sells his friends into the hands of his enemies -- each merits a different sort of discipline and his prospects of future employment differ accordingly. And one and the same man may fail in several different ways.

The official grounds for Law's ouster don't speak to the blame issue. The Pope accepted his resignation under Canon 401 ยง2 ("because of boffing a Costa Rican curate or some other grave reason"). In Law's case, clearly, we're stuck with some other grave reason. What that might be we're not told.

Are we obliged, as faithful Catholics, to set Law's culpability at a minimum? Read Bishop Skylstad's official statement on the day of the resignation (December 13, 2002):

"This resignation represents a significant step forward in the healing process, for abuse victims not only in the Boston diocese, but in dioceses across the country," said Bishop William S. Skylstad, vice president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. "To restore trust and faith in our church, we must be held accountable. Today's action sends a strong message that all priests and bishops will be held accountable."

Nota bene: Diogenes didn't write this. Rod Dreher didn't write this. VOTF or SNAP didn't write it. This is the U.S. bishops' line, and they obviously cashed-in the "strong message - healing process" coupon in order to buy themselves some good ink and positive PR. Pay special attention to the accountability language.

They're not going to tell us what specific misdeeds Law was held accountable for, but clearly the accountability has to do with Law's being out of work, not simply out of this particular job. Otherwise, the line about restoring "trust and faith in our church" would be meaningless -- and cynical as well, given the fact that shifting abusers from one responsible post to another responsible post was a principal factor in the loss of trust that Law's resignation was seen to remedy. They go out of their way to insist that this is not a significant step sideways.

Could the U.S. bishops foresee Law's appointment to St. Mary Major when they wrote this? Probably not. When the appointment was announced, did they publicly deplore the fact that it saws the floor out from under their trust-through-accountability line? They did nothing of the kind. Are we justified then, in complaining about their trying to have their cake and eat it too, by posing and strutting atop the Accountability Is Us platform and falling silent when Law resurfaces, in the full dignity of cardinal, with all his medals and gold braid gleaming? Yep. And note: this has nothing to do with vindictiveness, with a desire to humiliate Law, or even with a particular view of his wrongdoing. It's the authority of the office of bishop that suffers.

We -- the CWNews crew -- WANT bishops to have authority: not on some trendy primus inter pansies dialogic model, but in the way Irenaeus, John Fisher, Charles Borromeo, and John Henry Newman had authority. That authority requires a mutually recognized requirement of honor in the college of bishops, of which truth-telling and reparation for injuries are an indispensable minimum. Some institutions, more interested in inclusion than trustworthiness, downplay honor and emphasize forgiveness. But here's the rub: in institutional terms, inclusiveness and trustworthiness are mutually exclusive choices, honor and forgiveness are mutually exclusive possibilities. Sure, you can keep your liars and losers and lechers on the payroll at full rank if you find that important, but in doing so you forfeit the ability to speak with authority. Sure, you can claim that humiliation is penance enough and flatter yourself for showing Christian forgiveness, but can you then call others to make sacrifices for the sake of the truth?

Forget it.

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  • Posted by: Fr. William - Apr. 17, 2005 12:51 AM ET USA

    Fr. Phil: the forgiveness is there for Cardinal Law. And the cardinal virtue of prudence comes to mind as well. Yes, Cdl. Law had a protocol right to offer that Novendialis Mass. Was it prudent on his part? In the meantime, as for the bitter seemingly unforgiving critics, they need to focus, as we all do, on our love for the Church, & on praying for the Cardinal electors, that the Cardinals be totally open to the Holy Spirit & to the intercession of Pope John Paul II, the Great.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 15, 2005 11:11 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Father Phil. From the little I saw, the Holy Father appeared to have affection for Cardinal Law. I must try to see what the Holy Father saw.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 15, 2005 9:14 AM ET USA

    Why don't we just throw him to the ground and continue to kick him. I guess the humiliation of resigning his See and his exile has not been sufficient for us, we want more. The word forgiveness no longer has meaning in the Christian life. Mistakes once made can never be forgiven. The Church should have known that the Pope would die some day and that the Cardinal would say, "God Forbide" a public Mass.

  • Posted by: Fr. William - Apr. 15, 2005 12:26 AM ET USA

    You're right again, Diogenes. The bishops forfeit the ability to speak with authority when they behave in such ways. It saddens this priest to see that the bishops do not speak with some form of charitable fraternal correction toward brother-bishops who openly speak against the Holy Father, the Magisterium & the Teachings of the Church: e.g.Cdl. Mahony & Bps. Trautman, Lynch & Skylstad; or Cdl.McCarrick lying about Cdl. Ratzinger's letter; or Bp. Flynn lying about Cdl. Arinze's instruction.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 14, 2005 5:46 PM ET USA

    As a direct result of actions that Cardinal Law made with full knowledge, dozens of chilren were sexually molested. He should have been swiftly and severely punished. It is a blight on the late Holy Father's record that he allowed Law to resign and gave him a position of honor in Rome. The sex scandal is still a scandal in that those bishops that were involved in the coverup have been so gingerly dealt with. This lack of disciple for GRAVE sins is precisely one of the misuses of Vatican II.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 14, 2005 11:54 AM ET USA

    I am a native Bostonian. The absence of Canon Law was a much bigger problem in Boston thru 2002 than the presence of Bernard Law. Is CWNews or anyone else looking for a timely analysis topic? Go to the Metropolitan Tribunal page of the Boston website. Key phrase is 'Michael Smith Foster'. Compare his opus on marriage annulments, still proudly posted by the Tribunal, to Dignitas Connubii this past February. Anybody know what Cardinal Law was trying to do at the Tribunal thru 2002? Wonder?

  • Posted by: - Apr. 14, 2005 10:22 AM ET USA

    What is particularly galling is to recall Cdl. Mahony's reported comment that were he in Law's shoes, he would resign. The Gospel words from another context seem apropos to the Hollywood Cardinal and others of his ilk: "Go thou and do likewise..."

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Apr. 14, 2005 10:07 AM ET USA

    As a member of the financial industry which depends of the public trust, I know that I will be disciplined, banned for life, pay fines, be thrown in jail, etc. for crimes involving merely money. There are layers of non-governmental standards (ie NASD and NYSE) and then govermental layers (i.e. SEC, US attorney, NYS AG, etc) for this. It is part of the scandal that Church cannot see a necessity to have similar structures in place not merely to punish the guilty but to rebuild trust.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 14, 2005 9:19 AM ET USA

    Very nicely said. Your point about forfeiting "the ability to speak with authority" is excellent.

  • Posted by: - Apr. 14, 2005 9:14 AM ET USA

    What the analysis does say it says well & charitably. What it omits elicits my comment. Not only is it possible, but the St. Mary Major post makes it probable, that the 'grave reason' JP II judged present had nothing to do with any substantial fault of Law but with, as a practical & prudential matter, a de facto inability of Law to continue to govern in most unusual circumstances. I repeat (5/27/04): Law was always a "staunch ally of JP II in ... halting the distortion ... of Vatican II."

  • Posted by: - Apr. 14, 2005 7:46 AM ET USA

    Each of us had a hand in the death of Christ, so graphically portrayed in Mel Gibson's movie "The Passion." Tears at the sight of such suffering were followed by conversion of heart by many. Criminals even surrendered to the police after viewing the film. When was the last time you saw one of the "usual suspects" in the American hierarchy weep for love of Christ crucified? How many of them have resigned in order to live a life of penance for their crimes?