Six Good Things About Cardinal Law

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Let’s stipulate that Cardinal Bernard Francis Law was the worst bishop of Boston in the 209 years of the diocese.

The clergy sex abuse scandal mangled the lives of children and their families, shook the faith of devoted Catholics, prevented would-be converts from joining, cost an amazing amount of money, and gave cover to lazy Catholics looking for an excuse to continue not going to church.

Cardinal Law didn’t do these unspeakable things to children, but he made it possible for those who did by reassigning them and covering up their crimes, and giving them the apparent endorsement of the institutional Church.

That makes Law worse than Cardinal William “Gangplank Bill” O’Connell, the imperious, vainglorious, well-travelled prelate who covered up the financial and sexual improprieties of his nephew priest in the 1910s and then lied to Pope Benedict XV about it. It makes him much worse than Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, who also bears some responsibility for the clergy sex abuse scandal and who had no idea what he was doing when he was archbishop in the 1970s and early 1980s.

(Several other bishops of Boston were actually good. But this column isn’t about good bishops.)

Law was a poor administrator. Phil Lawler, in his magisterial book The Faithful Departed, makes a compelling case that the awful decisions about predator priests were made not in malice but in inattention, disorganization, and aloofness. Law didn’t like personnel matters and didn’t spend much time on them. Yet when you lobby that hard for a job – which Law clearly did – you’ve got to do it.

Still, you can go anywhere to find bad things about Law. Do a Google search for “Cardinal Law” and “Hell” and you’ll see what I mean.

He had some good qualities, too. Here are some of them.

Cardinal Law celebrated Mass with an intensity and attention to detail missing from most Catholic parishes. His Easter Vigil Masses at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where in the good old days you could feel the heat from the bonfire at the back even from far away, were spectacular – but also spirit-rousing. According to Catholic theology, the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is in some mystical way a re-presentation of the suffering and death of Jesus on Calvary. It’s not a reenactment of the crucifixion so much as a transporting of the congregation to the time and place of the actual crucifixion. You got a sense of that when Law was behind the altar.

Cardinal Law wanted to have a sense of humor. He didn’t really have one, but on occasion he tried to be funny. In this case, you get points for trying.

Cardinal Law was good in a crowd. He wasn’t much of a preacher – his sermons suffered from trite phrases, wordiness, and shallowness, and his speaking style was undermined by sincerity pauses. But one-on-one he could be spontaneous and charming. It’s one of the reasons many former associates (quietly, these days) still like him.

Cardinal Law was true to Church teachings. While some of his peers in the American Church were undermining unpopular teachings about abortion, contraception, and sexual morality, Law stood up for them. He didn’t do much about priests of the archdiocese who undermined those teachings, or about church officials who ran a loose seminary underneath him, but he tried to set the right tone from above. His call for a moratorium on praying outside abortion clinics in the aftermath of John Salvi’s shooting two women to death back in late December 1994 was unfortunate and wrongheaded; but it was an error in judgment, not a failure of the heart.

Cardinal Law genuinely cared for the poor. Spanish-speaking Catholics in the archdiocese stuck by him in 2002 long after everyone else did, because they sensed in him a true friend.

Cardinal Law had a capacity for friendship. Law celebrated the funeral Mass of Father Joe Collins, the chaplain at Harvard College when he was a student there, at St. Catherine of Siena in Norwood, in October 2003. It was the only time I ever heard Law eloquent. He knew he might be walking into a lion’s den, since it was less than 10 months after he had resigned in disgrace; but he did it anyway.

On a related note, while Law deserved the ugly exit he got, he sometimes doesn’t get credit for trying to leave much earlier than he did. Law kept trying to offer his resignation after the Globe Spotlight series broke in January 2002, but Pope John Paul II, sick and badly misinformed by aides, kept saying no. When he finally said yes, he set Law, and the rest of us, free.

Where, hopefully, the former archbishop is now. Rest in peace, Cardinal Law.