Laying Down the Law


From the relative obscurity of a small diocese in Missouri to the prominence of the nation's third largest archdiocese, Boston's Archbishop Bernard Francis Law '53 has become an immediate national figure in the 10 months since he was installed.

Comfortable with the media and much more public than his predecessor. Law can discuss Marxism with Cuban President Fidel Castro--as he did last week in the Caribbean--as easily as he can film a television commercial against drank driving with Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis.

As pastoral shepherd to Boston's two million Catholics, the 52-year-old Law has quickly pushed himself into the political spotlight, declaring during the presidential campaign that abortion is the preeminent issue for all Catholics and last month pledging expense-free health care to the Hub's pregnant women as a deterrent to abortion.

Now, Law, something of an anomaly in liberal Boston, is widely expected to be named a cardinal before the close of 1985 by his ideological soul-mate Pope John Paul II.

If the Catholic Church was a political faction, then Boston's fifth archbishop would be a party man through and through. Law represents a new breed of American Catholic leaders who, according to Hollis Professor of Divinity Emeritus George Williams, increasingly reflect the conservative tone of John Paul's leadership on issues ranging from abortion to the role of religion in a pluralistic society.


In December, for instance, 28 members of religious orders broke with Church reaching on abortion, saying that a diversity of opinions existed among committed Catholics.

"We felt it was important to put forth a position not stated by [New York Archbishop John J. O'Connor and Law," says Eilleen M. Kelly of the Washington based Catholics for a Free Choice, adding, "Priests, religious leaders, and legislators should not be penalized by there religious superiors for publicly dissenting."

Law countered, arguing that all Catholics must follow the Vatican's teachings. "When you have sisters and priests and brothers saying outlandish things like Catholics for a Free Choice, you call them on that sort of thing and say. 'No, that isn't what a Catholic can believe.' To be a Catholic means to stand with the Church. If you want to take the option, take the option. But don't take it is the name of a Catholic option."

The plan drew praise from officials at the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts and Catholics for a Free Choice, two groups which have criticized pro-lifers for ignoring the social consequences of banning abortion.

"These were particularly warm-hearted and generous statements [by the archbishop]," says Minister of Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes. "There's a special character to this fellow."

Rov, Thomas F. Powers, director of campus ministries for the archdiocese, noted, "Law has always said it isn't sufficient to take a public stand--you have to provide a service."

Law calls his promise to provide health care services to any woman of any denomination who chose birth for her child over abortion a way to make his stand a concrete policy. It is yet unclear, however, exactly how Law intends to finance the health care and how he intends to administer such an ambitious program.

Medeiros Legacy

Contrasting Archbishop Law with his predecessor, the state Cardinal Humberio Medeiros, Powers says the new leader can deliver "quality pastoral service to the people" since he is not burdened by the archdiocese's enormous debt--which Medeiros liquidated through rigid fiscal policies.

"Law is more eloquent than Medeiros and speaks on greater social issues; Medeiros didn't talk about them, he quickly dealt with them," says Jesuit priest George McRae. Stillman Professor of Catholic Theological studies at the Divinity School, "Medeiros was known for his piery and was much respected for it."