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."

McRae says Law has affected the archdiocese more as a well-known public figure than as a bishop per se. "He hasn't shown us his hand yet on local issues." He would like to see Law draw up a plan for the future of the archdiocese, dealing with issues of organization and diminishing numbers of clergymen within the Church.

The former bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau Freely admits that he is still in the process of "learning the neighborhood often excusing himself publicly for referring back to specific precedents in Missouri.

But other observers sense that Law has already mapped out his agenda for Boston with high expectations to make it "a role model for society," says Professor of Business Administration Stephen H. Fuller.

"He is unbelievably sensitive to the potential contribution of the Church to Boston and has alerted the community to areas where the community needs to perform more effectively, especially [with regards to the] rights of minorities," says Fuller, a member of Law's ad hoc committee on internal organization.

Church officials recall Law's early support for the civil rights movement, support that began soon after his seminary training when he joined the Mississippi Human Relations Council in 1961. Law also took a strong pro-integration stand throughout the '60's as editor of the Natchez-Jackson diocesan newspaper in Mississippi.

In terms of other local issues, Law says he is committed to supporting the lobsterman's cooperative, a union which is being squeezed out of the Boston harbor, and has pledged the archdiocese's resources to finding a permanent dock location for these workers.

At the same time, the Church's own policy of restricting hiring to union employees has come under fire from minority, non-union tradesworkers.

"On the one hand, the workers need the union's collective voice and the Church supports that right. On the other hand, unions themselves, for whatever reasons, can become exclusive," the Archbishop says, adding. "It's a problem that needs to be addressed and it will be addressed as we press for a solution."

Law has also taken steps to bridge gaps between the city's Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, according to several church experts.

Memorial Church's Gomes says he recognized the change in Boston's Catholic leadership when Law invited other non-Catholic clerics like himself to actually participate in his installation at Holy Cross Cathedral last March.

"The slightest gesture on his part with regard to ecumenism sets the example for the entire community," says Gomes, who has invited Law to preach to his congregation on the Sunday after Easter.

"It's rather ironic that the Episcopal bishop [James Coburn] in Massachusetts happens to be a Princeton man," says Gome3s, an Episcopalian minister, "since Harvard and the Roman Catholic Church have never been on the best of terms."

On the national stage, Archbishop Law has become a governing force in the American Catholic Church, along with Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago anm New York's Archbishop O'Corner, according to powers.

O'Vonnor, accused by some of being too closely allied to the pope and the President, singled out Rep. Geraldine Ferraro's stand on abortion during the presidential campaign as inconsistent with Catholicism.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, Bernardin promotes ""a multi-issue moral view" which encompasses a more even-handed look at all disputes, from nuclear arms to capital punishment and from the rights of the unborn to euthanasia.

Observers of the Catholic hierarchy find Law frequently defending O'Connor's strict orthodoxy and breaking away from trend of Bernardin's "seamless garment" of life issues, in which the issues of life issues in which the issues of abortion social welfare programs, and nuclear arms are given equal treatment.

Law, siding with O'Connor, has argued that abortion should be placed at the forefront of the Catholic agenda.


The Harvard-educated Law is currently tapping local academics for a review of the American bishops' first draft of a pastoral letter on U.S. economic policy, which was issued in November.

"I'm sure that I will be suggesting ways in which [the letter] could be better," says Law, who solicited responses to the letter from business, political, academic, and non-Catholic leaders in formulating his recommendations.

Law says he may propose condensing the bishops' statement into two basics parts: one, establishing the principles used incultivating an economic system and the other, proposing concrete solutions to the pitfalls of American capitalism, where the greatest debate among bishops is likely to occur.

"We're not going to be inventing new teaching in this document, but reflecting what's already there in the Second Vatican Council, and in the papal encyclicals, particularly of Pope John Paul II," said Law of the bishops' work.

Upward Bound

The inevitable confirmation of Law's role in the international Roman Catholic Church will be his eventual elevation to the position of Cardinal. With American's supply of Cardinals depleted and with the majority past the age of voting in a conclave for a pope, the 52-year old Archbishop is ripe for the choosing.

Even Harvard's Memorial Church isn't taking any chances on Law's expected promotion. It's waiting until the very last minute to print invitations, announcing whether it will be Archbishop Law or Cardinal Law who preaches this spring in the Yard.

Not only is age in his favor, but Law's familiarity with Latin America both inside and outside the Church makes him a valuable asset. Fluent in Sp0anish, the Archbishop was one of five key American clergymen to tour Cuba last week. There he participated in a three hour long discussion with Fidel Castro, led the3 largest Catholic mass in that country's 25-year Marxist regime, and asked that nation's leaders to consider releasing almost 100 political prisoners.

What difference would it make to Boston if Law became a Cardinal?

"In terms of the day to day function of the Archdiocese, I really don't think it would make much difference," says Law. "In terms of my own personal life, it would mean a little more complicated schedule because there would be some responsibilities that would bring me more frequently to Rome."

Promotion or no, Law is likely to have a major impact time, at home us well. "The Archbishop is a 'changemaster'" says Business School Professor Fuller "He has the viston, leadership and the capability to change things to make a difference."

"Bernard Law wants to sit in the same posture in his position as the Boston Celfics do in theirs." Sanva C. Lawrence and Michael E.P. Darning contributed to the reporting of this story.