Priests Who Asked Law to Quit Attacked
By Michael Paulson
March 8, 2003
Three months after Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned in disgrace, some leading conservative Catholics are sharply criticizing the 58 Boston priests who called for him to step down, reopening divisions in the Archdiocese of Boston even as Bishop Richard G. Lennon is calling for healing.
The stinging criticism, which questions the religious beliefs and moral behavior of the priests who signed a letter in December calling for Law's resignation, comes from two of the nation's most prominent conservative Catholic intellectuals and has been applauded by some who think liberals have exploited the clergy sexual abuse scandal to push changes in the church.
One of the critics, papal biographer George Weigel, in a column published by the archdiocesan newspaper, branded the 58 priests "men who had repeatedly and publicly denied the Church's teaching on the moral truth." The other critic, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a conservative author,suggested that some of the signers are part of a "subculture of infidelity."
The criticism has infuriated the priests and their supporters. One priest, the Rev. Robert J. Bowers of St. Catherine of Siena Church in Charlestown, called in his parish bulletin for Catholics to cancel their subscriptions to The Pilot, the archdiocesan newspaper, because it published one of the critical columns.
The issue is escalating as the 58 priests, feeling embattled, try to decide whether they should stick together as a distinct group, hoping to influence the choice of the next archbishop, or whether they should vanish back into the larger community of priests who chose not to take on Law. The priests planned to get together for dinner to discuss their situation several weeks ago, but canceled because of a snowstorm; now they are circulating a draft of a second letter that would outline the qualities they seek in a new archbishop.
Lennon, who is the temporary administrator of the Archdiocese of Boston, has said nothing publicly about the priests who challenged Law or about their critics. He is planning to hold his first large meeting with priests on Thursday and has four other regional gatherings with priests scheduled.
Lennon's spokeswoman, Donna M. Morrissey, said the bishop is looking ahead, not back.
"Our focus is moving forward, and bringing about unity and reconciliation," she said.
The first salvo was fired by Weigel, a senior fellow at a Washington, D.C., policy institute, the Ethics and Public Policy Center, who is best known for his authoritative biography of Pope John Paul II. Weigel, a popular conservative opinion maker, writes a weekly column for Catholic newspapers; on Feb. 14 he attacked the 58 priests in a column published in The Pilot.
Weigel said that the protest by the priests had no bearing on the Vatican's decision to accept Law's resignation.
"Officials in Rome could see that the signatories included priests who had never truly accepted Cardinal Law's authority," Weigel wrote. "Roman authorities could also see that priests whose ministerial paths had not been without major potholes (to put it gently) were among the signatories."
Weigel's criticism was echoed in the February edition of First Things, a journal on religion and public policy edited by Neuhaus, another popular conservative voice. In a column, Neuhaus said of the 58, "Among them are long-standing advocates of gay causes, habitual ranters against Rome's putative oppression, and those who go far beyond respectful dissent in publicly declaring that authoritative teachings of the Church are simply false."
"Whoever succeeds Law as archbishop should, it has been suggested, keep that list of fifty-eight handy, for they represent the subculture of infidelity that is the source of priestly miscreance in doctrine and life," Neuhaus wrote. "Why should anyone be surprised that scandals result when priests and teachers of theology make no bones about saying that the Church does not mean what it says about sexuality, celibacy, chastity, and sacred vows, or when they publicly declare that the Church is just wrong in what it teaches?"
The criticism has been welcomed by some.
"The infamous 58 priests of record have well-documented histories of rejecting Roman Catholic teachings." declared Carol McKinley of Pembroke, who is active in a conservative group called Faithful Voice. "Their beliefs and moral values are misguided and we have no intention of following their voices."
Also, the Rev. Matthew L. Lamb, a Boston College theologian, sent a letter to The Pilot praising the paper for publishing Weigel's column.
But the priests themselves are irate.
"I regard it as a scurrilous and slanderous attack, and it's very unfortunate," said the Rev. David Hollenbach, a professor of theology at Boston College and one of the 58. "Parish priests have been through one heck of a lot last year, and I'm sure that this will have a very negative effect on their morale to be attacked in a further way like this. Their motivation was to stand up for the well-being of the church, and to be accused of being somehow unfaithful is demoralizing, profoundly unfair and untruthful."
The Rev. Francis M. Glynn, pastor of St. Anthony Church in Lowell, said the critics were employing tactics better suited to talk radio than theology.
"It doesn't sound too Christian to ascribe motives and not to try to understand that there was heartbreak involved in doing this," Glynn said.
The priests who signed the letter say the columns are the first public criticism they have received for their actions. They say they were praised by parishioners, received letters of thanks from abuse victims, and have heard nothing from Boston bishops.
But a few said relationships among priests are becoming more strained because of the letter.
"Unfortunately some other best and lifetime friends are no longer on speaking terms due to this . . . speaking out in [a way that] was perceived as against the cardinal," said the Rev. Stephen S. Josoma, pastor of St. Susanna Church in Dedham.
The Rev. Ronald D. Coyne, pastor of St. Albert the Great Church in Weymouth, said: "I've been in a couple of priest situations where I did sense, in a couple of guys I know pretty well, an aloofness that was very evident to me. I didn't say anything, but I noticed it, and I believe it's probably as a result of that letter."
Some of the priests who signed the letter are clearly among the minority who have publicly questioned church teachings on issues like gender and sexuality. The Rev. Walter H. Cuenin, pastor of Our Lady Help of Christians Church in Newton, for example, questioned the treatment of women and gays in the church. Another signer, the Rev. Roger D. Haight, a theologian at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, is under investigation by the Vatican for his controversial writings about the complex theological question of what role Jesus plays in the salvation of non-Christians.
Some signers said it is wrong to assume the 58 signers shared anything but a desire to see Law go. The Rev. Frank J. Silva, pastor of St. Ann Church in Wayland, said: "In no way did I find myself desiring to be labeled as a rebel or someone who has an agenda of his own. I just try to do the best priestly work I can, and I leave it at that."
Weigel and Neuhaus both defend their critiques.
"I wrote my column after extensive consultation with knowledgeable priests and laity in the archdiocese, and I've been gratified by the letters I've received from both old and young priests, commending me on an accurate portrayal of the situation," Weigel said yesterday.
"I can see why they're unhappy, but I think they did the wrong thing, and in some cases there's reason to believe they did the wrong thing for the wrong reason," Neuhaus said. "When you take public actions, you are susceptible to public criticism, and my criticism was not nasty."
The Pilot, which has published several weeks of an unusually robust debate among letter-writers expressing their opinions on the Boston 58, also published an unusual editorial defending its decision to publish the Weigel column, and expressing "regret that some priests feel that Weigel's column misrepresented their motivations."
The editorial noted that Weigel has been a regular columnist for The Pilot for years and that "on several occasions the themes of Weigel's columns have run contrary to established editorial positions of our newspaper."
Michael Paulson can be reached at email@example.com.
This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 3/8/2003.
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