Cardinal Law's New Appointment

By Tom Fox
National Catholic Reporter
Downloaded May 31, 2004

The U.S laity comprises 99.99 percent of the U.S. church, but has less influence than an old holy card in a Baltimore Catechism.

That was the seemingly intended message in Pope John Paul's appointment May 27 of Cardinal Bernard Law as archpriest of St. Mary Major basilica in Rome.

Law was the only prelate driven from his diocese by the collective outrage of its people in the wake of the clergy sexual abuse scandals. Law came to signify a clerical indifference to victims' sufferings. Finally, civil authorities forced him to reveal archdiocesan documents, and the documents showed patterns of facilitation of abuse that made it untenable for Law to stay.

Law's departure was a measurable sign to the laity that at least one bishop was forced -- however reluctantly -- to take responsibility for the scandals.

One prelate was to be held accountable ... but not fully.

While Law left Boston in disgrace after the pope reluctantly accepted his resignation in December 2002, Law kept his powerful positions inside the Vatican. He was never asked to cede power or prestige. He has held nine Vatican offices including, incredibly, one that helps pick bishops and another that guides the handling the clergy abuse.

Now the former Boston prelate has received a new honor. The New York Times reports that with the appointment comes a $12,000 monthly stipend and a palatial apartment next to the basilica.

More salt in lay wounds.

Was this Pope John Paul's personal decision? It is difficult to believe it could happen without his awareness.

If it was his decision, then one is reluctantly led to think that the pope still does not get it, that somehow he still does not share the enormous pain of victims and their families and he still does not understand the outrage and hurt of the wider communities of U.S. Catholics.

Or possibly worse ... he gets it and dismisses it in order to make a larger point. Is the intended message here that he, alone, runs the church?

It was not supposed to be this way.

Four decades ago, the world's bishops gathered in Rome for the Second Vatican Council. Responding to galloping advances in the education of the laity and acknowledging the rising call worldwide for participatory government, the bishops at the council began edging Catholicism ever so gently away from monarchal authoritarianism, an antiquated church governance model.

The council fathers meanwhile introduced two ideas that also had roots in early church history: collegiality and subsidiarity. The former meant bishops would share decisions; the later that those decisions would be made as locally as possible.

The bishops called for the opening of the "The Age of the Laity."

Those advances never really happened. While the council's progressive voices had carried the day advocating the advances during three years of council deliberations, conservatives reasserted control in the years that followed. Soon more traditional notions of governance took hold once more. Central to these was the clear distinction between clergy and laity.

Was it simply the fear of some bishops of losing perks and power?

From the lay point of view -- those who make up 99.99 percent of the church -- the reasons mattered less than the results of the decisions upon their lives. Laity was to be marginalized once again.

From a women's perspective, the lay marginalization was a double-edged sword. The new reassertion of clerical control involved theology that relegated women permanently to second class, or more properly third class, citizenship. Women were to be marginalized by classification and gender.

In dioceses where clergy and lay collaboration had been encouraged, bishops were replaced with hard liners. Where parish councils had become collaborative governing instruments, priests were forced to change procedures. Where women religious had come to work in harmony with clergy, the teams were forced to shut down. Where lay men and women had come to share the Word and life experiences in reflections during Mass, the practices were stopped. Where seminaries had welcomed lay women and men as teachers and counselors in seminaries, they were told to leave.

The distinction between clergy and lay person, between decision-maker and decision-receiver has become the crown once again in a dysfunctional church governance ideology that has nothing to do with the basics of Catholic dogma. It is an ideology that is being enforced at all costs -- even at the price of healthy Christian community.

The Law appointment to the Mary Major basilica is the latest assertion of this unhealthy fixation. It calls for all to forget lay wishes, feelings, beliefs, and hurts. It grows out of an apparent need by the pope to make a point: It is he, not the laity, has the final say.

Pope John Paul's statement, however, comes with a large price tag. It reveals a sad disconnection between the pope and U.S. Catholics. Despite a quarter century of shared faith life, it casts the pope an impenetrable figure.

Clerical sexual abuse has already become a dark shadow on Pope John Paul's legacy. The shadow has grown longer.


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