The Word from Rome
Law in Rome

By John H. Allen, Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
December 13, 2002

Besieged Cardinal Bernard Law was in Rome this week, as it turns out to hand in his resignation to Pope John Paul II. It was thus the final act in a story that had all the aspects of a Greek tragedy – an ecclesiastical titan brought low, at least arguably through his own pride.

I was the first journalist in Rome to know Law had arrived, not through any crackerjack reporting but rather an amazing coincidence. Careful readers of “The Word from Rome” will recall that back in July I noted that Law and Bishop James Harvey, the American who heads the Pontifical Household, had dined together at a restaurant called “Cecilia Metella” on Rome’s Via Appia Antica. At the time I had never heard of the place, but I’ve dined there several times since. On Sunday evening, Dec. 8, my wife and I had friends in from out of town who are frequent visitors to Rome, and we wanted to go someplace they hadn’t been before. Thus we headed out to Cecilia Metella. We were dumbfounded upon arrival to see Harvey and Law (along with a third cleric I took to be Law’s secretary). Our pre-reserved table was, unbelievably, right next to theirs.

I had seen Harvey the day before at the North American College, which had celebrated the patronal feast of the Immaculate Conception, so I instinctively walked up to say hello before I realized that Law was also in the party. Circumstances did not allow me to begin asking questions, so I simply shook Harvey’s hand and withdrew. I have no special insight into what Law and Harvey talked about, though I find it hard to believe it was just the weather.

Ironies continued to abound. Just moments after Harvey and Law had left, I got a call on my cell phone from NBC, asking if I could confirm that Law was in town. “You’re not going to believe this,” I began. A few seconds later it was the Boston Globe, same question, same answer. The episode ended up on the Globe’s front page. From there the AP picked it up, and so my bit of dumb luck briefly became a footnote to the day’s news.

Ostensibly, Law had come to Rome to explain bankruptcy to people in the Vatican with serious reservations. One concern is its possible impact on future giving, since going belly-up is hardly the sort of thing that inspires investor confidence. If contributions are already slumping in Boston and elsewhere, imagine the impact of a bankruptcy filing.

Perhaps even more worrying to Vatican officials is the prospect that a civil judge would, under American law, be assigned broad powers to review and oversee archdiocesan finances. For an institution that has fought pitched battles over the centuries to protect its assets in order to safeguard its independence, this is no small matter. A couple of Vatican officials privately invoked memories of the Nazi gleichsaltung, a campaign to neutralize social institutions that might serve as centers of opposition by assimilating them to the state. Their point was not to compare an American judge to a Nazi thug, but merely to note that precedents are important. Law, and now his successor, thus face the challenge of persuading Vatican decision-makers that this step might actually be the best of all the bad options available.

Beyond the dollars and cents issues, the big question was whether Law would resign.

Only the pope can request a cardinal’s resignation, and John Paul II’s personal bias undoubtedly leaned against doing so. The pope himself, it should be remembered, has faced calls for resignation, albeit for very different reasons – on the grounds that he is too old and weak to govern. He has consistently spurned those suggestions. “Jesus did not come down off the cross,” he recently said. Hence his inclination would doubtless be that Law should stay put and clean up the mess he’s made.

That view was at one point widely held in the Vatican. Seen from Rome, the life of a retired cardinal seems fairly sweet. One enjoys the privileges of high ecclesiastical office with few of the burdens. Staying on the job in the midst of crisis, on the other hand, is a daily ordeal. (Recall that the Vatican never removed Cardinal Michele Giordano of Naples, even when he was facing a criminal trial for loan-sharking in 2000 that could have landed him in jail. Privately, several curial officials opined that resignation was too good for him). Hence keeping Law where he is, which can look from the United States like letting him off the hook, seems instinctively to a certain Roman way of thinking like the most fitting sentence possible.

Having said that, sometimes moments arrive in which even a pope can no longer afford to indulge his personal inclinations. This was obviously deemed to be one of those situations.

One tragedy of the present situation is that as long as Law, sex abuse and bankruptcy dominate the headlines, the moral voice of the U.S. bishops is in some ways gagged. Example: An American in the Vatican recently said that after the bishops’ statement on Iraq was issued in Washington in mid-November, a senior staffer for a U.S. senator called to say, “You’ve got to be kidding. Nobody’s listening right now.” That loss of credibility is also part of the bleeding, and one hopes that Law’s long-awaited exit from the stage will help turn the tide.


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