The Catholic Action League of Massachusetts today is mourning the death of the former Archbishop of Boston, Bernard, Cardinal Law, who died in Rome shortly after midnight, following a brief hospitalization. Law was 86.
Born in Mexico of American parents, Law, a Harvard graduate, was ordained a priest of the Diocese of Natchez-Jackson, Mississippi in 1961. In 1963, he became editor of the diocesan newspaper, where he received death threats for his support for the civil rights of African Americans.
Named Vicar-General of Natchez-Jackson in 1971, Law was appointed Bishop of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Missouri in 1973, serving until 1984. In 1975, he welcomed and resettled 167 priests, brothers, and novices of the Congregation of the Mother Co-Redemptrix, who as Vietnamese boat people, were fleeing the Communist conquest of their country. Law gave them a vacant seminary to serve as their new home.
In 1981, the Holy See appointed Law Ecclesiastical Delegate for the Pastoral Provision, which permitted married Anglican clergymen to become Catholic priests. This was the beginning of a long movement which culminated in the establishment of Anglican Catholic Ordinariates by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011.
Appointed Archbishop of Boston by Pope Saint John Paul II in January, 1984, Law was elevated to the College of Cardinals in May, 1985. In his homily at his installation as archbishop on March 23, 1984, Law described abortion as “the primordial darkness of our time…the cloud that shrouds the conscience of our world.”
A month later, Law attended a pro-life rally in front of the Massachusetts State House. In 1986, he supported a proposed initiative amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution, which would stop the public funding of abortion, earning him a rebuke from Planned Parenthood, which claimed Law came to Boston “looking for a heavyweight fight” on this issue. His pro-life advocacy would also be criticized by former Lt. Governor Thomas P. O’Neill III, who characterized Law’s views as offensive.
In 1985, in a speech in Latin at the Synod of Bishops in Rome, Law was one of two bishops to advocate that a new, universal catechism be issued, the first since the Roman Catechism, promulgated in 1570 by Saint Pius V, following the Council of Trent. This resulted in the publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, promulgated by John Paul II in 1992. Law was given the task of overseeing the English language translation.
In April, 1985, Law wrote, at the request of the bishops conference, a letter to every American prelate detailing the findings of a conference committee which he headed, which declared that Freemasonry was “incompatible with Christian Faith and practice.”
In January, 1988, Law, consistent with his longstanding civil rights position, issued a letter which was read at all parishes in Boston, urging the integration of public housing projects in the city. He became however, the first, and to date, the only Catholic prelate in the modern history of Boston to acknowledge that working class Catholic ethnics had, in controversies such as these, legitimate concerns regarding crime and public safety.
In 1989, Law opposed the so-called gay rights law, which made homosexuals a protected class in Massachusetts civil rights legislation. Following an editorial critical of the measure in the archdiocesan newspaper, The Pilot, Saint Thomas More Chapel, located next to the newspaper office, was vandalized.
In April, 1990, Law became one of the minority of American bishops who implemented John Paul II’s decree Ecclesia Dei, which permitted a modest restoration of the traditional Latin Mass.
In June, 1990, while Law was presiding at ordination ceremonies at Holy Cross Cathedral, a mob of militant homosexuals surrounded the building and attempted to gain access. Unable to physically disrupt the liturgy, they attempted to acoustically disrupt it with drums, whistles and boat horns. As the ceremonies ended, they surged forward at police barriers shouting obscenities at worshipers and throwing condoms at priests.
In April, 1991, Law, through his aide, Msgr. William Murphy, asked the League’s predecessor organization to oppose a domestic partners ordinance under consideration by the Boston City Council. Although The Boston Globe predicted it would pass by a comfortable margin, it was narrowly defeated following the personal lobbying of Council members by Auxiliary Bishop Lawrence Riley.
Law had a contentious relationship with Jesuit administered Boston College during his episcopate, warning that BC was in danger of losing its Catholic identity. It was Law who intervened to prevent liberal theologian Richard P. McBrien from teaching there. He also once described the Catholic Theological Society of America as a “theological wasteland.”
From 1995 to 1999, the Archdiocese of Boston, under Law’s leadership, supported the efforts of the Catholic Action League to resist, successfully, a second attempt to institute a domestic partners program in Boston, this time by Mayor Thomas Menino.
In 1999, Law opposed the nomination of Margaret Marshall as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of the Commonwealth, saying she was “open to serious charges of anti-Catholicism.” As Chief Justice in 2003, Marshall would write the decision in the Goodridge case, inventing a constitutional right to “marriage” between two persons of the same gender. In it, she asserted that the belief in the universal, millenia old definition of marriage was “rooted in persistent prejudices against persons who are (or who are believed to be) homosexual.”
In the late 1990’s, Law told the story that he was the object of attempted extortion. According to his account, he was warned, that if he did not cease to oppose the goals of the homosexual movement, the homosexual priests in the Archdiocese would be exposed. Law said he rebuffed his blackmailer, telling him to go ahead.
Law’s most egregious error, and the one that cost him his position and his reputation, was to follow the practice of his two immediate predecessors, Cardinals Cushing and Medeiros—under whom four-fifths of accused priests in Boston operated—and view the molestation of minors by homosexual predators in the priesthood as a psychiatric disorder requiring treatment, and offering the possibility of rehabilitation, rather than understanding it for what it actually was, a monstrous crime which deserved immediate prosecution and prolonged incarceration. In this the archdiocese did not behave in a manner inconsistent with other institutions of its time, though it should have.
In 2002, members of the plaintiff bar, some of whom had reached settlements with the archdiocese, combined with The Boston Globe, a newspaper which celebrated predators like Paul Shanley, and which had spent thirty years attacking the Catholic Church, Catholic moral teaching, and Catholic political leaders, to expose all of this.
For eleven months in 2002, Law was subjected to a daily cascade of uniformly negative media coverage, driven by the Globe, that is unmatched even in the era of Donald Trump. After hundreds of articles, columns, op-eds, editorials, letters to the editor and television and radio reports, Law’s position became untenable.
Meanwhile, victims groups with bullhorns, bent on confrontation, besieged Holy Cross Cathedral, taunting and harassing innocent Catholics going to Mass, who had never done them any harm. Parishioners were forced to walk into church through a police cordon. Mothers were told through megaphones to cover their children’s genitals, because Catholic priests were abroad. The cathedral was denounced as a “house of rape.”
Poor Hispanics entering Mission Church were greeted with shouts from the sidewalk of “Check their green cards!” and elderly female secretaries at the chancery were forced to pass angry, jeering protesters. This writer recalls one victims spokesman shouting profanities at him on Commonwealth Avenue.
Fifty-eight priests—at least one of whom was a personal friend and supervisor of defrocked predator Paul Shanley—called upon Law to resign. Massachusetts Attorney-General Thomas Reilly convened a grand jury to investigate the archdiocese. Law, who had repeatedly and profusely apologized for his failures, resigned on December 13, 2002, begging forgiveness, once again. He was not to receive any.
Reilly who, unethically, released a grand jury report condemning Law, later admitted that the former archbishop had broken no laws, and could not be prosecuted.
In 2004, Law was appointed Archpriest of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome. He retired in 2011.
Law was, and continues to be, an object of demonization unprecedented even in the cases of prelates like Rembert Weakland, who actually committed acts of molestation themselves. On the day of Cardinal Law’s death, attorney Mitchell Garabedian held a press conference to denounce Law once again, along with the “trillion dollar corporation called the Catholic Church.” During the event, victims talked of having a party, of Law burning in hell, and how they considered “hunting him down in Rome and getting him.”
One victim recounted how he began a meeting with Law by shouting an obscenity at him. Remarkably, Law continued the meeting. This forbearance did not constrain the victim from suggesting that the Cardinal’s body be chopped up and dropped in the ocean.
Whatever the derelictions of Bernard, Cardinal Law, this much ought to be said. With Cardinal Law, you never had to wonder where he stood on a public controversy. He was never afraid to enter the fray when he conceived it his duty to do so, and he never hesitated to defend the teachings of the Church which he headed in Boston. Cardinal Law never thought silence was the better part of valor, that speaking the truth was impolitic, or that standing up for what he believed in was divisive.
Law never practiced the fawning, obsequious deference towards politicians who reject Catholic morality that seems to obsess our prelates today. In 1990, then state senator (and future governor) Paul Cellucci was disinvited from speaking at Hudson Catholic High School, because of his support for legal abortion.
At Cardinal John O’Connors’ funeral in May of 2000, Law garnered thunderous applause when he said the Church “must always remain unambiguously pro-life,” as Bill and Hillary Clinton and Al Gore sat stone faced in the congregation. The current regime of awards, honors and platforms to opponents of Catholic teaching was not the norm under Cardinal Law.
Nor should anyone forget what Cardinal O’Malley said of Cardinal Law today: “He was well known for visiting the sick, the dying and the bereaved at all hours of the night and day, a ministry that extended to the rich and the poor, the young and the elderly, and to people of all faiths.”
Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace. Amen. May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace. Amen.