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A Catholic emphasis in ecumenical teachings

By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff, 3/19/1984

Second of two parts

 The series
Part One
Boston's next Archbishop

Part Two
A Catholic emphasis in teachings

PRINGFIELD, Mo. -- As a public leader, Bishop Bernard F. Law has been shaped by 10 years as a Catholic bishop in the Bible Belt.

Boston's archbishop-elect has constantly emphasized Catholic identity in his relations with other religious groups and in his teaching in the Diocese of Springfield and Cape Girardeau. Personable and enthusiastic, he has built friendships for himself and his southern Missouri diocese, for instance, by calling on distinctive Catholic institutions, such as religious orders, to help serve the wider community.

But his persistent emphasis on Catholic doctrine has led to misunderstanding s on the part of some other religious leaders, who expected something else from a bishop with an international reputation as an ecumenical leader.

"Bishop Law does not avoid conflict," said Rev. Edward M. Eftink, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Ozark and a participant in some of those dialogues.

The prelate "has a totally disarming public and personal presence," said a senior official of the Episcopal Church, "but there has been a slowdown and cooling in our relations since he became bishop of Springfield.

"There used to be joint conferences of our clergy and other common activities, but all of that has stopped," the official said. "With him there is no compromise on issues like the right to life and papal supremacy."

Bishop Law makes no apology for his emphasis on distinctive Catholic teaching. In an interview after his appointment, he said the church must be cautious about its alliances; "otherwise, we can suddenly find outselves tied in with a whole agenda that is not ours."

He specifically emphasized his commitment to good relations with the Episcopal Church, noting that he had at first opposed an effort to admit married former Episcopal clergy as Catholic priests, a process he now oversees as a special papal delegate.

"There is no intention," he said, to set up a rival Episcopal church "and nothing to indicate that is happening."

Diocesan staff and Springfield-area clergy emphasize that Bishop Law's chief accomplishment in the area of formal relations between the churches was the opening of discussions with the region's largest conservative Protestant groups.

This city is headquarters for the Assemblies of God, a 1.8-million-member Pentecostal denomination that has had few ties to mainline Protestant churches or the Catholic Church.

Under Bishop Law's leadership, quiet conversations have gone on between a handful of Catholic and Assemblies clergy, centered on a clear presentation of their differing theological views.

"Our purpose was more to understand one another than necessarily to change the other's point of view," said Rev. E.S. Caldwell, former pastor of Glad Tidings Assembly of God and now an editor for Charisma magazine in Winter Park, Fla.

Rev. Dick Champion, on the headquarters staff of the Assemblies, said the strength of the dialogue was in contacts between local pastors.

It "established some fraternity between our clergy and theirs, " said Fr. Eftink.

Nevertheless, the dialogue, which actually began under Bishop Law's predecessor, ended in misunderstanding two years ago. Participants on both sides attributed the rupture primarily to conflicts between the two churches that arose outside the Springfield area.

They said top officials of the Assemblies of God initiated the breakoff, letting it be known they preferred that their local pastors break off the talks.

Relations are still amicable, however. "Individually, Bishop Law is uncompromising on the views of his church, but he is gracious in expressing that view and tolerant of views that others hold," said Rev. Caldwell.

A similar dialogue with Southern Baptist clergy, begun under Bishop William Baum, head of the Springfield diocese from 1970 to 1973, also faltered in the Law years.

"It met a time or two after Bishop Law came and then ceased," said Rev. Jim Joslin, district minister for the Greene County Baptist Assn. "There was a lack of interest at the time. We don't have a lot in common here. Southern Baptists are the largest denomination in this area, and Catholics are a very, very small percentage."

With the urban centers of St. Louis and Kansas City, Catholics become Missouri's second largest denomination, after Southern Baptists. Neither belonged to the state council of churches, however, which led Bishop Law to propose to some Baptist leaders that a Missouri Christian Leadership Conference be formed to bring together as many churches as possible.

"Bishop Law was one of the prime movers in bringing the conference about," said Rev. Dr. Bob Terry, editor of Word and Way, weekly newspaper of the Missouri Baptist Assn.

The conference, which eventually replaced the state council of churches, has taken unanimous positions calling for prison reform and opposing a state lottery but also has encouraged theological dialogue on such issues as baptism and evangelism, said Dr. Terry.

"We've been able to discuss some things we do not agree on and been able to remain friends as we do so," he said.

The conference could not take a united stand on capital punishment, an issue on which Bishop Law has led. "He issued a very strong statement opposing capital punishment before the other three Catholic bishops in Missouri," said Rev. Dorsey E. Levell, director of the Springfield Council of Churches. The other three bishops have since followed Bishop Law's lead.

Unusual among local and regional councils of churches, the Springfield Council is prospering. It has a $1-million yearly budget and the support of many local congregations, including the area's Catholic parishes.

While the diocese is not a member, Bishop Law has supported the council. He was a proponent of the council's detoxification and alcohol treatment center, Sigma House, and when cuts in state support jeopardized its existence, he found $10,000 to keep it open, according to Richard G. Cody, its director.

"A surprising amount of support for the council comes from Catholics who are just 5 percent of this community," said Cody. "The bishop just makes it known that he thinks well of the council."

Bishop Law also has used Catholic structures to help improve services for the entire community.

He helped recruit a physician, Sister Elizabeth Catherine Harkins, to establish a two-year nursing degree program at Southwest Missouri State University here, to improve local medical care and to expand job opportunities for young people. He also encouraged sisters to set up a medical van to bring health care to poor families in rural western Missouri.

And he encouraged the local Catholic hospital to provide the salary for a full-time Protestant chaplain.

Yet the bishop clearly has spent his greatest effort on building ties to conservative churches. Rev. Levell, a United Methodist minister, says he believes one reason Bishop Law "has reached out to the evangelical churches . . . is that those groups support his antiabortion stand."

The bishop, says the Springfield council leader, sees ecumenical affairs differently from his predecessor, whom Rev. Levell described as "a very aggressive ecumenist.

"Bishop Law is up front and honest. . . . Rather than look for a lowest common denominator, his stance is that he is going to be a Roman Catholic first and an ecumenist second."

Some take offense at that attitude. "When Bishop Law first came, he made it clear that where he stood was pretty much old-line Catholic, and there has not been much openness since," said Rev. Carl E. Wilke, rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Springfield.

"He has the reputation for being a great ecumenist," said Fr. Wilke, "but he has done nothing to encourage ecumenical relations between Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches."

Few other clergy would discuss such reservations on the record. One Catholic theologian from outside the Springfield diocese insisted that Bishop Law "is not ecumenical at all. He may have some facility of contact because he is a gentleman, but it is all on a superficial level."

However, Rev. Msgr. Joseph Baker, until recently ecumenical officer for the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Louis, argues that "what Bishop Law accomplished is beyond what could have been expected," given the small size of the Springfield diocese.

"He was doing the best thing for his diocese in trying to relate to the Bible Belt people," said Msgr. Baker. "It would have been easy to spend the effort relating to the Episcopal Church, which isn't very large there, but while that might have looked good, it wouldn't have been taking care of the needs there."

That need is reflected perhaps in the friendship between Bishop Law and Rev. T.T. Crabtree, pastor of the First Baptist Church, largest congregation in Springfield.

"He is a brother in Christ," said Rev. Crabtree, who called the bishop a "very close friend.

"He's called on me about problems of communication and concern that affected the Catholic Church, and I was able to comfort him once or twice about someone making irresponsible remarks," the Baptist minister said. "There was a fellow making vicious attacks on the Catholic Church, and I told Bishop Law to try to ignore him because that guy doesn't speak for anyone I know of."

Catholic lay people also seem to recognize the motive behind the bishop's ecumenical efforts. "Bishop Law has had to be reasonably careful in his approach," said Terry Meek, a Catholic businessman active in the efforts to expand the Catholic school system here. "Catholics have to be accepted, and the church has to function in a broader spectrum."

This story ran in the Boston Globe on 3/19/1984.
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