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The cardinal's ambitions

Does Cardinal Bernard Law serve the pope or the president? Is he prelate or politician -- or both?

By Daniel Golden, Globe Staff, 4/22/1990

e clamber into a gray Ford Taurus parked behind the hilltop Brighton mansion that many Boston Catholics still call, simply, "The Residence." I sit in back; Bishop Robert Banks, vicar-general of the archdiocese and the Taurus' owner, takes the wheel; and His Eminence Cardinal Bernard Law rides shotgun.

It is 11 a.m. on a Wednesday in February -- St. Valentine's Day, as it happens -- and the cardinal has just conducted his weekly Cabinet meeting in the chancery building nearby. Since their last get-together, Law told 10 men and one woman around the conference table, he had mulled over Third World debt with Mexican bankers in Washington, D.C., brainstormed antiabortion strategy with US bishops in New York City, and jolted a visiting Northern Ireland official with a pointed question about conditions in Catholic schools there. The following Sunday he would leave for Cuba and his second tete-a-tete with Fidel Castro.

This morning's destination is more prosaic: Quincy. As the bishop steers southward, I float a question toward the thick, silvery hair that is all I can see of the cardinal. A resonant voice interrupts me. "I'll just make one phone call here," Law says. And he grabs the car phone.

Unlike his predecessor, Cardinal Humberto Medeiros, an old-school gentleman who preferred to have his say in person, Law loves to reach out and touch someone -- especially from an automobile. Thomas Flatley, a developer who advises him on business matters, says that Law "uses car phoning excessively well." Drivers on Massachusetts highways occasionally spot the car-phone cardinal pulled over in the breakdown lane, taking advantage of a good connection. The helicopter that Law used to borrow from a Quincy developer for twirling around the archdiocese has been sold, or he might have installed a phone there as well. Rev. William Helmick, Law's private secretary from 1984 to 1987 and now pastor at St. Theresa's in West Roxbury, jokes that the greatest penance that could ever be imposed on His Eminence would be for him to sit in a chair, tied up, with a phone ringing just out of his reach.

The 59-year-old Law rarely phones for pleasure, almost always for business -- and what he regards as his business encompasses a good chunk of both both church and state. Today his first call is to a bishop in Mississippi, where he edited a diocesan newspaper in the 1960s. Eavesdropping, I catch only snatches. "Let me just say I'm in a car," Law says. "I may lose you soon."

And so it goes, all the way to St. Thomas Aquinas Hall, where 35 priests from Quincy, Braintree, Milton, and Randolph wait on folding chairs on a basketball court for their annual meeting with the cardinal. He briefs them on the upcoming retreats and support sessions for priests and on a comprehensive study of parochial schools. "It's not to preside over closing a system, but to make it more effective," he assures them.

Then, yellow legal pad in hand, Law invites questions. But, instead of following his agenda, several priests object to a new rule that bans the draping of an American flag over the casket at funeral Masses. Taken aback, Law calls for a show of hands. At least half of the priests oppose the doctrine.

"We're looking ridiculous," says Msgr. Thomas J. Finnegan Jr., pastor of St. Elizabeth's in Milton and former chancellor of the archdiocese. "The world is in flames, and we're fighting about flags."

Law tells the dissidents that he also dislikes the rule but is powerless to change it, because it was confirmed by the Holy See. Suddenly, he is transformed from mover and shaker to unbending servant of Rome.

Finnegan persists. The bishop of Worcester, he says, allows the draping of the flag. Law promises to take the matter up with Rome. But if the Vatican won't budge, he won't either. "It's in the book," he says. "You know me. Like it or not."

Even after six years of constantly seeing him on television and reading about him in the newspapers, many Boston Catholics wonder what makes Cardinal Law tick. If they watch him long enough, they feel as if they have double vision, because he is a bustle of contradictions. Is he the buddy of a president who is dissociating his party from the antiabortion cause, or the intimidating figure who declares that anyone not absolutely opposed to abortion forfeits the public trust? Is he politician or prelate? Or both?

Every American cardinal faces a dilemma. Almost by definition, he is a player in two spheres: American politics and the church. The concerns of these two domains overlap, most notably on the issues of abortion, birth control, and homosexuality, but also on foreign and domestic policies. These days, with American bishops taking stands on everything from nuclear weapons to the economy, it is increasingly hard to distinguish between what is Caesar's and what is God's. Yet the two realms require contrasting modes of thought and behavior. American politics puts a premium on flexibility and compromise. The church -- especially under Pope John Paul II -- demands ideological rigidity and fire-and-brimstone theology.

Most prelates feel more comfortable in one sphere or the other. Consider, for example, Law's predecessors in Boston, where politics and the church stood for generations as the only careers that the Yankee establishment left open to ambitious Catholics. Boston's first cardinal, William O'Connell, advised every president from Taft to Hoover. But in the end he proved too imperious for American politics. When Franklin Roosevelt unintentionally antagonized him at their first meeting by calling him "Bill," he never entered the White House again.

Richard Cushing rushed into political battles where other cardinals feared to tread. Not only did he endorse the losing candidate in the 1959 Boston mayoral race, but he also bet money on him. Another prediction he made that same year, when he introduced then-senator John F. Kennedy as "the next president of the United States," paid off handsomely in access to the White House. But Cushing's clout did not impress the Vatican, where he was regarded as a "buffoon" early in his career and generally as a "loose cannon," according to Albert Eisele, who is writing a biography of the cardinal. It took Cushing 14 years to rise from archbishop to cardinal -- 13 years longer than Law.

Cushing's successor, the self-effacing Humberto Medeiros, chose the other course. Except in 1980, when he urged voters to reject two candidates for Congress because they supported abortion rights, he stayed out of politics.

Law, who once described himself in a television interview as a meddler, does not acknowledge the tension between these two spheres. He wants it all, secular and religious power. He acts both roles -- the pragmatist educated at public schools and at Harvard, and the Vatican sergeant who learned to obey orders as the son of an Air Force colonel. He mingles with the pooh-bahs of American culture, then proclaims that the church must be countercultural. A pragmatist after President Bush's heart in secular affairs, and a hard-liner in the mold of John Paul II in Catholic doctrine, Law has the ear of both leaders -- at least until they compare notes.

"His political connections are much better than any archbishop of Boston has ever had," says Boston College professor Thomas Wangler, who specializes in the history of the church in Boston. "He's the first archbishop of Boston to have a foreign policy. He's not just tending the shop. Bernard Law is going to leave his mark."

How far can Bernard Law rise? Whether he can become the first American pope -- a goal he confided to friends during his days in Mississippi -- is doubtful. According to many Vaticanologists, the papacy, like the post of secretary general of the United Nations, is best bestowed on a country that is not a world power. Even if, in the event of Pope John Paul's death, the college of cardinals were to want an American, Law's links to Bush might work against him. If we choose Pope Bernard, his critics might say, nobody would know whether he was speaking for the church or the Republican Party.

But if he cannot be pope, Law can be a power broker, a modern-day Cardinal Richelieu entrusted with secret errands by both church and state. His rapid ascension to cardinal and his decisive role in the appointment of two other American archbishops testify to his pull in the Catholic hierarchy. His patrons include William Baum, who preceded Law as bishop in a rural Missouri diocese and is now the only American cardinal in Rome, and Archbishop Pio Laghi, the Vatican pro-nuncio in Washington.

Law's friendship with Bush, initiated by a Protestant evangelical on the staff of the then-vice president, has ripened to the point where they talk on the phone once a month. "If I need to get through to the president, I'm sure I could," Law says, discussing his friendship with Bush for the first time in an interview. "I wouldn't ascribe to our relationship the kind of importance I read about in the newspaper. I wouldn't see myself as a key player in the development of policy. I do have access to the president, I've enjoyed his company, I anticipate that access will continue to be available. I wouldn't abuse that accessibility."

Already, Law has served as a liaison in foreign affairs. Born in Mexico and raised in various outposts of the Caribbean and Latin America, he considered a diplomatic career before choosing the priesthood. He speaks fluent Spanish. As cardinal, he has traveled everywhere from Puerto Rico to Poland, chatting not only with fellow prelates but with political leaders such as Fidel Castro and Daniel Ortega. In November 1986, he went to a Nicaraguan prison to console Eugene Hasenfus, the American pilot arrested for smuggling weapons to the contras. "It was just, 'Hi, how are you, are you getting any church here?' " says Hasenfus, who was released the following month and is now a construction worker in Wisconsin.

This past December, Law played what he describes as a "very minor but effective role to help facilitate communication" during Manuel Noriega's extrication from the Vatican nunciature in Panama City. In less high-flung terms, his contribution was to address whatever concerns there might have been over the blaring rock music played by American troops to harass Noriega. He also discussed the negotiations on Nightline.

On his trip to Cuba in February, Law not only paved the way for a papal visit to Cuba later this year but also gained information about the island's political future. He relayed his impressions to Bush in a meeting last month.

Less conspicuously, Law has surrounded himself with a circle of foreign policy specialists. His private secretary, Msgr. Timothy Moran, previously served in the Vatican diplomatic corps in India and Germany, while Msgr. William Murphy left his job as Vatican undersecretary for peace and justice in 1987 to become Law's secretary for community relations. No sooner had the West Roxbury native returned

to Boston than Law dispatched him to Haiti to analyze the church's role in the post-Duvalier era.

Rev. Raymond Helmick, Rev. William Helmick's brother, mediated disputes in Northern Ireland and Lebanon before becoming a founder of the Conflict Analysis Center in Washington, D.C., in 1982. Three years later, Law brought Helmick to Boston, where he now teaches at Boston College and briefs the cardinal on Irish and Middle Eastern affairs. "He's looking for people to broaden his world view," Helmick says. "He has this feeling that it is his responsibility to be very conscious of the major trends of the Holy See, and to promote them."

Law's two-pronged approach has played better on the world stage than in Boston. In an archdiocese with a tradition of Catholic leadership on social justice, his caution on race relations and the state budget crisis has disappointed those who expected a forceful advocate for minorities and the poor. And his theological conservatism has disenchanted gays, women, and liberal Catholics who yearn for a more inclusive and open-minded church. According to Rev. Richard McBrien, chairman of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame, Law is "one of the most conservative, right-of- center bishops in the US hierarchy."

Nine years after the AIDS epidemic became front-page news, the archdiocese is finally planning to open a 24-bed hospice for AIDS victims at St. John of God Hospital in Brighton. According to Larry Kessler, a Catholic and the executive director of the AIDS Action Committee, Law has never joined the annual walk for AIDS nor held a special collection in churches for those suffering from the disease -- as he has for victims of Hurricane Hugo and the Mexican earthquake.

According to Kessler, other archdioceses have taken more dramatic action, such as converting convents into hospices. Law "had a wonderful opportunity to lead during the AIDS crisis, and he botched it, mainly because of his severe caution," Kessler says. "We don't have a leader. We have a politician. I often think what it would be like if Cushing was here with all this craziness on Beacon Hill. He would have torn the Legislature apart on behalf of the poor, the mentally ill, the homeless. We've hardly heard a peep from this archbishop."

"I often think," he continues, "Bernard Law would be a better senator than pastor. Ray Flynn is a better pastor than Bernard Law is."

Instead of taking a more visible role against racism or AIDS, Law has crusaded against individuals and institutions that he has regarded as heterodox. Along with Cardinal John O'Connor of New York, he denounced Democratic vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro in 1984 for her support of abortion rights and differed with many other church leaders in proclaiming abortion the most crucial issue of the campaign. At Boston College commencement exercises in 1986, he warned that the school was losing its Catholic identity. He also pushed for referendum questions to curb state funding of abortions and allow state aid to parochial schools. Both lost decisively.

Stung by the defeats, Law toned down his confrontational style. He brought the savvy Murphy from the Vatican as his right-hand man and mended ties with Boston College. Three BC trustees sit on the Cabinet of the archdiocese's current fund-raising campaign. "In the beginning, Law saw BC as an ox to be gored," says a trustee of the influential Jesuit college. "Of late, he's recognized that it's a cow to be milked."

In a move that reflected Law's more conciliatory posture, Philip Lawler, the conservative activist whom the cardinal had hired to edit the archdiocesan newspaper in 1987, was dismissed last May, even though he had doubled The Pilot's circulation. Lawler had written many incendiary editorials, including one against the gay rights bill. The bill, which the church helped block for 17 years, passed last fall. Although Gerald D'Avolio, the church's lobbyist on Beacon Hill, says the bill had gained so much momentum that it could not be defeated, some State House insiders believe that the church's opposition was less vigorous than before Lawler's departure.

Even on the issue of abortion, which he calls "the primordial evil of our time," Law is often leery of political risk. He has marched in antiabortion demonstrations and spoken at rallies, even expressing "admiration and prayerful support" for members of Operation Rescue, the militant antiabortion group. Yet he has never joined its blockades of abortion clinics -- unlike New York Auxiliary Bishop Austin Vaughan, who was arrested in a demonstration last year. Nor has he followed the lead of a California bishop in denying communion to a Catholic candidate who favored abortion rights.

Still, with abortion looming as a major issue in the governor's race this year and conservatives -- and some parishes -- organizing for a referendum to repeal the gay rights law, the cardinal may find it difficult to stay on the sidelines. "Clearly, a lot of us are concerned in this gubernatorial race, if it turns out to be Pierce vs. Murphy, that he could be talked into wading into this fight," says Domenic Bozzotto, a Catholic labor leader whose children attend parochial schools. "That would be horrendous. It would tell Catholics that the church will go to hell or high water on some issues, and on others it will let time take its course."

Law performs the rites of American politics better than many candidates for high office, faithfully making the rounds of fraternal club dinners and community luncheons. Like many regulars on the rubber-chicken circuit, he tends to gain weight. Every so often he goes on a diet and passes up his beloved pastry. Unlike many politicians, Law largely abstains from alcohol and dislikes socializing with heavy drinkers. Once, at a Knights of Columbus function, he committed the heresy of asking for the bar to be closed during dinner.

He can think on his feet. In May 1988, he gave the benediction at the inaugural dinner of Boston Ireland Ventures, a nonprofit effort to encourage economic investment in Ireland. Then he was unexpectedly asked to deliver one of the main addresses of the evening. Without notes or any time to prepare, he spoke for 40 minutes on the link between economic development and peace in Ireland to an audience of Catholic and Protestant businessmen and public officials.

He displays a similar astuteness with the media. He writes a weekly column in The Pilot and is a frequent guest on radio talk shows. His shrewdness was apparent toward the end of the 1984 presidential campaign, when President Reagan and Walter Mondale visited Boston on the same day. Afterward, Law issued a statement that Reagan had invited him to a rally but Mondale had not. Law had rejected the president's request, he continued, because he did not want to appear to favor either side. The genius of this statement, obligingly reported by the Boston media, was that it avoided endorsing a candidate, which is against church policy and also skirts the federal prohibition on tax-exempt groups engaging in politics, while still implying Law's preference. In effect, the cardinal was telling Catholics that Reagan had endorsed him.

Law has mastered the game of politics so well that he even socializes with his abortion opponents. For example, he attended a party for the 99th birthday of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy's mother, Rose. "I find it possible to be civil with and work with people with whom I disagree, even on such a fundamental issue," he says.

Yet Law's other self -- the one that bows to the Vatican -- has a way of rising to the surface and alienating American public officials. Such was the case last September 17, when Law celebrated Mass at St. James the Apostle Church in Arlington in honor of the church's 75th anniversary. The church was the most crowded it had been in five years, and the front pew was filled with selectmen and state legislators, of whom several read congratulatory proclamations.

Ever the suave master of ceremonies, Law asked all members of the congregation who had been baptized at the church to stand up. They were greeted with applause. Then, those who had been confirmed and married at St. James heard cheers in their turn.

Midway through his homily, Law said he had a word for the elected officials there -- especially the Catholic ones. Then, in five minutes of hellfire rhetoric, he told them that if they supported abortion rights, they were sanctioning murder.

Most of the politicians there did disagree with the cardinal on abortion, and his sermon did not change their minds. They saw it as a gesture of condemnation, not conciliation. They felt he had blighted a joyous occasion and humiliated them before their constituents. State Sen. Richard Kraus was so angry, according to a colleague, that he complained to Senate President William Bulger, a friend of Law's.

Arlington Selectman Kevin Greeley listened to Law in shock. His father had helped build St. James Church, and he was baptized there. He also attended its parochial grammar school, which closed in 1987. He supports a woman's right to choose.

"It's a shame, because the cardinal had given a very fine presentation," Greeley says. "We had no chance to get up and respond. He really made me feel like, 'If I don't do this, I'll be thrown out of the church.' "

Law is ambitious not only for himself, but also for his church. His politicking is a last-ditch effort to revive the days when Catholics obeyed their bishop -- on spiritual and political matters -- and their bishop obeyed Rome. Through sheer force of personality, he is hoping to arrest the momentum of 30 years.

With Kennedy's election as president in 1960 and the Second Vatican Council in 1963-65, the church joined mainstream America, but this assimilation was achieved at the cost of Catholic identity. Many Catholics reject church teachings on abortion, birth control, and divorce, and the liturgy varies from one parish to the next.

Law did not feel the brunt of these changes until he came to Boston. From 1973 to 1984, he had been a bishop in a Missouri diocese where fewer than 50,000 Catholics were united by their minority status and lingering Bible Belt discrimination. The Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese, in fact, ranks among the highest in the world in per capita contributions to the church. Boston is the nation's third-largest archdiocese, with 1.8 million Catholics, but it cannot count on their allegiance.

Under Law, donations to the cardinal's annual appeal have doubled to $11 million, but they remain less than half of what Combined Jewish Philanthropies collects from the region's 200,000 Jews. Although the Boston archdiocese is not as strapped financially as those in Detroit and Chicago, it projects a $600,000 deficit for fiscal 1990. Other danger signs include a shortage of priests and the scheduled closing of a North End parochial high school where the enrollment has dropped from a peak of 540 to 142. "I live as a bishop in the shadow of my, of our, inadequacy in heralding the good news of redemption to a world often too bored or too distracted to listen," Law wrote in 1987 in The Pilot.

The independence of Boston Catholics was driven home to Law several years ago when he invited 100 business leaders to a series of breakfasts at The Residence. He bluntly told them that they had benefited from the church and it was time to pay up. He said that they were expected to contribute a tithe of $100 million -- $1 million apiece -- to the archdiocese. "Everyone listened respectfully," says one participant, John Connors, president of Hill, Holliday, Connors, Cosmopulos, Inc. "Then they walked out. They never gave him a nickel."

According to Connors, the cardinal learned from this setback. He began to cultivate business leaders and asked them to help organize a scaled-down fund drive. The Third Century Campaign has already obtained pledges for $18 million, including seven gifts of $1 million or more, toward its $30 million goal.

"It was a real lesson for him," Connors says. "He learned you don't mandate relationships. You need outreach. It was the education of Bernie Law."

The church needs more than money to restore its waning authority in America. According to Law, it must purify Catholic thought and reassert its traditions and the primacy of Rome.

Many American bishops and theologians believe that this goal is as unlikely as a repeal of women's suffrage. They contend that, in the spirit of Vatican II, the church should accommodate itself to American culture, and that the bishops' national organization or even individual dioceses should have some degree of independence. In 1986, Law lost eight elections for leadership posts within the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, in part because other bishops distrusted his orientation toward Rome. Last fall, Law was elected chairman of the conference's committee on migration -- a position in which his theological views matter less than his White House ties.

Undeterred, Law pursues his quest. He proposed and then helped to draft a new churchwide catechism for religious education -- a document that liberal theologians characterize as an attack on Vatican II. Last month, he restored the traditional Latin Mass in Boston. He has formed an advisory committee of leading Catholics, from a Harvard Law School professor to an executive of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO, which meets twice a year to discuss and hear lectures on Catholic social thought.

Law is stronger on vision than on follow-through, more comfortable with ideas than with detail. "He likes new things and new projects," says Rev. Michael Groden, director of the archdiocesan Urban Affairs Planning Office. "That works to the extent that the people around him can take quick ideas and turn them into solid church policy."

One idea that was particularly dear to Law's heart was creating a theological think tank that would "articulate what we believe in a way that is relevant to the world we live in but faithful to the teachings of the church." When he consulted the schools of theology in the archdiocese, he was told that his concept was vague and unnecessary. He went ahead anyway. In November 1986, Law announced he was seeking a $3.5 million endowment to launch the John Paul II Institute for Christian Anthropology, where a dozen scholars would advise him on the universal catechism and other theological matters.

Today, the think tank is "just floating out there in space," according to a Weston School of Theology professor. It has no endowment and no library. Its four scholars use the Harvard or Boston College libraries. Kenneth Schmitz, a retired professor, spends only half of the year at the think tank. The other three scholars have professional backgrounds principally in administrative or pastoral work, not academic study.

Renamed the Cambridge Center for the Study of Faith and Culture, the think tank is located on the first floor of a onetime workhouse, later a parochial school, in North Cambridge. The walls of its reception room and chapel are decorated with enlarged postcards. The 3,000 square feet of space exceed the needs of its occupants, giving it a forlorn quality. In the afternoons, one can hear the Matignon High School choir practicing upstairs.

According to one scholar there, Rev. Francis George, Law did not seek the center's help with the universal catechism and has called "two or three times" in two years with theological queries. The scholars keep busy with research and conferences but admit to some misgivings. "If you're not in a university, you risk isolation," Father George acknowledges.

Rev. Justin Monaghan knows a different Bernard Law from the politician who's all over the map and the media. They became friends in Missouri, where Law helped Father Monaghan overcome alcoholism by arranging treatment and a leave of absence from the priesthood -- and by just listening. Soon after Law came to Boston, he sent for Monaghan, who is now a priest at Immaculate Conception Church in Weymouth.

"He rekindled all my enthusiasm for ministry," Monaghan says. "He reached out with care and compassion yet was firm in suggesting that something needed to be done. One of my regrets probably is that, in this large archdiocese, many people are denied the opportunity of knowing Bernard Law, the man and the priest. Today, he misses not being able to know his priests as well as he knew them in Missouri. Because of sheer numbers, and his busy schedule, some priests will not understand, may never accept him. Because they differ on an issue, they may not realize they've got a loyal friend in him.

"He's probably one of the most authentic priests I've ever met. To me, he's a faithful man who is firm when it's necessary, authoritative when it's necessary, but at all times clothed with compassion and love."

Too often, Law's political forays have obscured his pastoral works. He spends many evenings touring hospital wards, and he constantly juggles his schedule to achieve his aim of attending every priest's funeral in the archdiocese. When the wife of an archdiocesan employee had a baby, a bouquet of flowers was at the door the next day -- from the cardinal.

He has comforted the families of several teen-age victims of Boston's murder spree. In the wake of Carol Stuart's murder and her husband's suicide, Catholic Charities donated $10,000 to the Carol Stuart DiMaiti Foundation. The cardinal hosted her parents at a Catholic Charities fund-raiser featuring Bill Cosby.

Flatley, the developer who advises Law, testifies that the cardinal values the spiritual needs of his flock above any economic considerations. When the downtown real estate boom was at its zenith, Flatley recommended selling the Franklin Street building that houses The Pilot and a small chapel. Law wouldn't hear of it. He told Flatley that the chapel has historic significance and is still frequented by hundreds of Bostonians. "It was an extraordinary price," Flatley says. "I would have sold it in a minute."

In 1984 Peter Meade was assigned to cover Law's installation as archbishop of Boston for WBZ Radio. On the day of the ceremony, his father died. When Meade and his mother went to the funeral home to make the arrangements, they received a phone call -- from the new archbishop. "That call was more important to me and my mother than if the president had called," Meade says.

Shuttling to and from his Missouri home for his nationwide schedule as a motivational speaker in the 1970s, Douglas Wead often found himself on the same airplane as Law. The Protestant evangelical and author introduced himself to the bishop. Soon Wead was donating money to keep his newfound buddy's daily, five-minute television program on the air. "It was not a big check, but a very nice check," Law recalls.

In 1985, when Wead became a consultant to Bush, he urged his boss to call Law. "I knew these were two kindred spirits," he says. He was right. The veep and the cardinal hit it off immediately. After they shared the podium in Atlanta in February 1986 at a celebration of Martin Luther King's birthday, Law accepted Bush's offer to ride back to Washington on Air Force Two and stay overnight at his house. "I do want to see more of Cardinal Law," Bush wrote to Wead later. "I would never exploit what I hope will grow into a fast friendship."

Soon afterward, Law spent a weekend with the Bushes in Kennebunkport. A fast friendship did take root, based largely on a shared passion for foreign policy. Wead saw the two men sitting on a couch at a White House reception in 1986, oblivious to their surroundings, absorbed in conversation about Law's just-concluded trip to Poland. "The president taps the cardinal for geopolitical insight," Wead says.

Still, whether Bush or Law avoids exploiting the relationship is open to question. Since most American bishops are liberal critics of the administration, a conservative prelate is a godsend to Bush. For his part, Law gains power and prestige. Last August, when an outcry arose for a response to terrorism after the murder of Col. William Higgins, Bush and Law together met reporters in the Oval Office as the president sought to defuse the pressure by announcing a day of prayer. After six Jesuit priests were murdered by the El Salvador military in November, Law did not join other religious leaders in lobbying Bush to cut off US military aid to the regime there. In a Pilot column, Law argued that President Alfredo Cristiani's government was conducting an effective investigation.

Law did not attend services held by Boston College president Rev. Donald Monan in memory of the slain Jesuits. Two bishops of the archdiocese went in his place. When a Boston Globe columnist accused him of keeping silent about the murders in return for Bush's support on the abortion issue, Law called a press conference and denounced the Globe as anti-Catholic.

"Some people think it's terrible that I wouldn't pick up a placard and say Cristiani should be ousted," Law says. "But we need to strengthen and encourage him."

When the president is your pal, so is everyone under him. Vice President Dan Quayle toured a parochial school in Roxbury this past January 22, on Law's recommendation. The cardinal was in Washington for an antiabortion rally that day, so the vice-president altered his schedule and talked to Law for half an hour the next day upon returning to the capital. Once a week, Law chats with White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, a dedicated Catholic and abortion foe. He also interceded with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp to salvage a modernization grant for the Cathedral public housing project in Boston.

Law has contacts in Congress as well. US Rep. Bill Emerson, a Republican from Missouri, whose district overlapped with Law's Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese, says that they used to "compare notes on issues of mutual interest. We're both prolife and procontra." When Law was named archbishop of Boston, Emerson threw a party to introduce him to the Massachusetts congressional delegation. There Law met US Rep. Joseph Moakley, who says that the cardinal has called seeking help on everything from abortion legislation to the release of funds for a bridge that the Agency for International Development proposed to build in Ecuador.

Even as the Bush administration has read the polls and distanced itself from the antiabortion movement in recent months, the cardinal has held his tongue in public. But the Bush clan did catch a glimpse of Law's theological rigidity when the president's brother-in-law, Alexander Ellis, died this past December.

Whenever the relative of a politician of any ideological stripe falls ill or dies, Law is usually there to offer consolation. He dropped in on Kitty Dukakis in the hospital and participated in services for Mayor Flynn's mother and sister-in-law. So it was not surprising that Law comforted Ellis during his last illness and helped arrange the funeral service at St. Joseph Church in Lincoln.

Although Ellis was Catholic, his widow is Episcopalian. A difference of opinion arose when Nancy Bush Ellis wanted the organist from her church to play at the service. Law brought an organist and choir from Holy Cross Cathedral instead. According to Rev. Lawrence J. Drennan, who celebrated the Mass, Law contended that an organist from another religious tradition would be unfamiliar with the new Catholic funeral rite -- the same rite that bans draping the flag on the casket. Already invited, the organist from the Episcopalian church was told he would not be needed after all.

Although friends say that the president's sister was disappointed by Law's intervention, she says only, "I didn't know enough about the Catholic Church. I didn't realize they had such wonderful music." The president and the cardinal left the church together. According to one White House aide, their topics of conversation included the Panama crisis.

As visitors enter the office of State Rep. James Brett, a Democrat from Dorchester, they pass two snapshots prominently displayed on a shelf. Brett is in one photo and his wife is in the other. Each is smiling. Each is posing with the same man -- Cardinal Law.

The chairman of the Joint Committee on Criminal Justice, Brett attended a parochial grammar school and is active in his parish. He credits the church's commitment to social justice with shaping his political career. "In difficult times like this, I'm closer than ever to the church," he says.

Law impressed the legislator on his first day in Boston, when the new archbishop toured the fire-ravaged frame of St. Ambrose Church in Dorchester. Soon afterward, Brett organized a cocktail reception at the Kennedy Library to raise money to rebuild the church, and Law showed up. When Law received his red hat in Rome in 1985, Brett was on hand.

Brett, who occasionally submits legislation on behalf of the church, is one of Law's allies in the House. So is Francis Woodward, a Democrat from Walpole, whose wife is the cardinal's administrative assistant. But his most influential friend in the Legislature is Senate President William Bulger. Bulger has pushed public aid to parochial schools for years and has come down from the rostrum on several roll calls to vote against abortion.

Law and Bulger used to dine regularly with another prominent figure in Massachusetts politics: John Silber. The president of Boston University and Medeiros had been friends, mainly because both came to Boston from Texas. (Silber was a dean at the University of Texas while Medeiros was bishop of Brownsville.) He and Law also had something in common. Each had gained a reputation in the South as a moderate yet in fact held conservative views about declining educational standards and the excesses of the welfare state. In 1986, at Bulger's suggestion, Silber announced that BU would give full- tuition scholarships in Medeiros' memory to a graduate of each of Boston's parochial high schools. At the annual awards ceremonies, the featured speakers are invariably Bulger, Law, and Silber. Recently, though, the cardinal has been disappointed by what he regards as Silber's compromising of his antiabortion beliefs to improve his chances in the governor's race.

"Perhaps I misunderstood what his position was initially," Law says. "It's better for a person to come out and say, 'I'm for abortion.' Then you know what you're dealing with. At least Evelyn Murphy has been very forthright."

His relationship with Mayor Flynn remains one of mutual respect, although it has cooled since Law denounced the city's 1988 plan to slow the spread of AIDS by giving clean needles to drug addicts. At the height of the furor over the investigation of Carol Stuart's murder, Law praised Flynn and Police Commissioner Francis M. Roache for their handling of the case.

Through his Pilot columns and statements by the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, the cardinal takes stands on a wide range of topics. But he lobbies legislators on one issue above all others -- abortion. In 1986, Law invited all legislators in the archdiocese to a breakfast at St. John's Seminary in Brighton. Sixty legislators heard him describe his plans to expand aid to pregnant women who were considering abortions out of financial need. Last December, Law hosted a second breakfast as a thank-you to antiabortion legislators.

One former state representative, a Catholic, introduced himself to Law in 1986 at a fund-raiser for a soup kitchen. "Representative, are you good?" Law asked him.

"I try to be," he responded.

"No, I mean on abortion," the cardinal replied.

A word from the cardinal, though, doesn't carry the impact that it did in Cushing's day. "The Legislature is changing," says Gerald D'Avolio, who, as executive director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, has been the State House lobbyist for Massachusetts bishops for the past 15 years.

"When I came here the perception was, 'He's a Catholic, that's his upbringing, he'll vote the church's viewpoint.' Now there are still a number like that, but the average legislator reflects more sensitively what his constituency is saying."

Shortly after Law arrived in Boston in 1984, the archdiocese proposed converting the former John Boyle O'Reilly School in South Boston into 33 units of housing for the elderly, including three apartments for elderly minorities. This modest gesture toward housing integration outraged the South Boston Information Center and other groups that had fought to stop court-ordered busing a decade earlier. Their members packed a raucous meeting at St. Monica's Church and rejected the plan. Although the vote was not binding, the cardinal withdrew the proposal. Another developer would succeed in reopening the school building as integrated housing for the elderly four years later.

"The cardinal was new here," says Father Groden, head of the urban planning office. "He got besieged by a number of people in South Boston. The clergy was not unanimous in its support. But you have to handle the issue when it arises. You can't wish it away. I would have preferred to have seen him go forward with it."

That retreat was the first sign that Law might not be the civil rights advocate that his record as an antisegregationist editor in Mississippi had led Bostonians to expect. Since then, the closest he's come to civil rights activism was having Jesse Jackson as an overnight guest at The Residence.

In 1988, when the city was moving under pressure from the federal government and the NAACP to desegregate public housing in South Boston, Law issued the statement that a healthy neighborhood "should be able to welcome newcomers." But he did not attend an ecumenical service for racial harmony at St. Monica's -- unlike the mayor, who was heckled outside the church. According to Barbara Arnwine, then a civil rights lawyer in Boston, Law was also unresponsive to requests from the Greater Boston Civil Rights Coalition to prod local companies to integrate their work forces.

"For many of us, based on his record coming out of the South, we were quite disappointed," says Arnwine, now executive director of the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, in Washington, D.C. "We expected so much more. His viewpoint on civil rights activity in Boston was a very limited and narrow one. From a man of great activism, it just ended up as sitting on committees and writing watered-down letters. It was clear to me that he was not willing to take risks."

Tellingly, the communications director of the South Boston Information Center concurs. "The cardinal seems to not really want to cause upheaval or commotion in the community," says John Ciccone. "That's how we read him. I was surprised, when he first came, that he wasn't more active in civil rights causes."

Showing a self-doubt that rarely surfaces on other issues, Law downplays his ability to influence race relations. "I can't answer for other people's expectations," says the cardinal, who has opened an office for black Catholics and appointed a black woman as its director. "I believe if you can bring people together, it's better than using confrontational tactics. My concern is, 'How can I be most effective as an archbishop?' The potential in my ministry may not be as great as some people think."

Law's lack of leadership on race relations contrasts with his staunch opposition to anti-Semitism. He has helped Soviet Jews emigrate and advocated Arab recognition of Israel. After reports that Operation Rescue members had made anti-Semitic remarks, he cautioned the movement's leaders.

Law has compared abortion to slavery, but not to the Holocaust, which may indicate a deeper sensitivity to Jewish heritage than to black history. Last fall, he stepped into an international controversy and urged the Carmelite nuns to move their convent from the site of the Auschwitz concentration camp. The night before Law visited Auschwitz himself in 1986, several Catholics accompanying him to Poland asked why they had to go to the camp. At the request of Leonard Zakim, executive director of the Anti-Defamation League, who was also on the trip, Law gave a 15-minute talk on the significance of Auschwitz. "It was the best presentation about the Holocaust I've ever heard from a non-Jew," Zakim says.

Newcomers have always been the lifeblood of the church in Boston. With Law's interest in foreign affairs and concern about the dwindling ranks of home-grown orthodox Catholics, it is not surprising that he has reached out to immigrants. Among other things, Law persuaded the pope to appoint the first Hispanic bishop in Massachusetts, established a clinic to help undocumented aliens qualify for amnesty, and opposed the referendum to declare English the official language of Lowell.

Law, who is of Irish descent, is particularly attuned to the new waves of immigrants from Southeast Asia and Latin America. When the Vatican pro-nuncio in Washington was seeking a post for a Vietnamese priest who had been ordained in a refugee camp in Thailand, Law -- who, as a bishop in Missouri, had established a national facility for refugee Vietnamese priests -- placed him in a church in a Vietnamese section of Dorchester. And when Thomas Flatley asked him to support a bill to increase the quota of Irish immigrants, Law turned the developer down -- on the grounds that it would be unfair to other countries to single out Ireland. "I let him know I wasn't thrilled with his position," the developer says.

The feast day of Our Lady of Fatima was the most important religious celebration of the year for the Portuguese Catholics in the parish of Immaculate Conception Church in Stoughton -- and for Sister Ellen Dabrieo. As the only Portuguese-speaking member of the church's staff, she was accustomed to participating in the service and distributing communion. On that September day in 1984, Dabrieo expected an even larger throng than usual, because the new archbishop was coming to celebrate the Mass.

Shortly before the service, Law's private secretary sent word that Dabrieo should not distribute communion, because it would violate the rule that laity cannot give out communion when enough priests are available. The rule was rarely invoked in the Boston archdiocese, where the shortage of priests made it possible to involve laity in the Mass. But there were several priests at this celebration, and Law wanted to adhere to the orthodox liturgy.

When Dabrieo asked her pastor for advice, he told her, "Play it by ear." When the time came, she drank from the chalice, picked up a ciborium, and began to distribute communion. Then she felt a tap on her shoulder, and looked up. It was Law. "Sister, we do not need you today," he said. "We have enough ordained ministers."

Stunned, she withdrew. The staff of the church later wrote in protest to Law, but he was adamant. "It's a problem, if you're a bishop, to involve yourself in something that's not in accord with church discipline," he says. "It sends the wrong message."

Today, Dabrieo continues to minister to the Portuguese community in that parish. Law "made me feel as if I were personally attacked," she says. "He sent the wrong message to the Portuguese community -- that I was of no value."

As a self-described "cheerleader" for a hard-line pope, Law has turned his share of cartwheels in trying to reinstate Roman orthodoxy in an archdiocese with a liberal tradition. At the same time, he has enough political smarts to know that a full-fledged housecleaning would provoke a rebellion. What has evolved is an accommodation -- or, to be less kind, a double standard. Law intervenes if rules are broken in his presence or he receives complaints. (He threatened to close the Paulist Center in 1986 after hearing complaints that a woman had led its Good Friday service instead of the required priest or deacon.) Otherwise, he looks the other way. He prefers to ignore that many parishes use altar girls and that priests distribute communion to gay Catholics every Sunday in an Episcopalian church on Beacon Hill.

Opus Dei has flourished under John Paul II, who granted it a special status to operate like a diocese. But Law's links to the organization go back to his Harvard days, when he socialized with two postdoctoral students from Spain who were starting a chapter on campus. Law never joined, but he remained friends with many members. Last year, Law visited its Cambridge center on the occasion of its 30th anniversary. "Opus Dei gets a really bum rap in the news," Law told members, according to the center's newsletter. "Does that mean that there has never been a member of Opus Dei who has ever acted in a way that is reprehensible? I doubt that. Is it possible that a group might be overzealous? Of course; that would be natural."

Describing how an Opus Dei member had helped to renew Law's faith at Harvard, the cardinal added, "I have great respect for Protestant evangelicals who will say to you, 'Are you saved?' or come knocking on our door. I don't fault them for that. I fault us for not doing it also."

By contrast, Law has a more distant relationship with the Society of Jesus. Pope John Paul II ordered Rev. Robert Drinan, a Jesuit and a political liberal, to give up his seat in Congress in 1980, and in 1982 he told Jesuits to tone down their political activism. Hewing to the same line, Law has attacked Jesuits for being politically or theologically left-wing. In a 1986 Pilot column, he criticized Catholic University in Managua, Nicaragua, "Jesuit in its origin and headed by a Jesuit," for lending "intellectual respectability" to a Sandinista regime that persecuted Catholics.

According to Caesar's Coin, a study of religion and politics by Father McBrien, Law objected in 1984 when Holy Cross College, a Jesuit institution in Worcester, asked Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York to speak at commencement. Despite an invitation, Law has never visited Holy Cross. Like many a politician, though, he once called to put in a word for two applicants for admission. Asked if they were accepted, vice president Rev. William O'Halloran, jokes, "At least we didn't lose their applications."

"Gee, there's a lot of gray hair here," says Rev. Francis Leblanc, director of the Vocation Office. He's just driven the cardinal from Quincy to another gym -- in Hanover -- for another meeting with priests, this time about recruiting teen-agers to the priesthood. Judging from the age of this audience, the last successful recruiting drive was in about 1960.

With his legal pad open to a fresh sheet, Law asks for a list of obstacles to recruitment. The priests recite problems that he can't solve and wouldn't if he could: celibacy, lifetime commitment, no ordination of women. "I have a tremendous fear that many young men, when they have a vocation, worry that their peers will tag them as being gay," one priest says.

Instead of exorcising these demons of gloom, Law sounds uncharacteristically weary. "I struggle," he says. "I trust you struggle. Some days are better than others."

To recharge himself after the meeting, Law bursts into a religious- education class in a parochial school down the hall. His opening gambit is reminiscent of Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, who used to call out to passersby, "How'm I doing?" Law asks the fourth graders, "Does anybody here recognize me?" One student guesses he is a priest. A second says, "You're the pope." To the relief of their teacher, who is overwhelmed by Law's visit, a third says, "You're the cardinal."

The children have been cutting hearts out of red construction paper for Valentine's Day. Law picks up a heart and delivers an impromptu sermon on love. He talks about visiting a woman in the hospital. She was dying of cancer, but she wasn't afraid. Jesus died for her, and she will live forever.

Law shakes hands with the students, asking their names. He removes his ring and passes it around. "That's a ring the pope touched," he says. Now that he has impressed them, he makes his pitch. "You better sign up for altar boys," he says.

There is a silence. Then one boy asks, "Do you get paid?"

Daniel Golden is a staff writer for the Globe Magazine.

This story ran in the Boston Globe Magazine on 4/22/1990.
© Copyright Globe Newspaper Company.


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