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Spotlight Report

Tension seen between archdiocese, BC

Some alumni, faculty fault Law on crisis

By Kevin Cullen, Globe Staff, 5/28/2002

Thomas H. O'Connor remembers it almost as if it were yesterday: a nice spring day and thousands of excited students and proud parents crowded into Alumni Stadium in Chestnut Hill for the 1984 commencement of Boston College.

''We had a new archbishop and it was his first major address to a large Catholic audience,'' recalled O'Connor, a history professor at BC. ''There was excitement in the air.''

But that sense of excitement soon gave way to seat-shifting discomfort as Archbishop Bernard F. Law took the opportunity to question Boston College's commitment to Catholicism. Two years later, Law returned to the campus as a cardinal, and his criticism was even more pointed. On both occasions, O'Connor said, the audience reaction was similar.

''I remember people just gasping, listening to their archbishop say that BC had moved away from the Catholic tradition, that it was no longer a Catholic college, that changes had to be made,'' O'Connor said. ''He alienated a lot of BC graduates, and yet it was a core of BC graduates who were his biggest financial backers.''

Tensions between the archdiocese's hierarchy and its Jesuit university have grown as the scandal over Law's handling of sexually abusive priests has unfolded over the last five months.

When the scandal exploded, Law sought advice from lay people, many of them BC graduates who are prominent business people. Some said they were with him all the way; more of them have told the cardinal he should resign.

Some Boston College academics have been among the cardinal's most outspoken critics, saying his handling of sexually abusive priests has been disastrous. When the cardinal met with a group of lay advisers Feb. 19 at his residence, it was that same word, ''disastrous,'' which William M. Bulger - the University of Massachusetts president and a ''Triple Eagle,'' as graduates of Boston College High School, Boston College, and BC Law School are called - used to describe Law's management of the crisis.

And although Law and officials at the chancery, the archdiocese's headquarters adjacent to the BC campus, would prefer the sexual abuse scandal go away, the Rev. William Leahy, BC's president, recently announced the university would make it a course of study.

Boston's archbishop has traditionally attended BC graduations, and Law had been at nearly all of them in his 18 years in Boston. But this year BC officials and students said the cardinal's presence would attract demonstrations, and Law agreed to stay away from last week's commencement.

As the cardinal and his aides try to figure out how to pay millions of dollars in settlements for the victims of abusive priests, some members of the hierarchy privately complain that Boston College is distancing itself from Law because BC covets the land on which the chancery, the cardinal's residence, and St. John's Seminary sit, viewing it as essential to BC's expansion plans. ''There are some in the chancery who suspect a land grab,'' said O'Connor, author of the book ''Boston Catholics.''

Differing views of the world noted

O'Connor and others say the differences in attitudes between the archdiocese and its academic adjunct are rooted more in philosophy and social attitudes than in petty real estate disputes.

Ostensibly, the archdiocese and the college are on the same team, and have been neighbors since the 1930s, when Cardinal William O'Connell followed the same advice he had given his alma mater 20 years earlier and moved the chancery from the congested South End to the then-bucolic fringes of the city in Brighton. O'Connell took advantage of the move to build next to the chancery a luxurious Italian Renaissance residence, a considerable step up from the spartan room at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross that his predecessor, Archbishop John Williams, called home.

But, there have always been disagreements, rivalries, and personality conflicts between the Boston archbishop and BC. According to historians and theologians, the gap in attitudes between the conservative chancery and the more liberal university has widened in the last two generations as BC evolved from a commuter school that served the working class to one of the nation's leading private universities, attracting affluent students who can pay Ivy League-level tuitions. In the last 30 years, BC's endowment has grown from $5 million to $1.1 billion, placing it among the top 40 of richest American universities.

Founded in 1863 by Irish immigrants who fled famine and were trying to assimilate in an initially hostile and overwhelmingly Protestant city, BC is now a bastion of an established, confident, empowered Catholic community that makes up more than half the population of the metropolitan area and whose graduates people the boardrooms of Boston's biggest corporations and the living rooms of the city's most prosperous suburbs.

In February, when the cardinal sought advice on how to respond to the sexual abuse crisis, many of the lay people who gathered at his residence were prominent BC graduates. In fact, the session was organized a week before at a meeting of the Boston College trustees, when Jack Connors Jr., who heads one of the city's biggest advertising firms, and R. Robert Popeo, the chairman of the law firm Mintz, Levin, Cohn, Ferris, Glovsky and Popeo, put together the group to advise the cardinal. Of the 14 people who met with Law, more than half were BC graduates and nearly half were trustees or members of BC's advisory groups.

BC graduates and trustees Peter S. Lynch, vice chairman of Fidelity Management, and John A. McNiece Jr., retired CEO of the Colonial Group, last year each gave the archdiocese $10 million, its biggest publicly acknowledged donations. Lynch has raised tens of millions for the archdiocese's inner-city parochial schools.

Clashes seen over culture

Law's compound sits within spitting distance of BC's sprawling campus. And of late, the two institutions have been figuratively spitting at each other.

Last month, for example, the Rev. Robert J. Carr, parochial vicar at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, where the cardinal says Mass, and one of the cardinal's staunchest backers, issued a statement suggesting archdiocese property could be sold to pay settlements and to help the poor. But, Carr added, no part of the cardinal's compound should be sold to BC. ''It would be silly to offer it to a Catholic institution that itself produces people who, by their inactivity as Catholics, reject our faith,'' said Carr.

In an interview, Carr said the hierarchy is justifiably miffed by BC's ambivalence, and in some cases outright hostility, toward the cardinal. He sees a rift ''on a philosophical level, not an official rift.'' Carr considers many BC graduates ''cafeteria Catholics'' who pick and choose church teachings they like and eschew moral positions, such as those on abortion and contraception, they don't.

''The cardinal's image of the church and BC's image of the church are radically different,'' said Carr. ''I think a lot of it is ideologically driven. BC looks at everyone on a political level, driving the church in accordance with the latest aspect of American culture. The cardinal drives the church in accordance with the history of the church. He is not susceptible to whims.''

For example, Carr says, most BC graduates and academics support the idea of ordaining women as priests, while the cardinal adheres to Vatican teaching that the subject is not open to debate. Carr said the cardinal was justified several years ago in preventing former Governor Paul Cellucci from speaking at an archdiocese high school in Cellucci's native Hudson because Cellucci supports abortion rights and the death penalty, which the cardinal and the church vehemently oppose. In contrast, Carr said, ''BC fell over itself to have Cellucci speak'' at the university. Like many of the state's prominent politicans, Cellucci now US ambassador to Canada, is a BC graduate.

The chancery does not like to highlight the tension between archdiocese leaders and its neighbor. Last week, for example, the Rev. Christopher Coyne, an archdiocese spokesman, wrote a letter to the editor disputing Globe columnist Adrian Walker's assertion that relations between BC and the archdiocese are ''cooler than usual'' because of the scandal.

At BC, however, many officials and academics not only acknowledge the tension, they consider it healthy. ''I don't think the issues that have arisen, touching on how Catholics relate to the church, are going to go away,'' Leahy said on May 15, announcing BC's plans to study the issues arising out of the scandal. ''The clergy sexual abuse issue has sparked people to look at their faith in a different way. How do they relate to priests and the hierarchy in the church? How could this happen? Why were there coverups by the hierarchy? We as the Catholic community have issues we need to respond to and deal with.''

Time of crisis puts pressure on balancing act

Thomas H. Groome, a professor of theology and religious teaching at Boston College, quoted St. Thomas Aquinas in noting that the three groups from which Catholic teaching and learning spring are the hierarchy, the laity, and scholars. ''As the philosopher Congar said, it's a great system when it works, but sometimes it doesn't,'' said Groome, author of ''What Makes Us Catholic.''

Groome compares the balance of power among the hierarchy, the laity, and academia to the executive, legislative, and judiciary branches of government.

''There should be a healthy tension between the hiearchy and academia,'' he said. ''The official voice is not the only voice. The hierarchy should develop a consensus of the three groups. All three should be bouncing off each other. The papacy should listen to the people; the people should listen to the papacy.''

But Groome said in times of crisis, there is often pressure from the hierachy to conform, to present a united front. Dissent is regarded by some as treachery, a view he said is shortsighted and insecure.

''Academia is the [research and development] of the church. It would be foolish of the church to discredit that and consider it unfaithful'' if academics criticize the hierarchy, Groome said. ''The bishops don't get any faxes from God.''

There is nothing new about suggestions that BC has drifted too far from its Catholic roots. In his book, ''American Catholic,'' Charles R. Morris notes that a 1960s report by Wesleyan University ''wondered whether Boston College was too slavish in its aping of its secular counterparts.''

''The Jesuit debates were a harbinger of a broader problem facing the American Church in the 1960s - the gradual unraveling of the separatist ethos that had been the source of so much Catholic organizational strength,'' Morris wrote. ''Questioning Catholic academic standards and intellectual achievement pointed to incipient restiveness in Catholic ranks - restiveness about clerical authority, about the status of the laity, about the ambitious reach of the Church's truth-claims, about its all-enveloping cultural pretensions.''

BC graduates, many of them affluent, successful, and influential in the secular world, often embody that restiveness. Thomas P. O'Neill III, the son of the late US House Speaker Tip O'Neill, was part of the group summoned to the cardinal's residence in February. O'Neill, a public relations magnate and former lieutenant governor, was among those who told Law he had to advocate for radical reform of the church, including greater involvement of women, if Law was to reclaim the moral authority he had lost because of the sexual abuse scandal.

After concluding that the cardinal was either unwilling or unable to persuade the Vatican to seriously consider broad reform, O'Neill last month publicly called for Law's resignation. O'Neill's complaints about Law narrowly viewing Catholics based on their stance on abortion rights were shared by his father, one of BC's most famous graduates.

Friends of the late Speaker of the House say he often recalled privately how he had confronted Law soon after the new archbishop began demanding that Catholic legislators oppose abortion. Tip O'Neill, his friends say, told the cardinal he was out of line and out of touch. Ever the pol, O'Neill rattled off the demographics of his constituency, challenging the cardinal on whether he knew the numbers of Catholics in his district and whether they supported abortion rights.

O'Neill valued the advice of his childhood pals on Barry's Corner in Cambridge over that from the chancery in Brighton. If, in O'Neill's world, all politics was local, so, too, was most wisdom.

Groome sees the crisis confronting the church as an opportunity to fully implement the changes and reforms called for under Vatican II. He said the three elements of the church that Aquinas identified - the hierarchy, the laity, and Catholic scholars - need to work in concert to achieve real reform. He believes the hierarchy needs to cede more authority to the laity. ''Very few people in power willingly give it up,'' he acknowledged. ''But the opportunity is there. I have faith.''

This story ran on page A1 of the Boston Globe on 5/28/2002.
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