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The men who disappeared

Today, the public demands openness and accountability from its leaders. Cardinal Law, like many powerbrokers of his generation, failed to realize the rules had changed.

By Alan Wolfe, 12/22/2002


(Globe Staff Composite Photo)

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Does the Cardinal's resignation indicate that the Catholic Church is now attempting to adjust to new cultural expectations?
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he month in which Cardinal Bernard F. Law resigned his position atop the archdiocese of Boston will be remembered as the month in which everyone in America seemed to be resigning, or at least thinking about it. Henry Kissinger and former senator George Mitchell took themselves off a committee designed to investigate the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001; Al Gore removed himself from the 2004 presidential campaign; and Trent Lott relinquished his post as Senate majority leader. Meanwhile, University of Massachusetts president William Bulger found himself under increasing pressure to exit the public stage, as well. In all these cases, save perhaps that of Mr. Gore, leaders found themselves caught between the rules of one era and the expectations of another.

Men of a certain age usually in their 60s and 70s grew up at a time when the path to leadership in nearly all of America's institutions was fairly well defined. When young, you attached yourself to a mentor who could open the right doors. To prove your bona fides, you learned to be obedient to your superiors and loyal to your organization. You distrusted anyone, but especially people in the media: Journalists, you were convinced, wanted to pry into your affairs and cause mischief. You therefore came to attach a particular value to secrecy. You raised money by cultivating benefactors and listening carefully to their wishes. Eventually you would be rewarded, not only financially, but with all the honors a community can bestow upon those who guide its affairs.

Today, almost none of America's institutions works that way. The US Senate abolished strict seniority requirements, as first-term senators demanded to be heard. Politicians can make a name for themselves by cultivating the media rather than shunning them. Under threats of legal action or government regulation, corporations, universities, and even the military can no longer keep their records confidential. No matter what your line of work, if you wait too long to grasp power, someone younger than you will take it out of your hands. And the honors you expect may turn into public disgrace, or even a prison term, if your efforts to protect your organization cross over into the realm of the illegal.

This new culture of transparency and accountability does not, at first sight, mix well with religious institutions. Insulated to some degree by the feeling that churches should be a sanctuary, as well as by the constitutional principle of separation of church and state, such institutions were able to resist for some time the changes taking place in all of America's other centers of power. But they could not resist them forever. The Catholic Church, we should remember, is not the first American creed to find its leadership in disarray. The Rev. Jim Bakker went to jail for his financial irregularities, thereby undercutting evangelical Protestantism's claims of moral superiority, whereas Cardinal Law has not been indicted and most likely never will be.

The American Catholic Church is a vital part of American society, but it is not a democracy. Nor, to be true to both its theology and its traditions, can it become one. Unlike most Protestants, Catholics have not made the Bible, which in theory can be read and understood by anyone, the ultimate source of religious authority but instead have trusted in a hierarchy to pronounce on correct teachings. And throughout history, down to and including the present Pope, the Vatican has insisted that decisions be made on the principle of what is right, not what is popular.

It is for these reasons that the Vatican's acceptance of Law's resignation raises large questions about the future of the Catholic Church. Of course, some emphasize the church's continued commitment to its own authority. "No doubt any resignation will be taken as a sign that public and media pressure can force a bishop out," editorialized the Wall Street Journal on Dec. 13. "But that would be a mistake." In the opinion of the Journal's editorialist, the Vatican never succumbs to frenzy. Law's resignation simply made final what was already obvious: He had lost control of the situation.

Others see in the Cardinal's downfall a turning point in the history of the Church. "Law's resignation is unprecedented; this is the cardinal-archbishop of one of the premier archdioceses in the whole world being forced to resign," says Richard P. McBrien, a Notre Dame theologian. While previous bishops and cardinals have resigned their positions, including some who were tainted by the current crisis of sexual abuse and coverup, never before has so important a Church official left office after so much visible public protest. Whatever happens in the future, American Catholicism, many believe, will never again be as secretive and unaccountable as it has been in the past.

Over the next few years, we are likely to see both positions vindicated. Because Law was not the only Church official who instinctively sided with priests against the charges made by victims of sexual abuse, there will be calls for the resignation of other officials, such as New Hampshire Bishop John McCormack. Whatever the merits of the case against these officials, Rome is likely to resist any efforts to remove them. To do otherwise would make it appear that the Vatican can indeed have its hand forced by public opinion. Although it will not attract as much attention, the next controversy will involve even greater stakes than the controversy over Law. One resignation can be considered an exception. More than one, and a new principle of accountability has been established.

At the same time, a consideration of the longterm picture suggests that Law's resignation is as significant as Father McBrien claims. No amount of spin can disguise what really happened in Boston in 2002. A prominent archbishop was removed from office because he lost the trust of the faithful long before he lost the confidence of his superiors. The conclusion could not be more obvious: There are limits to the authority of even the most prestigious officials in the Church, and all future Church leaders will be quite aware of them.

Whether the Vatican intended this result or not, they have, by accepting Law's resignation, also accepted the realities of organizational life in a democracy. This does not mean that the Church will soon be calling for elected bishops or referenda on its policies. But it does mean that the next person called upon to lead the Boston Archdiocese will do so under radically different rules than those followed by Cardinal Law. He will have to consult with lay leaders. He cannot expect to be as blindly loyal to the Vatican as he expects his own priests to be to him. He will need to explain his decisions to the media. He will, if he has any sense, back down from the bankrupt notion of declaring bankruptcy and thereby ward off the unfavorable image of a spiritual organization playing its own version of hardball. And, of course, he will have to find a way to settle the claims of the victims of sexual abuse in a way that recognizes the enormity of the crimes committed against them.

Although they want their church to be responsive, most Boston Catholics do not want it to be democratic in the way of some Protestant churches. To be the religion it has always been, Catholicism must remain under Rome's leadership and avoid selecting its leaders through popularity contests. But to operate effectively in the new rules of organizational America, Catholicism can never again be led by individuals so out of touch with the sensibilities of their parishioners. The next leader of the Boston Archdiocese certainly has his work cut out for him. Fortunately for him and the faithful, the rewards of success, should he obtain them, will more than compensate for the effort.

For all its desire that the Church be more responsive to the laity, Boston's Catholic community has in many ways been more attached to the old rules of leadership than any other quarter of America. To this day, William Bulger can honor the code of family loyalty and have praise heaped upon him, even though his actions may have involved hindering the quest for a fugitive. In some ways, Bulger's recalcitrance is admirable; we need strong community and family ties to counter the intrusiveness of far-away bureaucracies. Moreover, the casting of too much sunlight on institutions can result in more sunburn than fresh air. But as both Law and Senator Lott of Mississippi have inadvertently demonstrated, no code of loyalty or feeling of nostalgia for a lost way of life can excuse actions and statements that cause devastating harm and treat vulnerable people with disdain.

What has become apparent in the aftermath of Law's resignation is that even Catholic Boston is catching up with the rest of America. You cannot put your institution first, no matter how great the harm to innocent people, and expect that you will be rewarded. The media, elected politicians, and, most important of all, your own constituents, will not let you.

Alan Wolfe is director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Life at Boston College.

This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 12/22/2002.
© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.


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