What Does Boston Mean for the Rest of the Church?

By Richard P. McBrien
The Pilot
Downloaded January 10, 2003

The recent resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law as archbishop of Boston was the lead story in all of the major media outlets. What is its significance for Boston, for the Catholic Church in the United States, and for the church universal?

For Boston it means, first of all, a brief respite from the strain of an extremely tense, year-long crisis. So much time and energy has been focused over the past several months on Cardinal Law himself rather than on the task of devising strategies for working through this crisis and for rebuilding trust and hope within the archdiocese. A spirit of demoralization had taken hold, not only among the laity but within the clergy as well.

The resignation also means, of course, that there will be a change of pastoral leadership in Boston sometime in the near future. A new archbishop will take up residence on Commonwealth Avenue. The laity, clergy and religious of Boston will be carefully studying the new archbishop's every word and gesture to see if his appointment might bring a new style of leadership to the archdiocese and a different, less suspicious attitude toward lay groups like Voice of the Faithful, and toward the clergy affiliated with the Boston Priests Forum.

It was, after all, Cardinal Law's loss of support from his priests that proved to be the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. He came to realize that he could no longer provide the necessary spiritual leadership without that support, and the Vatican came to recognize at the same time the true nature and scope of the crisis.

Those in Rome had to know that the 58 priests who signed the original statement represented only the tip of the presbyteral iceberg. Had the cardinal's resignation not been accepted this time around, there would have been a progressive breakdown in pastoral authority throughout the archdiocese, and the essential work of the church would have been placed at risk. The Vatican could not have allowed that to happen.

One would like to think that lay pressures were also decisive in bringing about the resignation and its acceptance by the pope, but the greater probability is that the laity's role was less significant than the clergy's.

The Vatican continues to be suspicious of lay demands for greater involvement in the internal governance of the church, not only with regard to finances but also the appointment of bishops and pastors.

One of the key criticisms the Vatican registered against the Charter on sexual abuse approved by the bishops in Dallas last June concerned the provision that granted lay review boards supervisory authority over the bishops.

For the Vatican, this was incompatible with the church's hierarchical structure, and so it ordered this item to be amended at the November meeting of the bishops in Washington. As a result, the lay boards are to have only a consultative voice. The local bishop still has the final word.

Lay hopes are also limited for the time being in the matter of the selection of bishops and pastors. The laity of Boston - and the clergy as well, for that matter - will have no say whatever in the selection of Cardinal Law's successor, even though all bishops, including the Bishop of Rome, were elected by the laity and clergy of their respective dioceses for much of the First Christian Millennium.

Nevertheless, the current crisis and the resignation of Cardinal Law are likely to bring about real change in the traditional relationships between priests and their bishops, and between laity and their pastors and bishops - not only in Boston but across the United States.

The spirit of automatic deference and unquestioning obedience, based often on fear of reprisal, is on the wane. The Boston priests and lay groups like Voice of the Faithful have marked out new paths that others in the Catholic Church can and will follow in time.

How these trends may affect the wider church is a question no one can readily answer at this relatively early stage. But one thing is certain: Those who advocate for a more accountable and responsible pastoral leadership are not innovators. They are calling not for revolution but for the retrieval of one of the most important pastoral elements in the church's tradition.

For various reasons, this element got lost in the ecclesiastical shuffle during the Second Christian Millennium, when the Catholic Church became more deliberately monarchical in structure.

Because of the resignation, however, that structure is now more open to change.

Father Richard P. McBrien is professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.


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