Loyalty Seen As Vital in Selection

By Michael Paulson
Boston Globe
May 11, 2003

Many Boston-area Catholics say they are only somewhat confident that Pope John Paul II will choose an archbishop with the qualities they think are important.

And with good reason, scholars say.

For while area Catholics, in a new Boston Globe poll, say their top priority in a new archbishop is "openness to change," theologians and clerics say the Vatican's focus will be on a trait that falls near the bottom of what poll respondents say they prize: "loyalty to church teachings."

"Openness to change, to the Vatican, means a readiness to compromise fundamental truths of the faith, and they don't see any need for change," said the Rev. Richard P. McBrien, a theologian at the University of Notre Dame. "The Vatican looks for complete, utter, uncritical loyalty to the Holy See, especially as it pertains to hot-button issues like the ordination of women, celibacy for priests, and the whole spectrum of sexual and reproductive issues. They are not going to appoint anyone who has ever expressed a doubt, much less a criticism, about these issues."

Numerous theologians, journalists, and clerics have spent the last several months speculating about the kind of man the Vatican is likely to choose to succeed Cardinal Bernard F. Law, and which of the nearly 300 active US bishops might qualify.

The strongest candidates for Boston, scholars say, appear to be Archbishop Harry J. Flynn of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Bishop Joseph A. Galante of Dallas, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of the Military Services, and Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh.

Flynn is touted because of his experience healing an abuse-torn diocese in Louisiana and his stewardship of the bishops' committee on sexual abuse, but he is 70, which means his tenure as archbishop could be limited to just five years before he must retire.

Galante, the coadjutor or assisting bishop in Dallas, last week told the Dallas Morning News that he expects to be transferred soon because he is not getting along with the bishop there. He does not have experience running a major diocese on his own, but he is a canon lawyer with strong Rome ties who also has demonstrated an unusually high level of comfort dealing with the news media and a willingness to be tough on sexual abusers.

Wuerl, whose Vatican patron, the late Cardinal John J. Wright, was from Boston, retains close ties to Rome, impeccable conservative credentials, ease with the news media, and an unusual record of standing up to the Vatican by insisting on the removal of an allegedly abusive priest. But Wuerl is also said to be thin-skinned and notably ambitious.

Wuerl is also often mentioned as a leading candidate for archbishop of Philadelphia, although recent speculation has focused on Archbishop Justin F. Rigali of St. Louis for Philadelphia, which would leave Wuerl free to come to Boston.

O'Brien, a former auxiliary bishop in New York with a Roman education, is widely expected to get his own diocese at some point. But some church watchers wonder how a native New Yorker - O'Brien was born in the Bronx - would be welcomed in Boston.

Such speculation, which recurs before each vacancy, is often inaccurate. More often than not, predictions of who is likely to be appointed by the Holy See are wrong, according to Monsignor Francis J. Maniscalco, a spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Vatican officials in Rome and Washington have steadfastly refused to answer questions about their search for a new archbishop of Boston, and, after five months, have given no clue when they plan to make a decision.

The interim administrator of the archdiocese, Bishop Richard G. Lennon, will not say what he knows about the length of his stay here, but in one sign that he doesn't plan to go anywhere soon, he is preparing to hire a new communications director.

This year, predictions are particularly difficult because the Vatican is trying to fill not only Boston, but also Philadelphia, where Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua turns 80 next month, a development that means he will lose his voting privileges and will likely be replaced.

And the Vatican faces a record number of potential vacancies in smaller dioceses, as dozens of bishops reach the age of 75, when, by church law, they are required to offer their resignations.

Throughout the nation, Catholics tend to say they want someone with strong pastoral skills who is also a good administrator.

"When you ask people what type of person they want, the answer is Jesus Christ with an MBA from Harvard, and that's not all that helpful," said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine, a Jesuit weekly.

But Reese and other observers say that for Boston, the Vatican will look for a bishop with strong administrative experience, a clean record of honoring his vow of celibacy and removing abusive priests from ministry, an unstinting doctrinal orthodoxy, and perhaps a patron in Rome.

And while Boston area Catholics say their second-highest priority for a new archbishop is addressing the issue of sexual abuse, the Vatican is likely to be more concerned about the long-term issues facing a 2,000-year-old, global institution.

"Most American Catholics would be looking at this appointment exclusively through the lens of the sex abuse crisis, while the Vatican, although aware of the turmoil, will be looking through a broader lens, taking a look at the archdiocese's seminary system and its schools and the strength of its parishes," said John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

Some observers tout Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., because of his experience and exposure as the president of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, and because of his strong record on dealing with abusive priests in Belleville.

But others believe Gregory has alienated Vatican officials by appointing a national review board headed by former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating that appears ready to criticize the church.

There is a small chance that the Vatican could choose to retain the incumbent, Lennon, since he is familiar with the archdiocese's problems and is busy trying to rectify them. But Lennon has neither the experience in Rome nor the United States that is normally required for such a job, and some doubt he has demonstrated the pastoral skills needed to unite a fractured laity.

The Vatican has often made surprise choices, choosing bishops of small dioceses to run large ones. The last two Boston archbishops - Law and Humberto S. Medeiros - both came from smaller dioceses and neither was among the most commonly touted candidates at the time.

Among the long-shot candidates mentioned now are Bishop Michael J. Sheehan of Santa Fe and Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver.

And the Vatican could break with conventional wisdom by choosing either Bishop Sean P. O'Malley of Palm Beach or Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee, both of whom are generally highly regarded but considered unavailable because they only recently assumed their current jobs.

Scholars say the pope, who makes the decision after consulting with church leaders in Rome and the United States, could look even further afield.

"Who can divine the mind of the pope?" asks Chester Gillis, chairman of the theology department at Georgetown University.

Michael Paulson can be reached at

This story ran on page A16 of the Boston Globe on 5/11/2003.


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