A Crisis Interview: Cardinal Law on the Church in America

Crisis contributing editor Phyllis Zagano met recently with Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston at his residence for a discussion about the Catholic Church in America. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Crisis: A particular question for Americans, and one that American Catholics are a little confused about, is the issue of an “American church.” There are two stories being told in the Church in America. One story says that there is an American Church. The other story is that there is not an American Church, there is one Church, the Church of Rome.

Cardinal Law: Maybe the truth is in the middle. There certainly is a Church in the United States, and that Church in the United States is a Church which is going to benefit by the cultural strengths we have in our country.

The Holy Father, when he came here last year, time and time again recognized the rich variety that is present in this nation. I was present with him, for example, when he met with black Catholics. It was clear to me that the Holy Father saw a unique identity in the black Catholic population, but not at all in isolation from the Church.

Certainly, the Church in the United States is somewhat different from the Church in Ireland, in Zaire, in the Philippines, and in Nicaragua. But part of the beauty of the Roman Catholic Church is that it is also universal. This is wonderfully evident, for example, in the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., where there are many shrines to Our Lady with special significance to different national and ethnic groups. And yet, all of this is expressive of the faith of the universal Catholic Church, which is a universal church.

On the other hand, you have to avoid putting such emphasis on a cultural identity that it begins to define what is the Church. Viewing Catholicism as a group of national churches in some type of federation—e.g., the Anglican churches—is not the Catholic view.

Crisis: Avery Dulles, S.J. has several “models” of the Church. Some of these are being followed by people who, perhaps, would not be in accord with your way of thinking.

Cardinal Law: Fr. Dulles himself indicates a cautionary note that is often not followed: that no one of these models of the Church, taken in isolation, is adequate to comprehend that mystery of faith which is the Church.

There is a tendency for some persons to latch onto one of these ways of looking at the Church, and see it exclusively in those terms. If, for example, I simply see the Church according to the hierarchical model, and don’t take into account the prophetic model, or the Church’s communio, then I miss the mystery of the Church. I may be right about hierarchy, but I haven’t told the whole story.

Someone else might say that the Church has to be prophetic, and indeed the Church does. But if one reads the mystery of the Church solely in these terms, one doesn’t account for the full reality of the Church.

Crisis: A complaint that a lot of Americans have, particularly Dennis McCann in his book The New Experiment in Democracy, assumes that one of the problems with Catholic Church is that is has not, historically, worked from the bottom up. Why doesn’t Rome listen to the Church in America when it asks for reforms that come from the American culture? This is the argument, and I wonder if you would respond to it.

Cardinal Law: I just have come from listening to priests reacting to the first draft of the Synodal Document on the Clergy. This was an exercise in consultation. Our whole synodal process is an exercise in consultation. Forty thousand people responded to a detailed questionnaire, and hundreds of people—lay, religious, clergy, bishops—have been involved in preparing 26 synodal documents. This is a very rich process of consultation.

I’ve been involved in the process right along. The only limits set to it are the limits of the faith of the Church, which bind us all. Within those limits let’s be creative, let’s go. I think that the American temperament may have something to contribute to this kind of process. The difficulty comes when the mistake is made that somehow faith is up for grabs, and that we’re going to decide, through the same sort of deliberative process, what it is we believe, what is or is not the moral teaching of the Church.

If the feeling is that the Church is not responsive unless she changes her teaching on the indissolubility of marriage or on the absolute moral prohibition of abortion, those are vain expectations; they’re not going to be realized.

The fact that people are interested enough to object and dissent is a good sign, on the other hand, because it shows that what the Church says is important to them—even if they disagree. That’s good, that’s positive and we need to work on it. Theologians have to do a better job of explaining the faith.

Crisis: Under the new Code of Canon Law (no. 812), a Catholic theologian must receive a mandate from his bishop; yet he may just not want to do that. He may simply want to explore faith, rather than to explain or defend the faith. In light of this situation, could you discuss the new Vatican schema on education, especially the complaint by some that theologians are asked for catechesis instead of research?

Cardinal Law: I don’t mean to suggest that the theologian is to be simply an apologist in the classical sense. But I do think that that’s part of it—that the theologian begins with the faith and then takes it further. So there is an exploratory nature to theological pursuit. I think that you’ve got to say that the theologian has a right to be wrong in the sense that as you explore the data of faith you can come up with tentative suggestions that need to be tested. It’s important that when a theologian is exploring he makes no effort to propagate the exploration as somehow having the character of magisterial teaching. It is tentative theory, and may be wrong.

I’m not an expert on Canon 812. I would just want to say, in a very general way, that it’s inconceivable to me, that a Catholic university or college is going to be impeded by federal laws or Constitutional interpretation from determining the credentials of those purporting to express and communicate the Catholic faith. Reputable lawyers indicate to me that this won’t happen. The last thing in the world that Catholic educators ought to be doing is rolling over and playing dead. They ought to be in the vanguard of asserting their independence to be clearly and unmistakably Catholic.

If one assumes the secular university is normative for all, then he has automatically ruled out the possibility of Catholic universities. There are various ways of being a university; this is part of the enrichment of our cultural diversity. It’s interesting that those who want diversity in one area, also want a strict uniformity in other areas. Just as we need a diversity in the life of the Church, without sacrificing our fundamental unity, we need diversity in our higher education in this country, without sacrificing that unity that should be expected of all institutions of higher learning in terms of academic excellence.

Crisis: The question of who purports to be a Catholic theologian is central to another problem, which is: Who speaks on behalf of the Church?

Traditionally, Catholics have understood that only the bishop could speak on behalf of the Church, but lately there have been events in the news that seem to say that there are many other voices in the Church, that American Catholicism is some kind of a new democratic experiment. So there’s a confusion. I would use as an example the fact that whereas the recent Synod on the Laity in Rome received very little press in America, Father Charles Curran’s recent problems at Catholic University received a great deal of press. Catholics and non-Catholics alike are confused on these points.

Cardinal Law: I believe that the Church is newsworthy. I see as very significant that popular talk shows bring on persons who speak about the moral faults of priests. That’s a great compliment to the priesthood. The fact that there are a few priests who are not faithful to their life of celibacy, is a great compliment to the vast majority of those priests who are. This is what society generally expects.

The press perceives in terms of conflict, so we’re really on a jag about the “American Church” versus Rome. My experience of the Church, however, is not one of an adversarial relationship, but one of a profound communion. But that doesn’t make good copy; if you can’t reduce it to a conflict, it’s not a story.

There was the promise of a good story in the opening weeks of the Synod. The way the Synod works is that every bishop stands up and says whatever is on his mind. Like all other groups, we can get some pretty wild ideas. So you say, “Boy, this is really going to be a donnybrook.” But those are the thoughts of individual bishops.

When people begin to interact and develop positions, a winnowing process takes place. This sifting process has a lot to do with the Spirit’s work in the life of the Church. What eventually comes out may not be reflective of some of the more adventuresome “calls to action,” so people lose interest. They say either “it’s a cop-out” or “authority controlled the process.” Why wasn’t the Extraordinary Synod such good copy? It wasn’t revolutionary. Since it wasn’t the bishops of the world knocking down the walls of the Vatican, it was pronounced dull.

Crisis: It is a fact that the Synod on the Laity didn’t make good copy, at least in the United States. The only story we saw was that the American proposal for more inclusive use of women in ministries—either allowing women to serve or be installed as acolytes or lectors—didn’t happen. Would you comment on the questions that women raise about their place in the Church.

Cardinal Law: It’s a question which concerns me very deeply. I often think of it when I’m celebrating the Eucharist, because seldom do I have a congregation that is not predominantly women, faith-filled women who are active in the life of the Church. In this archdiocese I have made it a matter of policy that our boards and agencies include women in numbers which reflect their presence in the life of the local Church.

On the matter of ordination of women to the priesthood, it is, as far as I’m concerned, closed. It’s not a matter for negotiation and discussion. Again, from the theological point of view, a lot more has to be done, to reflect upon this in terms of the kinds of contemporary questions that are raised about the role of women in church and society. We have to wrestle with those questions in terms of our traditions.

At the other end of that, we’re going to be in a position, as Church, to minister to the feminist movement, which I think is where we should be. I find it a great sadness that the Church so often is perceived as against the feminist movement. The Church should be in the vanguard of the feminist movement; that movement has experienced a transformation over the last 20 years, and so when one speaks of feminist movements, one has to ask “which movement?” The Church should be making a contribution which I don’t think we really have done sufficiently.

About the questions that came up in the synod regarding lectors and acolytes, I would argue for perhaps disengaging them from being steps to the priesthood and for seeing them as legitimate lay roles in the sanctuary, open to both men and women. If the role of acolyte were open to a woman as a ministry, then obviously you could have altar girls. If it’s a problem in some parts of the world, then maybe it could be done at the discretion of a national conference or the local bishop.

The fact of the matter is, though, that such is not the case now. We may not, at the moment, have women altar servers. I am persuaded that this ought to change. But until it does change by Church authority, I am not empowered to make that change.

I say all this, not because I think it is going to satisfy people who say women ought to be priests—it won’t—but because on its own merit, I think, it makes sense. If it doesn’t happen, either it doesn’t make sense or it doesn’t make sense now. In the Church, we have to be together on these things.


  • Phyllis Zagano

    When Crisis was originally published in 1982, Phyllis Zagano was Assistant Professor in the Department of Communications at Fordham University.

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