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Church in Crisis

Theories surround Law’s visit


A media frenzy, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Thus Cardinal Bernard Law’s surprise trip to Rome in early December, amid new revelations of sex abuse by priests and signs of financial meltdown in the Boston archdiocese, generated rivers of speculation in the absence of hard information.

Officially, the only comment on the trip came Dec. 9, from Vatican spokesperson Joaquín Navarro-Valls, who issued a terse two-line statement confirming Law’s presence and saying that he had come to discuss “diverse aspects of the situation” in Boston.

As NCR went to press, there were indications that another statement might be forthcoming.

Law, as has become his custom, avoided the press. He lodged in the apartment of Bishop James Harvey from Milwaukee, who is the head of the Pontifical Household. Since the apartment is behind Vatican walls, TV crews could not lie in wait for Law as he entered and exited.

Even the identities of the Vatican officials with whom Law met were not confirmed, though sources indicated they included two senior cardinals: Giovanni Battista Re, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and Darío Castrillón Hoyos, head of the Congregation for Clergy. Castrillón’s office handles cases of “alienation of property,” the closest thing in canon law to bankruptcy, one of the items Law came to discuss. Re is responsible for overseeing bishops -- including, if it should come to that, asking for their resignation. Law was also expected to see John Paul II before returning to Boston at the end of the week.

Unofficially, Rome was awash in theories about the nature and purpose of Law’s visit.

Some Vatican officials privately suggested that the pope might name a coadjutor bishop for Boston, meaning a prelate who would step in alongside Law and assume some of his powers, presumably including the areas of personnel and finance that are the heart of the present crisis.

The appointment of a coadjutor bishop would certainly have a logic. It is a time-honored Vatican solution for troubled dioceses, avoiding the necessity to remove the existing bishop while effectively placing the diocese under new management.

As the story unfolded, a few names of possible candidates for the position began to surface. They included Archbishop Edward O’Brien, currently head of the military archdiocese in the United States; Archbishop Harry Flynn of St. Paul and Minneapolis; and Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn. Flynn is the chair of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse, and Lori is a member.

Other Vatican sources, however, downplayed the idea. An official in the Congregation for Bishops told NCR Dec. 10 that “all the options are open” and suggested that naming a coadjutor was not the preferred solution. It would not satisfy those most insistent upon Law’s resignation, he said, and could create conflicts between Law and the new bishop that could simply aggravate administrative paralysis.

Still other sources insisted that Law’s resignation was not really the focus at all, and that the potential implications of bankruptcy in Boston formed the meat of Law’s Vatican conversations.

Technically, canon lawyers told NCR, it is not clear if Law needs Vatican approval before filing under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Since the experts who revised the Code of Canon Law in 1983 never anticipated such a situation, there is no clear response in church law. The closest codicil governs what is called “alienation,” and requires a bishop to seek Vatican clearance before selling, destroying or giving away a certain amount of property. In the United States, that amount is currently pegged at $3 million.

Canon lawyers debate whether bank-ruptcy counts as alienation. Some argue that its aim is to protect property, hence it is not analogous. Others, however, note that a bankruptcy filing would give broad powers over the assets of the Boston archdiocese, estimated at $1.3 billion in real estate alone, to a civil judge. Such a transfer of control to an outside party could be considered alienation.

In any event, this canonical discussion is more theoretical than real. A Vatican spokesperson told NCR Dec. 6 that politically speaking, bankruptcy would be “impossible without consultation with the Holy See.” Indeed, a Dec. 4 news release from the Boston archdiocese stated that officials “must also seek approval from the Vatican” before proceeding.

Sources told NCR that there are at least two serious concerns within the Vatican about bankruptcy. The first is that going belly-up might discourage future giving to the church, and not just in Boston. The second, perhaps even more grave, is a basic reluctance to cede control of church assets to outside parties. For some in the Vatican, with its European cultural outlook, such a prospect is reminiscent of fascism and desperate struggles to maintain the independence of church institutions.

As for the ultimate question about Law himself -- will he stay or will he go? -- all bets seemed off.

In the end, the removal of a cardinal is a decision that can be made only by the pope, and John Paul to date has taken a dim view of calls for the resignation of church officials -- most prominently including himself.

“Jesus did not come down off the cross,” the pope said recently when a cardinal brought up the prospect of a papal retirement.

Yet recent precedent exists for top churchmen to stand down when a situation becomes ungovernable, especially in cases related to sexual abuse. Three recent examples are Cardinal Hans Hermann Gröer in Vienna in 1995, Archbishop John Ward in Cardiff, England, in 2001, and Archbishop Juliusz Paetz in Poznan, Poland, in March 2002.

The question is, therefore, at what point the chaos in Boston outweighs John Paul’s preference that when the going gets tough, the tough stay put. As Bernard Law headed home, the answer seemed very much up in the air.

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR Rome correspondent. His e-mail address is jallen@natcath.org.

National Catholic Reporter, December 20, 2002