Cardinal Law’s Challenge

Has the Cardinal Lost Clout?

 

IT’S NOT YET 7:30 on a chilly morning in November, and men and women in crisp business attire are filtering into a ballroom at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Boston. Cardinal Bernard F. Law has called a “Challenge to Leadership” meeting, an occasion that regularly has power brokers and problem solvers concentrating on the larger issues of the day before most people have figured out what they’ll have for breakfast. From the moment he arrives, it is clear that Cardinal Law is the center of gravity in this roomful of executives, political leaders, and government functionaries. A semi-circle forms around him as he stands near the ballroom entrance, his distinguished-looking white hair set off by his black shirt and pants, and he greets each person warmly.

 

By the time Law gets up to speak, newly elected Governor Paul Cellucci is seated at the front of the room, as are Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, Fleet Bank president John Hamill, and assorted local movers and shakers. Law’s message is one he could well have delivered when he founded Challenge to Leadership in 1987, a year the state’s economic prosperity was much ballyhooed but, then as now, not without some rumblings of anxiety. Law is urging Massachusetts leaders to make sure no one is left behind as the region’s engine of economic good fortune steams ahead. “There is a tendency to segregate out, to segregate economic growth from social development,” Law says. “And I don’t think you can do it, and I think that leadership across the board in this city knows you can’t do that. Certainly the mayor knows that and the governor knows that. We have to be aware of the concealed inequities that can sometimes be present in ostensibly fair economic plans.”

It’s not exactly the poetic preaching of a Jesse Jackson–or even the passionate liberalism of a Ted or Joe Kennedy. Law’s meaning, like his slow, baritone delivery, comes in careful, modulated tones. His interest, it’s easy to see, is not in projecting a showy charisma; it’s a calm kind of moral authority he wants to bring to the table.

And it is commonly accepted that he has it–or at least that he has something related to it: clout. Mayor Menino draws a laugh at the early-morning meeting when he tells the cardinal, “we’re here because you told us to be here.” When Boston magazine ranked “Boston’s 100 most powerful people” two years ago, Cardinal Law was rated a very respectable number three (behind Fidelity Investments CEO Edward C. Johnson 3d and U.S. Senator Edward M. Kennedy). “The Supreme Being may or may not return his phone calls,” read the handicap on Law. “But the Pope, his ideological soul mate, sure does. So does everybody else in town, regardless of race, creed, or color.”

As Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, Cardinal Law presides over the fourth largest Catholic diocese in the United States–home to nearly two million Catholics in one of the most heavily Catholic states in the country. Few would deny the obvious power that comes with such a position. Yet there are some people these days who note something else: That the influence–and perhaps the authority–of Boston’s archbishop is not what it used to be. Thomas O’Connor, emeritus professor of history at Boston College, believes Law sees himself as a “moral broker,” someone who can “bring parties together around a table of trust.” Yet the world of Boston’s Catholics has changed, he admits. The archbishop can’t “come down like Moses through the clouds and hand down the tablets anymore.”

Indeed. On everything from abortion to capital punishment to welfare reform, the Catholic Church seems to be standing against the winds of popular opinion. For that matter, many Catholics themselves are non-doctrinaire on their church’s most central teachings. A question is asked today that would hardly have been posed a few decades ago. When the cardinal speaks, who listens? How many of those two million Catholics are really behind him? “Thirty-five years ago,” says Lawrence DiCara, a former Boston city councilor, “Cardinal Cushing said something and everybody said, ‘Yes.’ Today, Cardinal Law says something and everybody says, ‘Why?'” Inevitably, perceptions affect power. “The Roman Catholic hierarchy want people to think that they have a tremendous amount of pull up here,” state Rep. Byron Rushing says from his State House office. “But they’re just not as significant a force as they once were.”

The Rev. Peter Conley, editor of the archdiocese newspaper, The Pilot, says there’s an element of myth-making that tends to exaggerate the power wielded by Law’s predecessors– “a tribal canard,” he calls it. That Law now presides in a profoundly different time, however, is clear. “I doubt that you saw bumper stickers in their day that said, ‘Question Authority,'” Law says during an interview in December at the cardinal’s residence in Brighton. Beyond that acknowledgement, he shrugs the matter off. “Polls are not the way we determine our teaching,” he says. “What influences my life are the teachings of the church–the conviction that the church’s social teaching, the social doctrine, is a very rich resource for the common good.”

But taking that philosophy and finding a way to influence events presents a challenge to leadership of its own–a challenge to Cardinal Law’s leadership.

This year marks the 15th anniversary of Bernard Law’s arrival in Massachusetts from the Springfield-Cape Girardeau diocese in rural Missouri, where he served as bishop for 11 years. By the insular yardstick still sometimes favored here, he remains seen by some as an outsider. Nevertheless, on his arrival in 1984, Law said he was “coming to establish my final home,” and he has already lived in Boston longer than anywhere else in his 67 years.

An only child, Law was born in Torreon, Mexico in 1931. His father was a U.S. Air Force colonel, and Law describes his childhood as “peripatetic,” with moves that included Colombia, several U.S. states, and, finally, the Virgin Islands. There he was one of just a handful of white students attending the public high school.

“I experienced nothing but acceptance and affirmation, and was aware that things weren’t quite like that all over,” he said of his high school experience in a 1984 interview with the National Catholic Reporter. While studying medieval history at Harvard in the early ’50s, he recalled “getting the eye” from whites when seated at a café with black friends, an early introduction to Boston’s fault line of race.

After completing his seminary studies, Law spent nearly a decade in Mississippi, where he stood bravely against the forces of segregation during the era of the civil rights movement. Law had asked to be sent to Mississippi in 1961 for his first pastoral assignment; he was drawn there, he says, by a “conviction that the church had something very, very clear to bring to that kind of situation.”

Shortly after his arrival in Jackson, Law was befriended by Bill Minor, a reporter covering the civil rights movement for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Minor, now 76 and regarded as the dean of Mississippi political reporters, is a Catholic native of neighboring Louisiana. Like Law, he was sickened by the vicious system of racial segregation that ruled nearly every aspect of Mississippi life in the early ’60s. “We gravitated together and became warm friends, to the point where he would be at my house several times a week,” Minor says. “We used to have great long discussions about civil rights politics.”

Law served as editor of the state diocese newspaper, the Mississippi Register, and he wielded his editorial pen courageously, offering pointed critiques of the Jim Crow system–stands that made him the target of threats from white segregationists. Law stood out as “an eloquent voice” for racial justice, says Gordon Martin, a Boston district court judge who worked in the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Mississippi. But his was a voice for reason, not rebellion, and Law sometimes found himself at odds with more militant leaders in the civil rights struggle. “He wasn’t an in-the-streets-type activist,” says Minor.

“I often thought as a priest in Mississippi, that if I never did anything else that seemed fulfilling, that those years would have been sufficiently fulfilling for any one life,” Law said in our recent conversation. “I felt that God had been very good to place me where he did when he did and allow me to have the responsibility that I had.”

God, or at least Pope John Paul II, however, had bigger plans for him. As the eighth bishop of the Boston archdiocese, Law’s responsibilities are vast–as are the challenges he faces. The Catholic Church’s views are under attack in a culture increasingly dismissive of its authoritarian voice. The ranks of the faithful at many Masses are thinning–and graying. Meanwhile, at some urban parishes where attendance is up, the pews are increasingly filled with new immigrants, most of them poor, many of them not fluent in English. Add a shrinking pool of priests and nuns and angst over looming church closings, and it would seem Law has his hands full simply tending to the 387 parishes of the archdiocese. But the Boston archbishops of this century have always played a broader role in the life of the Commonwealth, and Law has been no exception.

By one measure of influence at least, the cardinal certainly does loom large: Of those contacted for this story and asked to assess Law’s mark on public life in Massachusetts, most who have differences with the cardinal would not discuss them for attribution. (“He’s not very good at handling criticism,” says David O’Brien, a professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, who worked with Law in the 1970s on a series of reports for the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

Law has earned praise for his outreach to Protestant leaders, and has developed particularly close ties with some black ministers. He stood with black leaders in the early 1990s, when some Boston neighborhoods were being racked by violence–and with little fanfare funded some of the programs credited with helping to put the brakes on urban bloodshed. “At all of the crisis points, he’s been right there, and not just for the cameras, but in the work that needed to go on afterward,” says the Rev. Raymond Hammond, chairman of the Ten Point Coalition and a leading figure in Boston’s black community.

Law has also been deeply committed to improving relations between Catholics and Jews. Leonard Zakim, director of the New England Anti-Defamation League, who has set up interfaith education programs with Law in Boston and traveled with him to concentration camp sites in Europe, calls his record on civil rights and ecumenical and interfaith outreach “among the most effective and creative of any cardinal in the country.” Adds Zakim, “We call him, in the Jewish community, a mensch–a really good guy.”

If his Mississippi experience served to cast Law as a progressive bridge-builder, his strict adherence to Vatican doctrine has often put him on a collision course with those of differing viewpoints. Nowhere has that been more apparent than in Law’s emergence as a leading U.S. Catholic spokesman against abortion. In his first speech here after being named Boston archbishop in 1984, Law called abortion the “primordial evil of our time.”

Nicki Nichols Gamble, the longtime president of Planned Parenthood of Massachusetts and a leading abortion rights advocate, says Law’s reputation had preceded him. “My perceptions of him based on the public comments he had made on the abortion issue were that he came really looking for a heavyweight fight,” she says.

In 1986, a proposed constitutional amendment was placed on the state ballot that would have allowed the Legislature to limit abortion access and funding. Also on the ballot was a constitutional amendment long advocated by the Catholic Church to lift the ban on state aid to private schools. Law spoke out strongly on behalf of both questions. But voters rejected the abortion measure 58 to 42 percent, and the school aid question was defeated by an even greater margin, 70 to 30 percent.

“I wonder if in a long-term historical view we’ll look at that election as being a kind of turning point in the approach to politics both by Cardinal Law personally and by the church in Boston generally,” says James O’Toole, a professor of history at Boston College. It may be “that the era of organized political activity is now past.”

A decade later, in 1996, state lawmakers passed by a comfortable margin legislation lifting a ban imposed in the 1970s on insurance coverage of abortion for state employees. Gamble, the Planned Parenthood president, calls the bill “a huge victory.” In a tone that betrays how deep feelings run on both sides of the issue, she says of Law’s anti-abortion advocacy: “He has had no success in Massachusetts since his arrival in terms of institutionalizing a public policy that is reflective of his position.”

Gerry D’Avolio sits on the front lines of the Catholic Church’s effort to shape events on Beacon Hill. D’Avolio is the veteran director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, which serves as the lobbying office for the four Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts. Reflecting on the shift in abortion opinion in the Legislature, D’Avolio says, “I got here in 1975. In those days, we had 70 to 80 percent [of legislators] on our side…. But times have changed.”

Law has spoken out on each of the issues that make up what the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago referred to as the “seamless garment” of pro-life Catholic belief. They include not only opposition to abortion, but also to euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and the death penalty, as well as support for efforts to improve the lives of the poor. Critics, however, point to the difference between advocacy and efficacy. “Bishop Law will speak out on capital punishment or on social justice,” says O’Brien, the Holy Cross professor. “But they don’t really get priests and the people together to really move this agenda.”

That distinction was made poignantly in 1995, when Law made a rare appearance at the State House to testify against a bill to reinstate the death penalty in Massachusetts. Following Law’s testimony, Rep. James Fagan, a death penalty opponent, offered a carefully considered comment.

“Your Eminence,” said Fagan, a Democrat who represents Taunton, a working-class city 35 miles south of Boston, “I can’t help but note that I’m happy for your involvement as the spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. However, your effort here–as impressive as it is for the media–I think is less effective than the effect of the parish priest. And although I could occasionally be accused of being asleep during parts of the Mass, regrettably, I have not heard the parish priests speak out, and they are the first line of faith in the diocese and in the parishes. And there’s been no dialogue whatsoever concerning this type of an important issue.”

Fagan’s message seemed clear: For more legislators to stand up against the death penalty, they need to hear support for that position from their constituents, not just their cardinal. The bill was approved by the Senate, where pro-death-penalty sentiment has long been stronger, but it was defeated in the House, 83 to 73.

Two years later, in the fall of 1997, another bid to restore capital punishment unfolded amidst the charged atmosphere of several recent, horrific murders, including the killing of 10-year-old Jeffrey Curley of Cambridge. Law took an active role in lobbying Catholic legislators, particularly those who had never previously cast a vote on the issue.

One of those was Rep. Martin Walsh of Dorchester, a freshman Democrat who had yet to commit himself on the death penalty vote when the phone rang early one morning at his home. “I nearly fell out of bed,” Walsh says, recalling hearing Cardinal Law’s voice on the other end of the line.

In the end, Walsh cast his vote against the death penalty bill, which was defeated by a single vote. He insists, however, that the cardinal’s call and the urgings of his local pastor “had nothing to do with my decision.” (Walsh also denied being swayed by the strong arm of House Speaker Thomas Finneran, a death penalty opponent whose district is adjacent to his own.) “I got a lot of calls expressing disappointment. My district wanted the death penalty for the most part,” Walsh says of the heavily Catholic neighborhoods he represents.

Other legislators lobbied by the cardinal, such as freshman Rep. Michael Rodrigues of Westport, a Democrat who described himself as “a practicing Catholic,” voted for capital punishment.

Nowhere, however, were tensions more stark than in the Cambridge neighborhood where young Jeff Curley lived. The local state representative, Timothy Toomey, had previously opposed the death penalty. But he knew the Curley family personally, and was being urged by the boy’s father as well as hundreds of others in his East Cambridge district to support the capital punishment bill in Jeffrey’s name. Meanwhile, Toomey’s brother, Kevin, a priest who presided at Jeffrey Curley’s funeral Mass, counseled him quietly on the church’s position on the issue. Saying he had concluded some crimes are simply too heinous to warrant any punishment short of death, Toomey switched his position and voted for the bill.

D’Avolio, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference director, is guarded in his assessment of the church’s impact on the death penalty vote. “The cardinal was good enough to make some calls, which might have made a difference or might not have made a difference. Had we not jumped in at all, would the vote have been different? I think it might have been.”

The state’s leading anti-death-penalty group says the church’s role has been pivotal. “The Catholic Church is a major factor in Massachusetts not executing anyone since 1947,” says Martin Rosenthal, co-chairman of Massachusetts Citizens Against the Death Penalty, which gave

Law an award last year in recognition of his work on the issue. Still, in a Legislature whose membership is two-thirds Roman Catholic, opposition to capital punishment has eroded to the point where a small change in the House membership could tip the balance as soon as this spring. Law has also spoken out against the state’s 1995 welfare reform law, criticizing provisions calling for automatic cut-off of benefits to families after two years and the denial of added benefits to women who bear more children while on public assistance.

As with the death penalty debate, a tension is evident between views in the pews and the advocacy of Catholic leaders on behalf of the poor. Joseph Doolin, the president of Catholic Charities–whose $32 million annual budget makes it the largest provider of social services in the Commonwealth after the state itself–says the four Massachusetts bishops felt the strain acutely during the welfare reform debate. “What really troubled the bishops was the vituperative demonizing of poor people and welfare mothers,” says Doolin. “And the conclusion was that a lot of the same people who are in the pews on Sunday mornings need some help… in learning how one acts as a neighbor to the poor.”

Law has not been without clear victories in shaping public debate. He and other Catholic leaders had a major impact on the demise of bills introduced in 1994 and 1996 that would have permited physician-assisted suicide. In 1996, Law testified in person against the measure. Both times, the bills wound up buried in “study committees.” “I think the church had a big influence in the way that played out,” says Rep. Douglas Petersen, a Democrat from Marblehead and the chief sponsor of the bills.

Law is also credited with helping persuade the Legislature to continue funding public assistance benefits for legal aliens in the 1997 state budget even after the federal government ended reimbursements for such payments. (The federal government reinstated the benefits the following year.)

Notwithstanding such successes, however, the cardinal’s record on issues at the State House has been “a mixed bag,” says House Speaker Finneran. Finneran, a Catholic who shares Law’s views on abortion as well as the death penalty, says that in advocating for issues he feels strong about, “even within the flock the cardinal has his work cut out for him.”

Finneran’s point cuts to the heart of why Boston’s archbishop is not the political powerhouse he is often taken to be. With Catholics today divided in their views on so many issues–from abortion to the death penalty to welfare reform–Cardinal Law’s voice may carry a moral weight, but it isn’t always received as the voice of a leader with a unified constituency behind him.

Law acknowledges the division of opinion among Catholics on today’s pressing public policy questions. If he were, for example, to “count noses” among parishioners in order to form a position on the death penalty, Law says, “I would not be as strongly opposed to capital punishment as I am, because I would imagine that you would find that the Catholic population is pretty much reflective of the rest of the population. But it’s wrong, and so we’re very clearly in opposition to it.”

Asked about the criticism that not enough is done at the parish level to communicate church teachings on some issues, Law’s response seems to capture the dilemma of a church leader not anxious to fracture the flock. “I hear that often, or at some times,” he says. “On the other hand, I can also hear sometimes that too often are certain issues dealt with.”

One of the most curious challenges Law faces is maintaining good working relationships with Catholic elected officials in Massachusetts–especially those who do not support the Church’s positions on questions such as abortion. In 1991, for example, Law said then-lieutenant governor Paul Cellucci should not deliver an address at his own alma mater, Hudson Catholic High School, because of his pro-choice views. And then there are the Kennedys. Just as John Kennedy’s election heralded the rise of American Catholics in the secular world, Edward Kennedy’s parting with church doctrine on several major issues seems to mirror the doubts of many U.S. Catholics about church teachings. During his 1994 reelection campaign, Kennedy said in response to a reporter’s question on the topic, “I count myself among the growing number of Catholics who support the ordination of women as priests.” A swift rebuke from Law followed. And although Kennedy originally opposed abortion, since the late 1970s he has been a strong supporter of abortion rights.

Like other bishops, Law has stated repeatedly that Catholic elected officials have an obligation to oppose abortion. Last November, however, the U.S. bishops appeared to up the ante when they vowed to wage a new, aggressive campaign against abortion, one that would directly pressure Catholic public officials in particular. “No appeal to policy, procedure, majority will, or pluralism ever excuses a public official who is Catholic from defending life to the greatest extent possible,” said a statement issued by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. Law played a key role in drafting the statement as chairman of the bishops’ Committee for Pro-Life Activities.

In a press conference at the bishops’ meeting, Law said, “I sit before you feeling the full burden. Both senators in my state are Catholic and wrong in the way they approach abortion. The governor of the state is from a different party [than Sens. Kennedy and John Kerry] and he is wrong. Only I am right.”

The tone of the reply from Kennedy’s office seemed to be one of both deference and indifference. “Senator Kennedy has great respect for Cardinal Law and the Catholic Conference but he continues to support a woman’s right to choose,” said a Kennedy spokesman.

Law’s proclamation–“Only I am right”–had every bit the ring of the unbending bishop he had been pegged by critics when he arrived in Boston nearly 15 years earlier. (During her 1993 campaign for mayor of Boston, City Councilor Rosaria Salerno, a former Benedictine nun, recalled meeting Law for the first time while she was serving as a chaplain at Boston College. “He said we had to be obedient to him and he only had to be obedient to the Pope,” Salerno said. “That’s when I decided we probably wouldn’t be seeing a lot of each other.”)

At the bishops’ conference, however, Law added a footnote to his rhetorical line in the sand: It would be left, he said, to individual bishops to determine how to raise the abortion issue with elected officials in their dioceses. He did not indicate at the time what further tack he plans to take with Massachusetts officials. In our recent interview, however, Law hinted that he might seek to engage local officials in a more private way. “I have a pastor’s relationship to these men as well as a public relationship, and I don’t think it’s anybody’s business how I live out that pastoral relationship,” he says.

Less than two weeks after the bishops’ conference, Law is on the tarmac at Hanscom Field in Bedford. The cardinal has led a mammoth relief effort throughout Greater Boston for the victims of Hurricane Mitch in Central America. Through his leadership, Catholic Charities has raised more than $2 million and collected more than 100 tons of relief supplies. Alongside the cardinal at the airfield to see off a planeload of supplies is Senator Kennedy, who played a key role in securing the military cargo plane bound for Central America. If the image of the two leaders side by side was jarring, it was also telling.

Increasingly, say some observers, Law is striking a balance between making his strong, faith-based views known to political leaders he disagrees with, while also forming alliances with them to accomplish things. “He’s a get-things-done guy,” says Clark Booth, a veteran WCVB-TV reporter and longtime church observer.

On everything from immigration laws to housing to support for the Central American hurricane victims, Law said Kennedy and Senator John Kerry, have been “profoundly helpful and cooperative. And they’re right on so many of these issues. My frustration with them is they’re so bloody illogical,” he added, referring to both senators’ pro-choice positions on abortion.

“I am not only interested in life in the womb, but in every other moment of life, and any issue that impacts the poor, the homeless, the sick, anything that brings peace and prevents violence,” Law said in a 1994 interview with The Boston Globe. “I will not lose an opportunity to further a good program or cause because a person does not support me in everything else.”

As shown by the impressive response to Law’s call for donations for the hurricane victims, Boston’s archbishop can make big things happen when he shines the spotlight on a problem or issue. But the successful relief effort, like the Challenge To Leadership group he formed more than a decade ago, suggests that Law’s clout may lie more in rallying people behind causes that can gain broad support than in driving the debate on issues where views are sharply divided. Law seemed to make the distinction himself in his annual Christmas message last year, published in the archdiocese newspaper, The Pilot.

Describing the harsh effects of the state’s new welfare law on children, Law wrote, “The extraordinarily generous and ongoing response to the needs of our brothers and sisters who have suffered the ravages of Hurricane Mitch tells me that the people of this Archdiocese and Commonwealth have loving hearts when presented with a need…. Somehow, we must see the child in our midst whose poverty can make him or her invisible.”

As with many Catholic bishops, Law rejects the notion that his views are either conservative or liberal. It is folly to filter the church’s social doctrine “through an ideological lens,” says Conley, the Pilot newspaper editor. Law looks like a conservative when the issue is abortion; he is a liberal when the subject is welfare reform, says Conley. But these views are “consistent within the framework of our social doctrine.”

That doesn’t stop people, however, from trying to get a handle on Law’s outlook on the political world. “He’s gone from being a liberal here to a conservative there,” Bill Minor says in a telephone conversation from his home in Jackson, Mississippi. Minor, the veteran journalist who was friends with Law in the ’60s, says Law was “a Jack Kennedy man back when I knew him.” In recent years, however, the cardinal’s most prominent political association has been his friendship with former President George Bush. “I just assume he’s a Republican,” says one former elected official who knows Law, a presumption echoed by several other observers.

Law himself sought to end speculation about his voting choices in 1984, when the New England bishops created a stir by calling abortion the “critical issue” of that election year. “If anyone were to ask me for whom I was going to vote,” he said at the time, “I’d say, none of your business.”

Law is not registered to vote under any party affiliation, and he hasn’t cast a ballot in any partisan primary over the last decade–except one. Last September, he voted in the Democratic primary. As a resident of Brighton, the cardinal lives in the 8th Congressional District, where a 10-candidate field of Democrats was vying to succeed Representative Joseph Kennedy. One can only speculate, but it seems reasonable to surmise that Law pulled a partisan ballot in order to vote for former Boston mayor and U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican Raymond Flynn. Flynn was the lone anti-abortion candidate in the field, and the early front-runner based on his high name recognition. His shoe-leather campaign emphasized handshakes at local ballfields and watering holes–and at Masses at every Catholic church from Charlestown to Watertown. In the end, though, he finished second to Somerville’s mayor, Michael Capuano. The Flynn campaign not only had the feel of a politician’s last hurrah, it may have been a kind of coda in Massachusetts politics, too, a bookend to a century-long run when campaigns could be waged by courting “the Catholic vote.”

Ten days after November’s Challenge to Leadership meeting, Cardinal Law is at a very different kind of gathering, but one also with a focus on leadership. Nearly 4,000 people have packed the gymnasium at Boston College High School in Dorchester for the founding of the Greater Boston Interfaith Organization, billed by organizers as the largest community meeting in Boston in 25 years. After nearly three years of planning, 70 congregations–spanning the religious spectrum from Catholic to Protestant to Jewish to Moslem–have come together for what the Rev. John Heinemeier of the Resurrection Lutheran Church in Roxbury has called the “credentialing” of a “new player in Greater Boston.”

Modeled after 65 similar groups across the country–including several in other areas of Massachusetts–GBIO’s aim is to pool the power of religious congregations in order to wage battles on issues such as affordable housing, better schools, or any other goals the group can agree on. The organization has intentionally set out with no specific issues targeted for action, part of its philosophy to let ideas percolate up from the members once the group finds its footing.

The gym is literally overflowing, and late arrivers are being directed to an annex room where they will have to settle for viewing the main gathering on closed-circuit television. The room has the feel of a political convention, and in many respects that’s what it is.

The Rev. Ted Lockhart, of the Union United Methodist Church in Boston’s South End, readies the GBIO members for the road ahead. “At times, we will be taking on powerful political and business interests,” he says to the crowd.

The Rev. Patricia Daley of Hyde Park Presbyterian Church energizes the assembly. “I ask you now, do we have power?” she exclaims.

“Yes,” roars the gathering.

“Are we ready to work for hope and justice in Greater Boston?” she asks.

“Yes,” the crowd answers.

Finally, it’s the cardinal’s turn. Unlike any of the other religious leaders who speak, he is given a formal introduction. Following a rousing testimonial from a Methodist minister from Dorchester, Law approaches the microphone. As he does, he’s extended another honor–this one not scripted–shown to no other speaker: The crowd rises and gives the cardinal a standing ovation.

“I think this is one of the most exciting things that I have known to have happened since I have been here as archbishop,” Law tells the gathering. “I hope and pray that the energy in this room does not dissipate. I hope that it is intensified and that it is communicated to others, and that what we begin here is something new and exciting.”

Law’s appearance at the event seems both entirely natural and yet somehow incongruous. With Catholic parishes accounting for more than a third of the 70 Boston-area religious congregations represented at the meeting, it’s only fitting that the archdiocese leader would be among those on the stage. What’s more, Law brings to the group a nearly four-decade record as a racial healer and bridge-builder to other faiths.

At the same time, all this talk of “taking on powerful political and business interests” might give some pause to a man who travels regularly in those very circles, a man who sees a threat, not a rallying cry, in “Question Authority” bumper stickers.

“It’s a different role for him, yes, but I don’t think he’s troubled by that at all,” says the Rev. Frank Kelley, of Sacred Heart Church in Roslindale, one of the early GBIO organizers. Indeed, Catholic bishops in cities across the country have signed onto similar efforts. Law’s involvement unquestionably gives the organization a higher profile. At the same time, the cardinal might find that the group can give a needed boost to his own efforts, too.

State Rep. Byron Rushing, who is active in the Episcopal church and is seated in the crowded GBIO assembly, says that for the cardinal to “have the clout that people think he has, he needs to have the troops.” At least on the issues of economic “equity” that Law has often raised, those Catholic parishes drawn to the new faith-based group, along with their counterparts from other denominations, could be just the army of troops needed to give greater force to the cardinal’s words.

“I hope it will be,” Law says. Still, he is quick to offer his own tempered view of the proper row for GBIO to hoe. “They will be able together to be a force for change, for good,” he says, “not in a confrontational way, but in a way that articulates the needs, the desires of the community on the ground.”

One Catholic state legislator sees an opportunity in working with GBIO for Law to make a real mark on housing, health care, and other issues. But lamenting what he views as the cardinal’s unyielding stands on other matters, the lawmaker says, “The constant anti-choice, anti-gay message just doesn’t go away.” Regardless of the currents of the day, there is nothing to suggest that Law will abandon any of the core church positions he embraces unflinchingly. “We were never called to be successful, just faithful,” says the Rev. Hammond, of the Ten Point Coalition.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

At the same time, the cardinal would likely agree that it’s no sin to win, either. Wondering just what impact he was having on the racial tumult around him in 1964, Law wrote in a letter to Gordon Martin, the Massachusetts judge who was then a federal civil rights lawyer in Mississippi: “To say something is one thing, to have it listened to is something else again.” Were he to re-read his own words today, in a world that seems more and more to go its own way, one can only imagine the cardinal offering a soulful, “Amen.”

Michael Jonas is a free-lance journalist in Boston. He writes about local politics for The Boston Sunday Globe’s City Weekly section.