From the beginning, Law was at the center of virtually every major development in both the society and the Church of his time.
As a Catholic priest in Mississippi during the 1960s, he was an early proponent of the civil rights movement. Under his leadership, the diocesan newspaper in Natchez-Jackson adopted a strong stand in favor of civil rights and the emancipation of African-Americans, which earned him death threats. Charles Evers, brother of the slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers, praised Law in that era as someone who acted “not for the Negro, but for justice and what is right.”
In Boston, Law became known as a stalwart of the conservative wing of the American Catholic church, and was a leader throughout the 1980s and 90s for a strong reassertion of traditional Catholic identity after a period of liberalization following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Among other things, Law was one of the early proponents of the publication of an official catechism, meaning an official compendium of church teaching, which was eventually published under John Paul II in the early 1990s.
He also earned a reputation as one of the staunchest pro-life figures in the American hierarchy, as well as a keen opponent of theological dissent in the church. In 1997, he defined the Catholic Theological Society of America, the main professional group for theologians in the country, as a “wasteland” because of members who held positions at odds with official church teaching.
But all of this was massively overshadowed by his dark deeds in the abuse scandal:
By 2001, Law was considered the most powerful cardinal in perhaps the most powerful country in the world, celebrated wherever he went in Catholic circles as a living legend. Yet in that same year, he would find himself caught up in a gathering storm related to child sexual abuse, and by the end of 2002 he would be forced to resign his office in disgrace.
I trust that I don’t have to recount all that here. Take a look at this short AP video interview with one of the abuse victims whose suffering Law swept under the rug. Bernard Law’s actions were horrifying and inhuman. But his sins in that regard were and are widely shared within the Catholic hierarchy, and it should be noted that in Boston, with his contempt for abused children and their families, he was carrying on a tradition that went back at least as far as his predecessor, Cardinal Medeiros.
You might think that a man guilty of those grave sins, sins that destroyed lives and morally bankrupted the Archdiocese of Boston (as well as costing it $100 million in settlements), would retire to a monastery to live out the rest of his life quietly, doing penance. He did not do that. Pope John Paul II have him a fancy sinecure in Rome, as archpriest of a major basilica. John Allen points out that in Vatican circles, that was considered a sign of Law’s disgrace, which to my mind reflects very poorly on what they consider to be disgraceful concerning a cardinal who oversaw a moral catastrophe like the Boston scandal.
One has to hope that Bernard Law repented at the end, and found forgiveness from God, because all of us at our death will depend on the same divine mercy to deliver us from the consequences of our sins. His life is a lesson in what terrible things can happen when one becomes a company man, and ceases to be a human being.
UPDATE: A fitting comment by an orthodox Catholic poet and literature professor: