"I think it's definitely put bishops on notice that they can no longer govern by the imperial style," said the Rev. Gerald P. Fogarty, a Jesuit priest who teaches religious studies and history at the University of Virginia.
"I think we're at a moment when a particular style of leadership has just walked into the sunset," said Lawrence Cunningham, professor of theology at the University of Notre Dame.
Cardinal Law angered priests and lay Catholics in his archdiocese with his handling of sexual-abuse cases involving priests. Settlements being negotiated with attorneys for about 400 victims of alleged sexual abuse have raised the possibility that the archdiocese would declare bankruptcy.
"In terms of its historic impact, it's enormous," said R. Scott Appleby, professor of history at Notre Dame.
Never had an archdiocese been threatened with bankruptcy because of the actions of its archbishop, Appleby said. And never had an American prelate so close to the Pope resigned under such circumstances.
Cardinal Law, the senior American cardinal, was "one of the two or three most important bishops in the United States" and had a major role in picking many of the country's other bishops, Appleby said.
Father Fogarty and others expressed the hope that out of the scandal that has shaken the Archdiocese of Boston will come an increased role for the Catholic laity.
"I hope laypeople will take ownership properly of the church," Father Fogarty said.
Deal Hudson, editor of the magazine Crisis, said the bishops already had taken a step toward getting laypeople more involved by appointing a review board headed by Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating to investigate the sexual-abuse crisis.
The bishops have to learn to listen carefully to their people, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit weekly magazine America.
"This is a signal to bishops that they really need to go and listen to the laity," Father Reese said. "For a change, they need to do more listening than talking."
Some bishops already listen to the laity, but they all have to learn to do it better, Father Reese said.
If they do, then the upshot of Cardinal Law's resignation may be "more financial disclosure, more consultation, less 'Father knows best,' " Father Reese said.
The bishops don't have to worry that listening to the people in the pews will lead to a power struggle with them for control of the church, he said. The people just want the bishops to do their job. "Most people in the pews don't want to run the church."
Listening to the laity is not something Catholic bishops in the United States have a history of doing.
For a long time, when the Catholic Church in the United States was made up mostly of immigrants and the children of immigrants, bishops ruled without much reference to what the Catholics in the pews thought.
But Vatican Council II, a meeting of all the world's Catholic bishops in Rome from 1962 through 1965 to modernize the church, envisioned a different model of governing.
The autocratic manner of governing that survived with prelates such as Cardinal Law seemed at odds with the council's changes.
"It doesn't reflect what the general understanding of church has been since Vatican II," Appleby said. "That's why it has caused such outrage. It's no longer supported by the theology or by the custom or by the kind of ecclesial culture of much of the church."
Catholic conservatives and liberals alike also blamed the Boston scandal in part on a "clerical culture" that can make the priesthood at its best a family but at its worst a club.
"Bishops and priests are like a family," Father Reese said. "If your brother is accused of molesting someone, your first response is denial. Then you try to protect your brother." The problem with that response is that it ignores the child who has been abused, he said.
The sexual-abuse crisis can have a positive effect on the church, but only if bishops and priests don't turn inward, said the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, a Catholic priest who edits First Things magazine.
"We're in a bad season in the church's long season," he said. The way out is "for people to do their job."
Is the Law resignation likely to be a watershed in U.S. Catholic history?
It depends on whether the church reaches out successfully to the laity, according to Notre Dame historian Appleby. If that happens, "then you could say absolutely it's a watershed."
Contact Michael D. Schaffer at 215-854-2537 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Years of Scandal That Rocked the Church
1985 Louisiana priest Gilbert Gauthe pleads guilty to molestation charges involving 11 boys, drawing national attention to clerical sexual abuse for the first time.
1992 Allegations surface that the Rev. James Porter, of the Fall River, Mass., Diocese, molested children in five states in the 1960s and 1970s. The next year, he pleads guilty to 41 sexual-assault counts.
* American bishops emerge from a closed-door meeting in South Bend, Ind., acknowledging some bishops tried to hide abuse and pledging it will not happen again.
1993 The first lawsuit is filed against the Diocese of Dallas in the case of a priest and alleged molester, Rudy Kos, in what becomes one of the more notorious abuse scandals in U.S. church history.
1998 Kos victims agree to a reduced settlement of $23.4 million, after a jury awarded them more than $100 million.
1999 Former Boston-area priest John Geoghan is indicted on child-rape charges.
Jan. 9, 2002 Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of the Boston Archdiocese, acknowledges he moved Geoghan from parish to parish despite evidence the priest had molested children. He apologizes to Geoghans victims and promises to bar any abuser from the ministry.
Jan. 18 Geoghan is convicted of indecent assault and battery for improperly touching a 10-year-old boy; he is later sentenced to nine to 10 years in prison.
Feb. 10 Cardinal Law says at Sunday Mass that he will not step down as archbishop because "when there are problems in the family, you dont walk away."
Feb. 22 The Archdiocese of Philadelphia reveals it has evidence that 35 priests had abused about 50 minors since 1950. Several priests were relieved of their duties, and Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua apologized to the victims.
April 8 The 800-page personnel file of the Rev. Paul Shanley is released. It outlines claims that he abused children, publicly advocated sex between men and boys, yet continued to receive the Boston Archdioceses support.
April 16 Cardinal Law reveals that he traveled quietly to Rome to meet with Pope John Paul II, and offered to resign, but returned to Boston determined to clean up the scandal.
April 23 The Pope convenes an emergency summit with U.S. cardinals in Rome on the sexual-abuse crisis.
April 24 Philadelphia District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham says she will convene a grand jury to investigate allegations of past sexual abuse of minors by priests in the city.
June 13 American bishops approve a national abuse policy, promising to bar all molesters from church work. The Vatican later demands changes to protect priests' due-process rights.
Sept. 19 The Boston Archdiocese settles with 86 Geoghan victims for $10 million, after pulling out of an earlier settlement of about $30 million.
Nov. 3 At Mass, Cardinal Law offers a lengthy apology, acknowledging his responsibility "for decisions which led to intense suffering."
Dec. 3 Thousands of personnel files made public by a court order reveal that priests in the Boston Archdiocese were accused of abusing women and girls and taking drugs.
Dec. 13 Cardinal Law resigns as Boston archbishop.