By Ann Rodgers-Melnick
(November 8, 2003)
The Rev. Ronald Lawler, a Catholic theologian who spoke as easily of faith to kindergartners as to graduate students, died Wednesday at the Vincentian Home in McCandless after a long battle with cancer. He was 77.
A Franciscan Capuchin friar, Father Lawler was the only American on the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy, an elite group of theologians who advise the pope. But he was best known as co-editor of the adult catechism “The Teaching of Christ,” with his brother, Thomas, and Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh—who was a young priest when the first edition was published in 1976. Father Lawler was Wuerl’s spiritual director.
“Like St. Francis, he preached the gospel incessantly and uncompromisingly, and sometimes even used words,” Bishop Wuerl said.
“I will have to find a new spiritual director. But his lessons I hope will live on in my heart as they do in the hearts of so many whom he guided, taught, touched and helped as a friar in the image of Francis and a priest in the image of the Good Shepherd.”
Father Lawler’s great interest was in the spirituality of the family.
Father Lawler wrote on bioethics, defending church teaching as it applied to matters ranging from embryonic stem cell research to end-of-life issues.
But his teaching was never arcane, said Michael Aquilina of Bridgeville, a Catholic writer who assisted Father Lawler.
“As he put it, he didn’t like to use words of more than three syllables. He would talk about generous love. That was the word that was always on his lips. It took in everything he taught. And he really taught us that there was joy in that.”
Born David Lawler in Cumberland, Md., he took the name Ronald in the Capuchin order. He was ordained in 1951 and held many teaching posts. While at the former St. Fidelis College in Herman from 1960 to 1969, one of his students was the future Archbishop of Boston, Sean O’Malley.
“The good influence that Father Ronald had on so many Capuchins and diocesan priests cannot be exaggerated,” Archbishop O’Malley wrote in a September tribute.
“His brilliant mind, Herculean capacity to work, his boundless love for Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church and the Catholic priesthood have made an indelible mark on our lives.”
In 1977, he became the founding president of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, formed as a conservative counterpoint to the Catholic Theological Society of America, which some theologians believed was dominated by dissidents. Father Lawler wanted to promote official Church teaching, including its unpopular rejection of artificial contraception.
He was inducted into the Pontifical Roman Theological Academy in 1982 alongside two giants of modern Catholic theology: Cardinal Henri de Lubac and Father Hans Urs von Balthazar.
In 1990, Bishop Wuerl drafted Father Lawler as a consultant to the diocese for adult faith formation. He revamped diocesan marriage preparation. Ironically, the sex education program he drafted for parochial schools, The Catholic Vision of Love, was denounced by ultra-conservative Catholics.
“I think Father Lawler was, at the very core of his being, a teacher. He wanted more than anything to try to help people understand what the church taught,” said Father Kris Stubna, diocesan secretary for education.
Because Father Lawler believed that the church must support couples after the wedding, he held regional gatherings for them.
“Sometimes there would be 100 families there,” Father Stubna said. “Father Lawler was on the administrative staff, but we used to kid him that what he was really doing was spiritual direction. That’s how he saw his ministry.”
Father Lawler became an honorary grandfather to many children, including Aquilina’s.
“He really showed us how to love our children and our children how to love us,“Aquilina said.
He recalled hearing Father Lawler explain God’s love to his 6-year-old daughter and to theology students on the same day.
“It was the same message, and the language wasn’t all that different,” Aquilina said. “He was talking about what our Lord wanted and what the Second Vatican Council wanted, and it all came down to the same thing.”
Father Lawler is survived by a brother, Thomas, of Sterling, Va.; and a sister, Mary Lawler Busch, of Berlin, Md.
Father Lawler’s body will be received at St. Augustine Friary in Lawrenceville at 1 p.m. today, with visitation from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m. The body will be transferred at 1 p.m. tomorrow to St. Augustine Church in Lawrenceville , where visitation will continue until 9 p.m., with a wake service at 8 p.m. A Mass will be celebrated Monday at 11 a.m. in St. Augustine Church. Burial will be in St. Augustine Cemetery in Shaler.