Law's directive to priests, sent Thursday by a senior bishop, came just days after American cardinals meeting at the Vatican urged the laity to take a greater role in the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal.
``You have the potential for some combustible material here,'' Boston College church historian Thomas O'Connor said Saturday.
David Zizik, vice chairman of the parish council at St. Theresa in Sherborn, has proposed that a group comprising one person from each of the more than 300 parish councils meets with archdiocese officials.
Parish councils are made up of volunteers who aid their parish in organizing, fund-raising and advising the pastor.
Law learned of the proposal while in Rome. Bishop Walter Edyvean, on Law's behalf, sent a letter invoking Canon Law to point out that any parish council remains ``exclusively within the parish where it has been established and it is presided over by the pastor of that parish.''
Another lay group would be ``superfluous and potentially divisive,'' the letter said.
The archdiocese's reaction to the proposal caused disbelief among some Catholics.
``I'm shocked,'' said Jim Muller, president of Voice of the Faithful, a lay group. ``The divisiveness is going to be in response to the order.''
If Catholics cannot meet with the blessing of the archdiocese, they might seek out other venues, Muller said.
O'Connor said the move could backfire, especially after Law pledged to foster an atmosphere of openness.
``It seems surprising from a political point of view,'' he said. ``From a historical point of view, it seems like a sudden attempt to turn the clock back. Given the current emotional outrage, it seems unlikely that it would work. It's more likely it would produce a greater level of outrage.''
Some prominent Catholics, however, said it might be a good idea to go slow on the proposal.
``The church is not involved in public relations,'' said Ray Flynn, former Boston mayor and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican. ``They can't be guided by a populist movement that on the surface sounds good. The devil is in the details.''