PAGE 1 THE REVOLTING BISHOPS Reproduced from the +quot;News and Comments+quot; Section of

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PAGE 1 THE REVOLTING BISHOPS Reproduced from the "News and Comments" Section of the November 1998 _American Atheist_ magazine. ************************************************************** No one was more surprised than the American bishops. After all they had arranged an idolatrous visit to the United States for Pope John Paul II just a little more than a year ago. They had spent perhaps $50 million of their funds to bathe him in extensively programmed, carefully orchestrated, and massively subsidized appearances, the object of which was for the people of the nation to venerate him and through him to awaken their religious instincts. Both the government and the media of the United States readily responded to the invitation to fawn upon him. What did the old man want? Egg in his beer? Without money from the Roman Catholics of the United States, the Vatican could easily slip into the oblivion of a "has been" institution. Without the United States government obligingly following the global plans of the church, intervening when necessary, even with our armed forces (as in Vietnam), where would the rigid, wooden, medievalist pope be? Without the priests quietly, instinctively, siding with ordinary Roman Catholics to sidestep or ignore the unbending, rigid, dogmatic, authoritarian, repressive, reactionary minutiae ordered by the pope, there would be few if any members left in the church. But there it was, on paper and before them. The Vatican in the winter of 1987 had drafted a report that sought to limit the role and the authority of groups such as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) of the United States. The paper was ominously titled _The Theological and Juridical Status of Episcopal Conferences._ In it, the Vatican sought to define "collegiality" so that it would give the bishops the power to teach "only when they teach in communion with the whole episcopal college" (all world bishops). The pope was saying to his unruly, often snarling, undisciplined dogs in the bishoprics of the United States, "Down, boy. Sit. Stay." The orders were imperial. The document _denied_ "the existence and the activity" of collegiality when a nation's bishops act together, as in writing pastoral statements, at which the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in the United States had become adept. Singled out for criticism were the bishops' statements on "War and Peace" and on "Economic Justice." Both paid too much attention to worldly affairs when, as the pope has repeatedly pointed out, only heaven matters. Such papers, the Vatican said, were "theologically improper." While treating the papers issued by the conferences as "useful administrative structures," the Vatican draft denied that the bishops' conferences were indeed genuine expressions of "collegiality." The draft stated that the conferences lacked clear theological and biblical basis and warned that their ". . . excessive bureaucracy . . . [was] harmful to the appearance and proper autonomy of the diocesan bishops." It charged that the conferences would ultimately "claim an undue autonomy" from the Vatican and "end up by setting themselves against it and its doctrinal and disciplinary directives." The Vatican, of course, was seeing the writing on the wall. The report sent to the one hundred episcopal conferences throughout the world was accompanied by a letter asking for "corrections and emendations." Actually, that is mind-blowing. If the Vicar of Christ on Earth is acting under the direction of god and undertakes to give unilateral instructions to the lower echelon minions, why would he ask for "corrections and emendations" to his projected decrees? Why would he send a "draft" for the approval of the mental serfs to whom he was addressing orders? But then, John Paul II has ever acted strangely. THE AMERICAN RESPONSE TO THE VATICAN Well, the NCCB at a June meeting in Collegeville, Minnesota, expressed an almost universal dissatisfaction with the draft and decided to write a response, but first asked theologians for advice. This was clever. The theologians to whom they would go would, of course, be those who were holding their positions because they were appointed to them by the NCCB or its members. What group bites the hand that feeds it? The results were as expected. The first publicized report, a background paper, from the theologians was given by Joseph Komonchak, of Catholic University, in Washington, D.C: "It is difficult to see why, if an individual bishop is considered to be an authoritative teacher in his own church, a consensus reached among a number of bishops should not be considered to have even greater authority." The paper, written with other theologians, went on to characterize the Vatican draft as "defensive and negative," "confused," "hasty," and "selective in its appeals to Vatican II." The bishops especially noted that the draft had set up the conferences as straw men and gave "the undesirable impression of an essay in ideology, pretending to be a study but with its conclusions already determined." (_Washington Post,_ 4 November 1988) Knowing their church, what could the bishops have expected? Surely not a sharing of power. Curiously no media in the United States carried the reactions of the bishops' conferences in any other nation. But the draft -- sent worldwide -- warned of the potential of disharmony with Rome and the harm to "the appearance of autonomy" of the local bishops if it was not accepted docilely (New Jersey _Star-Ledger,_ 6 November 1988). The reference was to the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, which had issued guidelines for the church at that time from the perspective of the "liberal" pope, John XXIII. (_The Documents of Vatican II,_ Walter M. Abbott, ed. [New York: America Press, 1966].) One of the documents created by that council, the "Dogmatic Constitution of the Church" _(Lumen Gentium),_ laid great emphasis on "collegiality" and the role of episcopal groups (i.e., national bishops' conferences). At the time the term _collegiality_ found its way into the dictionaries of the world. Today Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 1984) defines it as "the relationship of colleagues; _specif:_ the participation of bishops in the government of the Roman Catholic Church in collaboration with the pope." It was a long way for the bishops of the United States to come from Vatican II to a formal confrontation with John Paul II. Just twenty-five years ago at that council, the United States hierarchy of the Roman Catholic church had been so compliant that European bishops scornfully called it "the church of silence" (_The Washington Post,_ 17 November 1988). Since Vatican II some critics of that council have complained that the one hundred conferences of bishops, which exist in diverse nations and regions throughout the world, infringe on the authority of both the pope and the individual bishops in their dioceses. Top officials in the Vatican have, indeed, asked for whom the bishops were speaking, and on what authority. Others suggested that the bishops were taking on issues that simply were none of their business. Those who support the conferences reply that they bring to notice legitimate concerns of Roman Catholics in nations, regions, or cultures and thus attempt to balance the centralized authority of the Vatican in a way that individual bishops cannot. It was the old "in union there is strength" argument. By 1985 the conservatives had acquired enough power that they could question the growing role of the conferences. At that time a special synod of bishops called for a churchwide examination of the conferences' theological status. It was in response to this call that the Vatican had issued its first draft of _The Theological and Juridical Status of Episcopal Conferences._ The poor fools of NCCB and other conferences were seeking democratic processes in an autocratic organization. Having no precedent for such an outrageous innovation, the theologians called upon to reply to the Vatican draft attempted to reach back to the "beginnings" of the church, about which no one knows anything. Pathetically, the document they produced noted that in "the first centuries" of the church, all meetings of bishops were provincial -- not worldwide. One can only sit intellectually stunned at the absurdity of the statement. In "the first centuries" there was no "universal church" as it is known today. There were only small groups of Christian cults fighting viciously one with the other over dogma. There were no churches as such. There was no Bible. A Christian "congregation" meeting in someone's home, in a field, in the streets of a city, could well consist of half a dozen bickering illiterates, attempting to transform the religions of the time and place into a new form of theological madness called Christianity. It was, after all, 325 years after the alleged birth of J.C. that a Roman emperor, fed up with the internecine fighting of the various Christian cults called them all together, at the expense of the state, so that they could formulate what they thought they believed, while the emperor himself sat as the presiding influence. The bishops, however, hoping against the obvious recalcitrant stonewalling of Pope John Paul II that they could have some input into an attempt to save the church by reforming it, had gone merrily on their way aspiring to play a role of import, insisting that they had a special "collective" responsibility to guide the church through "collegiality." But as the conferences attempted to adapt the more and more rigid and authoritarian church decrees to local conditions, they succeeded only in creating tensions with officials in the Vatican. In the United States, the NCCB had been extremely active in issuing many theological pronouncements on any number of contentious issues before the nation -- issues such as nuclear war and weapons, a fairer distribution of income, and society's responsibility for the poor. Each of the statements issued had, in fact, given a distinctly American flavor to Roman Catholic dogma (_St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch,_ 3 November 1988). The issue of nuclear warfare had been particularly thorny. Yet, John Paul II had publicly supported the bishops' national pastoral letter on nuclear arms and the economy of the United States, both of which took strong issue with policies of the Reagan White House. Nonetheless the Jesuit author, Thomas Reese (more of him later) explained: "You had the American [bishops] saying one thing, the French something else and the Germans taking a third position. That gives the impression that the bishops are in disarray and that's a legitimate concern [for the Vatican]." (_The Washington Post,_ 4 November 1988) Recently the most thorny, most heatedly argued statement of the NCCB had been on AIDS. The bishops' administrative committee had approved discussion of how condoms can limit the spread of the AIDS virus. The opposition had been so heavy that many of the bishops refused to accept the policy statement, which was finally dropped. THE THEOLOGIANS ON THE POPE The critique of the Vatican's work, _The Theological and Juridical Status of Episcopal Conferences,_ which the American theologians prepared was then passed to a panel of Roman Catholic bishops consisting of Archbishop John L. May of St. Louis, Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, Archbishop John R. Roach of Minneapolis-St. Paul, Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, and Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit (who died in August). All members of the panel (three of which are cardinals) had at one time or another been presidents of the NCCB. The panel issued both a four-thousand-word statement described as a "critique" and a fifteen-thousand-word "background paper." The statement itself was reported by the _New York Times_ (3 November 1988) to be "formal and scholarly in tone" although unsparing in criticism of the Vatican paper. It said that the Vatican document was confusing and inconsistent in its use of terms, distorted important passages in texts from the Second Vatican Council, ignored the actual experiences of bishops' conferences as well as parallel practices in other Christian churches (as if the Vatican would care about criticisms calling its attention to Protestant practices), slighted precedents in the ancient church, made assertions without supporting arguments, appeared generally to be "defensive and negative," and was polemic to an opposing position that it did not fairly represent. Then just the weekend before the scheduled annual meeting of the NCCB, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago (who is known as the "great reconciler" of the United States church) and Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco met in Washington, D.C., to produce a gentler rebuke, but one which still retained the same advice for the Vatican. The new statement said, "We do not think that this present document, despite its merits, is adequately suited to serve as the basis for an effective discussion of this important issue." (Minneapolis _Star Tribune,_ 17 November 1988) Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul-Minneapolis then reported that Bernardin and Quinn, after seeing the negative aspects of the original version of the NCCB response, changed it because: "They perceived a sharpness in the tone of the document which I don't think we intended." (_St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch,_ 17 November 1988) The fifteen-hundred-word background paper spelled out the panel's harsh criticism in detail. The authors of this working paper were disclosed. Basically the paper marshalled theological justifications for the bishops' conferences from the past writings of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and from other church officials who now question the conferences' authority. Some small areas of agreement were found with the Vatican draft. It was agreed that: ". . . collegiality in the fullest sense must obviously involve the whole college of bishops in union with the pope." (Santa Rosa, California _Press Democrat,_ 12 November 1988) And the panel also stated that it shared the Vatican's concern that the bishops' conferences not divide the church along national lines nor create bureaucracies that replace the leadership of individual bishops. But the panel rejected strongly what it called the Vatican's "all-or-nothing" approach and pointedly noted that the Vatican recognizes the bishops' local authority in their own dioceses and their collegial authority when they act universally in accord with the pope, but that the Vatican dismisses all intermediate "organic groupings" as "theologically irrelevant." Having nothing on which to base their claim, their paper "suggested" that these intermediate groups could claim "a special authority" that is at least partial because theologically warranted (_Des Moines Register,_ 3 November 1988). They then added that they felt that the Vatican Congregation of Bishops had issued a politically motivated attack on the national bishops' conferences. Beginning on November 14, 1988, the NCCB held its annual meeting in the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. (_San Francisco Chronicle,_ 16 November 1988), and it was there that Bishop James Malone, of Youngstown, Ohio, (the immediate past president of the conference) told the three hundred bishops gathered there that the Vatican draft was so "very inadequate" that "as the fathers of Vatican II did several times, we are asking for a new working document." He recommended that the draft be rejected with the "formal, formidable term, _non placet_" (Latin for "It does not please"). To do that, a two-thirds vote of approval was necessary from those assembled. Having a classic Roman Catholic mind trained to take orders, Archbishop Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia protested that "We were asked to react to it -- not to improve it or change it any way." Cardinal Joseph L. Bernardin of Chicago, having often demonstrated his ability to cloy to orders while attempting evasive action, responded: "On the first page of this response, we quoted from the mandate given to us: 'This is by no means to be considered a final draft.' " (_Austin American-Statesman,_ 10 December 1988) But he noted it was sent to episcopal conference for "corrections and emendations." The most notoriously conservative cardinal, John O'Connor of New York, made it clear: "I am not impressed by the document [the Vatican draft]. It is dangerously flawed." However, he was not in agreement to reject it _non placet_ for it appeared to him that "it would be more strategic, more appropriate in keeping with collegiality," to drop that phrase, which would only be considered, by the pope, to be insulting. The Vatican's defense at this meeting was handled primarily by Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh. Wuerle put the issue on the table: what is the authority of the bishops' conferences? He noted that although the national bishops' conferences instituted by Vatican II were intended to carry out the mission and message of the church, they were not envisaged as being means to criticize or attack church dogma, or in the United States, to be critical of U.S. military or economic policies. Wuerl's stance was that the conferences had indeed, occasionally, usurped individual bishops' authority. Because the NCCB had asked theologians for interpretation and analysis, Wuerl also presented a paper on "Doctrinal Responsibilities" which proposed (optional) guidelines for bishops and theologians when discussing differences that they might come to mutually acceptable resolutions of any matters under discussion. He noted: "This [paper] is intended to minimize what we sometimes describe as witch hunts -- people who constantly call into question the orthodoxy and integrity of other people." (_Pittsburgh Press,_ 13 November 1988) He emphasized that because theology is nuanced and everchanging, perfectly orthodox theologians' statements could be perceived by others as alien to the faith. If, however, after the proposed conferences toward resolution of the problem it was found that a theologian's teaching indeed contained doctrinal error, there were a number of possible reactions ranging from a continued more in-depth study of the question to the issuance by the bishop of a warning that the teaching was dangerous to the faith. Bishop Raymond Lessard of Savannah, Georgia, reported to the press that "an overwhelming majority" of bishops responded to a straw poll to approve Wuerl's document "without reservation." At that point news reports became impossible to interpret. This issue suddenly came to be reported as having been under study by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican for over a year. _The New York Times_ (16 November 1988) reported that Bishop Lessard, not Bishop Wuerl, had headed a committee which had produced the document, "Doctrinal Responsibilities." The thrust of it had been a complaint that it "seems to place bishops and theologians on the same level." Even the solutions suddenly differed. Now, the report was that in such cases of dispute four steps were to be taken: (1) facts were to be gathered; (2) their meaning was to be discerned; (3) an evaluation of the arguments' consistency with church teaching needed to be had; (4) and an examination needed to be made of the practical implications implicit in the situation. The document recognized the limitations of bishops to act decisively in dispute cases because a bishop can exercise only moral suasion over theologians in his diocese. He may have the power to remove a dissenting professor at a local seminary that trains priests, but he would be powerless to discipline a tenured faculty member at a Roman Catholic college or a secular university. The issue appeared to be both urgent and compounded as the members of the NCCB affirmed that problems are presented daily by Roman Catholic theologians who argue that the bishops should change their opposition to birth control, priestly celibacy, abortion, or the ordination of women as priests. The Vatican had been rankled by this outline of "due process," explained Thomas J. Reese, a Jesuit who had just completed a study of the power structure of the American church: "The Vatican is inclined to think that these kinds of procedures are not necessary. They would be as inappropriate in the church as they would be in a family. There is no due process for children who misbehave." (_New York Times,_ 16 November 1988) At the last minute the Vatican intervened in the NCCB meeting to keep its members from voting on the guidelines presented. Reese noted that the Vatican intervention at the NCCB "just threw the whole conference procedure out of kilter." He said, "It was highly unusual for the Vatican to step in like this, especially at the last moment." The role of Wuerl disappeared and NCCB members hurriedly voted to set a date of June 1989 for another go-round on the theologians/bishops issue (_San Francisco Chronicle,_ 15 November 1988). Even with this open evidence of contention between bishops and theologians, the NCCB had turned to those very theologians whom many of their bishops had questioned, and asked them for definitive evaluations of the Vatican draft. Archbishop May, addressing the NCCB meeting, attempted to pour oil on the troubled waters by noting that the pope had been during the year full of praise for American Catholics and had "indicated we are moving in the right direction." He reported that the pope specifically cited involvement with ecumenical action, "especially as regards the welfare of the unborn and the family . . . our work with migrants . . . our [Roman] Catholic colleges and universities . . . our pastoral letters on peace and economic justice . . . our proposed pastoral letter's opposition to sexual discrimination" (_Washington Post,_ 14 November 1988). May could only be considered to be naive. Of course the pope would be enthusiastic for the "unborn" and "the family." The political fad of the day is to express such concern while substantive issues of our time are ignored. May also "appeared to go out of his way" to respond to conservative bishops who criticized the NCCB: ". . . for being too concerned about the world, of pursuing an agenda that, in the minds of some critics is secular, leftist, and in some way 'ideological.'" (_San Francisco Chronicle,_ 17 November 1988) He also made a broad appeal to the Roman Catholics of the United States. "Catholics in America have long since passed the time when we must prove ourselves to this country which we love. Now is the time to translate our teaching into action, to build a more just nation and a more peaceful world. "Our people need to hear that the work we have begun on 'social issues' -- whether on nuclear policy, human rights or advocacy for the unborn, the poor and the homeless -- will continue." (New Jersey _Star Ledger,_ 15 November 1988) At the podium the pope's official representative, Archbishop Pio Laghi, challenged the bishops to devote more attention and resources to the nation's estimated 19 million Hispanics. He emphasized that "the annual loss of Spanish-speaking Catholics to non-Catholic sects is . . . disturbingly high" (Minneapolis _Star Tribune,_ 18 November 1988). His message was that it would be better to gather in "the least of these," the undereducated, the illiterate, the poor, the oppressed who have been locked into Roman Catholicism, than to expend effort on criticism of papal edicts or attempts at introducing democracy in the undemocratic church. Laghi's statements were a prelude only, for included in the business of the annual meeting of the NCCB was, of course, a secular proposal calling on the United States Congress to ease the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act that penalized employers of undocumented workers. They asked instead that Congress should give legal standing to many more undocumented Hispanic workers, most of whom are Roman Catholic (_Washington Post,_ 18 November 1988). As an indication of their intentions the bishops added that the violation of immigration statutes might become necessary to achieve justice in some cases: "Defying [the sanctions now in place] must be viewed as an exceptional act justified only by clear moral necessity to prevent a greater evil for which all other remedies have been exhausted." (Minneapolis _Star Tribune,_ 18 November 1988) The media smelled a fight. Every reporting news service, the papers, and the electronic media saw a confrontation between the pope and the bishops, between a hierarchical dictatorship and the concepts of democracy. Seeking to defuse this image, May made a special announcement that the Vatican draft and the proposed reply by the NCCB had been portrayed incorrectly by the media: ". . . as it signaled some sort of struggle with the Holy See. With all due respect for the creative imaginations of certain writers, this is simply false." (_St. Paul Pioneer Press Dispatch,_ 15 November, 1988) Reese, whose new book is _Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church,_ disagreed. His analysis has brought him to the conclusion that the tension between the Vatican and the U.S. bishops is growing: "There's always a tension between a central authority and the regional office. Here, it's the concern for the universality of the church and how to adapt church teaching to local needs." (_San Francisco Chronicle,_ 16 November 1988) Finally, when the resolution in reply to the Vatican draft, which was put to the vote, was finally, carefully, and more "delicately" drafted it stated: "We do not think that this present document, despite its merits (a few were found), is adequately suited to serve as the basis for an effective discussion on this important issue. . . . It is our considered judgment that the discussion of this delicate subject with its attendant issues would be better served if an entirely new working document were to be drafted. (_Austin American-Statesman,_ 10 December 1988) Malone then received his needed two-thirds vote, as the conference passed the resolution 205-59. The winning vote was just two more than the needed 203. In effect, by totally rejecting the Vatican draft rather than asking for or responding with "corrections and emendations," the NCCB staked out its position prior to any debate which might arise (Minneapolis _Star Tribune,_ 3 November 1988). This is nothing short of a revolutionary struggle for power now to be played out within the church, as a countercultural repressive pope pits his arbitrary, autocratic power against a large number of lower echelon clergy who desire to make changes in the church by the application of what they see as democratic changes. When the NCCB annual conference was over and done, a curious news item appeared in _The Washington Post_ (18 November 1988) that Pope John Paul II "looks forward" to a meeting in Rome in the spring of 1989 with the top leaders of the Roman Catholic church in the United States. That could mean that the conflict, briefly viewed in the media of the United States, may well then become internalized within the church. It was just two years ago, in November 1986, that Archbishop Pio Lagli had addressed an annual convention of the NCCB by reading a lengthy letter from the pope which emphasized that the pope's authority came from his position as the successor of the Apostle Peter. In September 1987 while touring the American West and South, the pope reiterated that his authority must be unchallenged. The Vatican had relentlessly driven home the fact that in an ultimate analysis, the bishops of the church must bend. The prerogative went to the Vatican. It was the Vatican ultimately: first the Reverend Charles Curran was told he could no longer teach Roman Catholic theology at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. Then Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen was ordered to delegate most of his authority to a conservative auxiliary bishop because he had transgressed theologically. Reverend Matthew Fox of San Francisco has recently been ordered into silence for one year. Americans all, they fought back against what they perceived to be censorship, but yielded ultimately so that they could stay within the confines of the church. None of the men were, or could have been, removed by the bishops who watched in dismay the unfolding of the events. The Vatican warned that it had not changed its strict teachings that homosexual acts are sinful; warned that the priests must follow a life of celibacy; warned that acceptance of any but its teachings on birth control was a sin. Off camera, the Vatican's envoy, Archbishop Pio Laghi, warned that America and the Vatican had not "entered a new era" of relationship." American Catholicism was to remain fashioned by the dictates of John Paul II: "We do have some distance to cover, and it's more than just the ocean that is between us. There is an American way to approach problems and challenges and there is a Roman way to approach problems and challenges." (Royal Oak, Michigan _Daily Tribune,_ 19 November 1988) In the United States issues are discussed in a framework built on personal "rights and freedoms." But that is not so in the Vatican: "We tend to express things in terms of roles, duties and responsibilities. That is our framework. "It is not that Americans do not care about 'roles' or that we do not care about 'rights.' . . . But these are two very different frameworks. We still have much to learn each about the other. (Ibid.)" Pope John Paul II cannot afford to lose the American Catholic church -- not the members, not the money, not the institutions owned and operated in the name of Roman Catholicism. But he cannot give up the heritage of the church, which rests upon an autocratic structure. The essence of Roman Catholicism is "obedience to authority," particularly the ultimate authority -- god. The Vicar of Christ on Earth must wield that authority unshared with his sheep, for if it fails him -- there will be no church. *********************************************************************** * * * American Atheists website: * * PO Box 140195 FTP: * * Austin, TX 78714-0195 * * Voice: (512) 458-1244 Dial-THE-ATHEIST: * * FAX: (512) 467-9525 (512) 458-5731 * * * * Atheist Viewpoint TV: * * Info on American Atheists:, * * & American Atheist Press include your name and mailing address * * AANEWS -Free subscription: * * and put "info aanews" in message body * * * * This text may be freely downloaded, reprinted, and/other * * otherwise redistributed, provided appropriate point of * * origin credit is given to American Atheists. * * * ***********************************************************************


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