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As chorus of change grows, who is listening?

Archbishop John Quinn's recent talk at Oxford got us wondering about how things go inside the Vatican.

Quinn, in a stunningly bold speech marking the centennial of Campion Hall, a residence for Jesuits studying at Oxford, called for sweeping reform of the papacy and the way authority is wielded in the church (NCR, July 12). He was sharply critical of the curia for exercising power far in excess of its original job description and for becoming an obstruction to communication between the bishops of the world and the papacy.

Quinn was eloquent, academically precise and painstakingly deferential toward the pope and the magisterium. All the same, having taken on the task of discussing "new forms in which the Petrine ministry can be embodied and exercised" -- as the pope had requested in a 1995 encyclical, Ut Unum Sint -- it turns out there are things to be said.

If the pope asks for a critique and suggestions on what new forms might be appropriate, it can only mean the old forms must be wanting.

But who listens? What happens when an archbishop, who has given a lifetime of service to the church, undertakes a serious discourse on what has gone wrong with the exercise of papal authority and turns the spotlight on the stifling interference of the curia?

Quinn, in one sense, is but the latest in a mounting list of church leaders and high-profile theologians who have felt compelled to push for meaningful change.

Cardinal Carlo Martini of Milan, Italy, in interviews the past two years, has advocated married priests, allowing communion for some divorced Catholics, studying the possibilities of ordaining women as deacons, and taking a case-by-case approach to the question of artificial contraception.

A group of American bishops last year fashioned an abbreviated version of the concerns voiced by Quinn. They urged a "more effective structure for dialogue with Rome," as well as steps "to be sure that we hear what the people have to say to us." The bishops must be free, they said, to openly discuss difficult issues such as equality of women in the church, the annulment process, contraception, what types of men are being attracted to the priesthood and the ordination of married men.

"There is a widespread feeling," the bishops wrote, "that Roman documents of varying authority have for some years been systematically reinterpreting the Vatican II documents to present the minority positions at the council as the true meaning of the council."

Archbishop Quinn, Cardinal Martini, a group of 12 U.S. bishops supported by more than 30 others -- these are not wild-eyed revolutionaries. Nor are they alone in their thinking. The same questions -- particularly the wonderment at why Rome is so fearful of dialogue among the bishops of the church -- resound strongly through many, if not all, national conferences.

The church is not a democracy, and numbers alone do not make a persuasive moral argument. At the same time, there is little wisdom in simply ignoring the growing chorus -- one that includes millions of Catholics around the world who have signed petitions -- urging church reform.

In this week's issue (page 9), theologian Bernard Cooke points out one of the central difficulties in attempting to move beyond these isolated monologues to some form of discussion.

"One of the things we most need for productive conversation," writes Cooke, "is a structure of open public discussion of fundamental issues. There is plenty of discussion on both sides, but there are few opportunities for nonpolemical exchange."

Instead of any substantial discussion, a sad pattern has emerged of either silence or punishment by the Vatican.

Those who raise serious questions and present well-formed arguments are often met with insinuations that they are less than faithful to the church and maybe even less than Catholic.

What should be discussion becomes polarized into shouting matches.

And in the absence of any real dialogue, bullying tactics are used to maintain order. Theologians are silenced or banished from their teaching positions; established catechists are blacklisted or fired; reform groups like Call to Action are denied meeting space or branded as heretical.

The resulting chill on intellectual endeavors, if history is any guide, will become a matter of regret at some later stage of church history.

For we all know that the questions will not disappear. They did not go away in the earlier part of this century when theologians all had to run for cover as the antimodernists cast a huge net over the major centers of thought in this country.

The tragedy, of course, is that so many good people find their lives unnecessarily disrupted and their reputations ruined.

The further tragedy, glaringly evident earlier this year in the antics of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., is that every bullying use of power diminishes the church's authority and its credibility.

Bruskewitz made his point but in so doing demonstrated the kind of church that results when the authoritarian model is taken to its logical extremes: exclusive, punitive and discordant.

"God expects us to grow up," Cooke writes. "We are meant to be decisive and self-determining. ... We cannot be blessed by God for handing over to others in blind submission those choices that are demanded by the circumstances of our lives."

Freedom does not mean license but neither can it exist in lockstep, unthinking adherence to rules. If we are to be good Catholics who grow in grace and closer union with Christ, then we must be free to discuss and even argue, within the church, those issues that are deeply important to us as people of God.

Voices like Quinn's and Martini's and the concerned U.S. bishops and a significant number of their brother bishops in other countries continue to make a compelling case for increased dialogue, for rethinking the way authority operates in the church, for a new council to usher in the next millennium, for increased involvement of the laity, especially women, in deciding the future course of the church.

Is anyone in the Vatican listening?

National Catholic Reporter, August 9, 1996