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Debates among bishops increasingly go public

NCR Staff

Increasingly, tensions among U.S. Catholic bishops over issues that divide them are reflected in highly public ways.

Jesuit Fr. Thomas J. Reese, an expert on the U.S. hierarchy, regards the open disagreements -- unusual among bishops in modern times -- to be a healthy sign.

Recently, for example, at least four bishops have written columns in diocesan newspapers to criticize or support a recent negative assessment by Archbishop John R. Quinn of the leadership style of Pope John Paul II and the power of the Roman curia.

In a second round of disagreement, two prominent cardinals publicly denounced the Catholic Common Ground Project announced this week by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago. Such a show of disunity is uncharacteristic of the U.S. hierarchy. It is also illustrative of the very tensions the project aims to address.

"Bishops have tended to avoid discussing their differences in public lest they they scandalize the faithful" -- a failure, Reese said, "to recognize that we now have a literate laity well-aware of the issues facing the church."

Reese is author of Archbishop: Inside the Power Structure of the American Catholic Church, published in 1989, and Inside the Vatican: the Politics and Organization of the Catholic Church, to be published in December by Harvard University Press.

Quinn, retired archbishop of San Francisco, called for reform in the way authority is exercised in the church in a major address at Oxford University June 29. His nuanced attack on curial power, an unusual breach of ecclesial protocol in itself, brought praise and disagreement from his peers.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee described Quinn's address as "a profound and wise analysis of the church today."

"Archbishop Quinn has opened the needed discussion on the right issues, issues that will not go away and are very much at the heart of the ecumenical dialogue," Weakland wrote in a July 11 column in his archdiocesan newspaper, The Catholic Herald. "What he said openly can often be heard in the dialogue with the Orthodox, especially in the corridors," Weakland said.

High praise also came from Bishop Frank J. Rodimer of Paterson, N.J., who wrote in his column in The Beacon, "The church has always had bishops who excel as scholars, theologians, teachers and prophets. There are even some who are all these at the same time. On the premise that you don't have to be one to know one, I would say that the archbishop emeritus of San Francisco, John R. Quinn, is worthy of this distinction."

O'Connor of New York, on the other hand, said in a three-page dismissal in the July 11 issue of Catholic New York that Quinn's observations were based on facts he doubts and perceptions he does not share.

O'Connor said he "respectfully questions" whether many of the issues raised by Quinn in his speech "are the impediments to unity that the archbishop perceives them to be."

Bishop James T. McHugh of Camden, N.J., said he found, contrary to Quinn's observation, that officials at the Roman curia generally "go to great lengths to consult with theologians and other scholars," as well as with laypersons and bishops.

Reese believes Catholics should welcome the open debate. "As long as we de facto have the disagreements within the church, for the bishops to face them honestly and discuss them with respect for various points of view is much better than trying to pretend that the problems aren't there. It's a silly myth to think the bishops are of one mind.

"I think it's much better," he said, "for the bishops to show the world how Christians can disagree and still love and respect one another. That's the more important witness than a witness of a uniformity that's created by sweeping problems under the rug.

"If you look at the history of the church, bishops have always disagreed with one another. The question is how to deal with these disagreements within the Christian community. Peter, Paul and James had disagreements about how to deal with the gentiles. They came together at the Council of Jerusalem (A.D. 50), they talked and compromised. It's a good model for how we in the church should deal with these things."

National Catholic Reporter, August 23, 1996