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You can't be too cautious these days

The evidence of official fear and the harmful effect it can have on the life of the church is piling up with numbing regularity.

The most recent instance involves Sr. Helen Prejean, who was invited to speak in Harrisburg, Pa., by a local group opposed to the death penalty. Bishop Nicholas C. Dattilo of Harrisburg refused an invitation by the group to introduce Prejean (see Harrisburg bishop bows out of anti-death penalty event featuring Sr.Helen Prejean).

In explaining his refusal, the bishop stated his displeasure at a previous Prejean interview in which she expressed compassion and understanding for women who had abortions. In addition, the bishop explained, Prejean is writing a book on women in the church, and he was not sure what she was going to put in that book.

So the bishop deprived himself of an opportunity to show a bit of graciousness toward Prejean, who, through her book Dead Man Walking, and the critically acclaimed movie of the same name, has reached tens of millions with the Catholic church's message of life.

The incident is the latest in a rash of seemingly fearful hierarchical reactions that diminish the credibility of the church.

Such incidents leave average Catholics trying to explain to unbelieving neighbors the silliness of Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, who excommunicated, among others, all those in his diocese who belong to a church reform group, even though the group includes as members a number of other bishops.

Denver Catholics were jarred when their former archbishop sanctioned the smearing of four well-known and unquestionably faithful Catholic speakers invited to speak at a lay-organized conference a year ago.

And how to explain the petty qualifications placed on Fr. Richard McBrien's book Catholicism, by a group of bishops who refused to abide by their own rules for due process?

And what of the New Orleans Notre Dame Club that buckled under the nervous concerns of an archbishop who feared that some people might object if Jesuit Fr. Richard McCormick, a Notre Dame University professor and one of the most respected moral theologians in this country, delivered a talk to a group of Notre Dame alumni?

It is all too easy to rail at authority figures, and bishops are the most visible. There are many good bishops who exercise their authority not with force but with compassion.

Those who react from fear and act with force send a chilling message and should be held accountable for the increasingly crimped and venal version of church they are fashioning. But the gaze has to go above and beyond the bishops, to a regime in Rome that has distinguished itself too often by the severity and frequency of its discipline and by the exclusionary nature of its vision of church.

It is beyond question now that Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, architect of this era of severe discipline, is a Vatican II revisionist. One need only look at what he has written recently, at the nature of the books for which he has penned forwards, at the magazines and groups that have regular access to him, to realize that Vatican II, as most of the rest of the world reasonably understood that council, has little place in his universe.

Frs. Hans Küng, Charles Curran and Edward Schillebeeckx, Bishops Raymond Hunthausen, Jacques Gaillot, Srs. Carmel McEnroy, and Ivone Gebarra, Jesuit Frs. Edward Glynn, Michael Buckley, David Hollenbach and John Baldovin (barred in recent years from serving as administrators or members of pontifical faculties at the nation's two Jesuit theology schools), Brazilian theologian Fr. Leonardo Boff and Sri Lankan theologian Fr. Tissa Balasuriya: all, to differing degrees, have been targeted by the church's office for doctrine. And they are but a few of the most celebrated cases.

There are many others, and the hidden costs are enormous. No one knows how many other speakers are canceled or blocked because some bishop, acting on the messages being sent from Rome, is fearful of reaction. Many speakers keep those incidents to themselves.

And how many diocesan workers -- liturgists, musicians and religious education teachers -- are blocked or harassed by some functionary serving as a self-appointed orthodoxy patrol? How much talent is lost because people either quit or refuse to get involved in the petty politics that flourishes in a church dominated by fear?

Certainly there are some true believers, like Bruskewitz, who are convinced that teaching means wielding the bludgeon. Others, like New Orleans Bishop Francis Schulte, use a more indirect approach. But for many bishops, having to be a conduit for such fear and severity must roil the stomach.

This is one of the prices of leadership in today's church. Such severity is expected and rewarded. The price for doing otherwise is clear.

Another unfortunate price exacted from this church of a seemingly cramped and authoritarian God is that the authority of its bishops is diminished.

True authority is earned, not forced on the faithful. Those who insist on harsh measures or use their office to taint reputations teach little except the ineffectiveness of such tactics.

The people they seek to discipline -- the McCormicks and Ivone Gebarras and Currans and Kungs and the rest -- these continue to teach, not with a bludgeon but with persuasion, with heart as well as intellect, with love for a church that is, in the end, the people..

National Catholic Reporter, February 28, 1997