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Unity and top-down teaching a poor mix

“Christian is my name. Catholic is my surname,” said Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, quoting Pope Benedict XV. Both Pilla and Benedict (1914-22) were advising on how Catholics should discuss contentious issues.

Pilla made his remarks in an address to the nation’s bishops assembled in Washington Nov. 10-13 for their semiannual meeting. The bishops’ conference president explained, for instance, that while bishops in the conference may disagree, those disagreements are “usually free of bitterness, personal antagonisms and mistrust.”

NCR hopes he is correct for we’ve been hearing from some senior bishops that this is less the case than it was in the past. Maybe the bishops are taking steps to bolster that fraternal feeling.

NCR agrees wholeheartedly with Pilla’s next point, that “the church’s daily life is far less polarized than some want the public to believe.” One NCR editor raised this question during a recent lunch with conservative Catholic writer George Weigel, and they agreed that “what agitates people like you and me is of marginal consequence to most (Catholic) people who are trying to raise families, educate children, live the gospel in their own situation.”

Pilla continued with evident amazement that “some find the irritants that alienate them, paradoxically, in the church’s ultimate unifying act, the liturgy.”

Those with differing views, he said, “must deal with these matters not across a chasm of misunderstanding but together, side by side.” To encourage reconciliation, Pilla spoke strongly against the “angry voices who apparently feel justified in using a rhetoric of violence toward whoever disagrees with them.” The church also seeks reconciliation with those in any way hurt by ministers of the church, especially clergy, especially victims of sexual abuse, he said.

Finally, he wanted reconciliation to thwart “the polarization that takes place around matters of doctrine, or, at least, authoritative teaching.”

Pilla said, understandably from his perspective, “that being Catholic is not a personal and subjective matter alone but involves accepting all of church teaching and practice and, with regard to both doctrine and practice, the right and duty of the pope and bishops to teach, to guide and to ask for and insist on adherence.”

Here’s the same argument reworked: Being Catholic is not alone accepting all of church teaching and practice and the duty of the pope and bishops to teach, to guide, to ask for and to insist on adherence, it is also a personal and subjective matter.

The leadership issue also comes down to respect earned and wisdom proven -- in the light of communion, common belief, common scriptures, common goals and common sense. Overlooked here by Pilla, at a time when the pope has been apologizing to Jews, Galileo and others wronged, is that today’s Catholics know that what the church teaches at any given time is not always correct in its entirety.

A century and a half ago, some Catholics surely thought church teaching was wrong when it approved slavery. Eighty years ago some Catholic scripture scholars knew Moses didn’t write the Pentateuch, even though Rome said he did. Pilla spoke of paradox.

To many Catholics, the church seems to be teaching out of both sides of its mouth when it denies ordination to qualified married Catholic men and nonetheless admits as married Catholic clergy priests who have been ordained in other denominations. Now that’s paradoxical.

Teaching is either a two-way transmission or it’s orders from on high. Today’s Catholics will not countenance the latter if there’s none of the former.

Insisting on adherence is actually immaterial if the teaching office overall appears suspect. There are many examples. The pope tells a society of intelligent men and women, many educated as well as or better than the average bishop, that a topic can no longer be discussed. Regardless of the topic, by declaring it closed, the topic is reopened.

Or, take the ordination crisis to its immediate practical conclusion. The pope and the bishops “insist” on adherence in a church where existing policies make it harder and harder for Catholics to receive the Eucharist because there are fewer and fewer priests. And the “teaching” here is the hope that the clergy decline will reverse itself.

(We haven’t even touched on current sexual and scientific matters, here. And we won’t.)

But try this one, dear bishops, on your flocks. Ask them what they feel about divorced and remarried Catholics who are banned from receiving Communion. And then try to figure out how to insist they adhere to the teaching.

That said, Pilla attempted to give some initial shape to the issues, not least to the issue of those of “angry voices” and name-calling in the church. Unity and reconciliation within the family are topics to which we should all return.

National Catholic Reporter, November 21, 1997