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Mahony sees nun’s critique as heresy charge

NCR Staff

Mother M. Angelica, head of the Eternal Word Television Network, has issued an equivocal apology to Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles for suggesting on the air that he denied the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and for calling on members of his archdiocese to disobey him.

Despite the apology, she continued her critique of Mahony’s recent pastoral letter on the liturgy, referring to it as “fuzzy” and “confusing.”

According to Franciscan Fr. Gregory Coiro, spokesperson for the Los Angeles archdiocese, “There’s no question that Mother Angelica is in essence accusing Cardinal Mahony of teaching heresy.” He said the apology was insufficient, calling the matter “yet to be settled.”

On Nov. 12, Mother Angelica spoke during her live broadcast about Mahony’s pastoral of Oct. 10, “Gather Faithfully Together: A Guide for the Sunday Mass,” which has been hailed by liturgists and bishops (NCR, Oct. 24). She said, “The cardinal of California is teaching that it is bread and wine before the Eucharist and after the Eucharist.” She added, “I am afraid my obedience in that diocese would be absolutely zero. And I hope everybody else’s in that diocese would be zero.”

In response, Mahony wrote Mother Angelica on Nov. 14, saying, “For you to state publicly on television that I do not believe in the real presence is astounding and reprehensible and calls for an immediate public clarification and apology from you.” He referred to the doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Jesus through the act of consecration, as “a mystery of our faith, which I believe totally and without compromise.”

Mahony sent copies of his letter to the apostolic pro-nuncio, Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan; Archbishop Anthony Pilla, president of the United States bishops conference; and Bishop David Foley of Birmingham, Ala., Mother Angelica’s local bishop.

Mother Angelica returned to the air on Nov. 18 to respond. She said, “I do want to apologize to the cardinal for my remarks, which I’m sure seemed excessive.” Taking up Mahony’s request for a clarification, however, she went on to restate her criticisms of the pastoral, saying “What came through to me was the principal focus in this letter on assembly, the concentration on assembly of the people in the church rather than on the Eucharist. So I felt the letter was unclear to what the church teaches about the real presence -- the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus.”

Coiro told The Tidings, newspaper of the Los Angeles archdiocese, “Mother Angelica needs to come to the realization that what she did was a lot more seriously wrong than she presented it.”

Foley -- who serves on EWTN’s board of governors and has a weekly show on the network -- said he thinks the significance of Mother Angelica’s remarks had been overblown. “I don’t think it’s the first time that bishops have been accused of heresy by people in the church,” he told NCR.

Suggesting that her statements need to be taken in the context of EWTN’s “powerful work” for the church, he said, “If there’s a slip-up, or a mistake, you don’t just jump on every one. ... Is it that somebody has parked next to a parking meter or is it somebody that’s advocating abortion? I’ve never found that EWTN has said anything against the Catholic faith.

“I know that Mother oftentimes says things that later on she’ll say, ‘You know what I meant,’ ” Foley said in an interview Nov. 22 while attending the National Catholic Youth Conference in Kansas City, Mo. “Cardinal Mahony is a wonderful, wonderful person. I think Mother Angelica would be the very first one, if she felt she was saying anything to hurt him or to accuse him of heresy, she would be the first one to say, ‘Look, that isn’t where I’m at.’ ”

During her Nov. 18 remarks, however, Mother Angelica extended her criticism, saying “when I read the letter I was distressed by the lack of clarity.” Her Nov. 18 remarks contain six ways in which she found Mahony’s letter to be deficient: according to Mother Angelica, it said Jesus is “in” the bread and wine, not that they become Jesus; it emphasized the community rather than the eucharistic elements; it advocated people gathering around the altar during consecration; it suggested that during the Mass parishioners “bond with” the bishop; it referred to “the one who presides” at Mass rather than using the word “priest” consistently; and it says that the priest “comes not only as other ministers do,” prompting Mother Angelica to question whether Mahony was equating priests with eucharistic ministers.

“It is very confusing to people when leaders seem to ignore the real problems in the church that need to be addressed, seem to tolerate and encourage liturgical fuzziness and practices that don’t, to me, show or manifest the holiness of the sacrifice of the Mass, that awesome gift where you and I can be really present at Calvary,” she said.

“She seems to want the pastoral letter to be a theological treatise on the nature of the Eucharist and transubstantiation,” Coiro said. “But that’s not what the pastoral letter was. It had to do with how we are going to celebrate as a Catholic community in the archdiocese of Los Angeles.”

Stating several times that she was “a member of the masses and a simple woman,” Mother Angelica insisted that the pastoral never contained a clear statement concerning transubstantiation that people could understand.

Coiro rejected Mother Angelica’s claim of simplicity, saying, “If that really is the case, then Mother Angelica ought not to comment on a thing that she doesn’t understand and that confuses her. ... if she is going to talk about weighty theological matters and make very serious accusations about high-ranking churchmen, then coming back with ‘I’m just a simple nun’ is not adequate to explain that kind of behavior.”

Foley acknowledged that, as Mother Angelica’s bishop, he does bear some responsibility for her conduct. “As bishop of the diocese, I’m responsible for anything to do with the Catholic church going on in the diocese, including EWTN,” he said. Nevertheless, he does not intend to take any action about Mother Angelica’s criticism of Mahony. “I’m not planning to do anything directly about it. I do my broadcast every week, but I just have to see how it goes,” he said.

National Catholic Reporter, December 5, 1997