Bishop Clark displays the nature of true authority
Why can we not openly dialogue about the ministry of women, the meaning of sexuality and the condition of homosexuality, the situation of the divorced and remarried?
That is but one of a series of questions asked by Bishop Matthew Clark in an essay published earlier this year in New Theological Review.
Clarks questions, thoughtful and provocative, were predictably pounced on by critics. Ultra-right opponents lined up outside the diocesan offices in Rochester, N.Y., holding large placards proclaiming: Bishop Clark: Come back to the Catholic faith!
Clark is of course deeply embedded in the Catholic faith and its traditions. His essay, The Pastoral Exercise of Authority, takes up a theme that will become increasingly important to the church in the years ahead as the current curial administration in Rome continues its attempts to centralize power and to impose rigid constraints on local bishops.
The issues raised in his essay -- and by other actions he has taken as bishop -- are essential to a healthy church. The dialogue his thinking has fostered in the wider community in Rochester constitutes a wonderful witness to a church that is vibrant and unafraid.
The demonstrators that have become a part of the diocesan landscape in Rochester clearly illustrate that the vaunted obedience of those on the right to leaders appointed by the pope has severe limits. Cafeteria Catholics can be found across the liberal-to-conservative spectrum.
A reading of the literature of todays Catholic fundamentalists makes it clear that the treasured image of unwavering orthodoxy has its limits. Let the pope declare that, for all practical purposes, there is no circumstance in modern society that warrants the use of capital punishment or that nuclear weapons should be banned, and they trot out their interpretations of Aquinas and embrace the exercise of the intellect of the faithful. They discover, in fact, the indispensability of individual conscience and intellectual understanding in weighing and accepting papal teaching.
The self-proclaimed papal loyalists engage in the same relativism they raise as a criticism of their opponents.
The point is, a debate continues in this church over positions that are not even absolute to the absolutists.
It is no secret that throughout Pope John Paul IIs tenure, the type of men appointed to episcopal posts and the characteristics essential to upward mobility in the hierarchy have, for the most part, changed dramatically from those rewarded during the tenures of Pope Paul VI and Pope John XXIII.
Concerns about pastoral skills, compassion and a view of the church as the people of God have been subjugated to assurances that new bishops will toe the line, enforce the rules and brook no discussion of any of the difficult topics having to do with sexuality or orders.
It is a rare Matthew Clark who would make it through the secret screening process today.
So his words and his courage become all the more valuable. He and others like him are counterweight to that vision of church that is increasingly cramped, closed and airless.
Clarks essay on authority grew from his experience of a synod in his diocese, a gathering called to fashion pastoral strategies for the future.
In a long process that began at the local level and moved to final approval at the diocesan level, Clark put into practice his conviction that as a people formed in baptism, there is more which is truly common to all the people of God than that which divides the ordained from the people they serve.
Inviting such wide participation, of course, can be frightening to a leader who rules by fiat. The picture which the second Vatican Council paints of the Christian man and woman come of age -- faithful, gifted, articulate and competent -- must be kept in mind when talking about authority in the post-conciliar era, Clark writes.
The underpinning of the model of church that Clark employs is outlined rather succinctly by Eugene Kennedy and Dr. Sara C. Charles in their most recent book, Authority: The Most Misunderstood Idea in America. It could well be the most misunderstood concept in the church.
Authority, they write, does not use manipulative power to achieve its ends and cannot be identified with that concept. Natural authority is not a function of laws, rules, slogans about empowerment or public relations. It is not law or regulations but views them as a means to its goal of human growth. Authority employs them in a careful and disciplined manner.
Authoritarianism, on the other hand, is not dynamic but essentially static. It imposes a template of conformity on people to restrict and control their individual development. ... Much like a derisive laugh, it delights in force, manipulation, humiliation, revenge and winning by any means and at all costs.
Clark and bishops like him will ultimately be spoken about as the visionaries of the day. Unfortunately, it is nothing new for the church to revisit those scorned in one era and pronounce them heros.
Until that time, we can only offer our support and our thanks for taking the heat. Ironically, it is people like Clark who are preserving real authority for the church.
For every time the authoritarians demand silence, require an end to discussion of sexuality or ministry issues, they diminish their own authority.
And, of course, the discussions continue.
National Catholic Reporter, December 5, 1997