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New letter may muzzle bishops

NCR Staff

The National Conference of Catholic Bishops is one of the most powerful national church bodies in the world. During the past 30 years, the U.S. bishops’ pronouncements on such issues as abortion and poverty, on war and national defense, on international policy and the way we make and spend our money often had repercussions well beyond the country’s Catholic community.

The strong model of a national conference that often is a major player in weighty national matters evolved as one of the reforms spawned by the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965.

So why did Pope John Paul II issue a document, Apostolos Suos (“His Apostles,” read the letter on the Vatican's Web site), that appears to dramatically change the course of that evolution, promulgating laws that some say will make it impossible for a national conference to ever again act in the ways the American bishops have conducted business during the past 30 years?

In the letter on the theological and juridical nature of episcopal conferences, John Paul II declares that bishops’ conferences may issue statements on doctrinal and other moral issues in the name of the entire conference only if such measures pass unanimously or if the bishops receive prior approval from the Vatican. Previously, the conferences required a two-thirds majority before issuing major statements. The new rules were made part of Canon Law, the official law of the church (NCR, July 31).

As is often the case with Vatican documents -- even those seemingly aimed at straightening all the lines and eliminating all ambiguity -- interpretations are many and varied.

The letter was quickly dubbed in some quarters as another papal move to centralize power.

Others, like Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, welcomed the document. Referring to John Paul II as a “centripetal man in a centrifugal time,” Chaput sees the letter as a unifying element for bishops’ conferences.

Taken in context with another document in recent weeks that severely limited the options for legitimate dissent by theologians (NCR, July 17), the apostolic letter might well be seen as the latest manifestation of a kind of Vatican summer of discontent. In fact, both documents have been developed over a number of years. The first draft of the apostolic letter on national conferences was presented to the U.S. bishops -- whose leaders roundly rejected it -- in 1988.

‘More centralized control’

Fr. Andrew Greeley, the sociologist, told Religion News Service recently that the letter on national conferences “certainly does seem to impose ever more centralized control. They took care of the theologians a couple of weeks ago, and now they’re taking care of the bishops.”

Underlying the recent apostolic letter is a tension as old as the church, according to Jesuit Fr. Thomas J. Reese, editor of America magazine and author of several books on the church hierarchy. “It’s the problem of unity versus legitimate pluralism,” he said. Involved “is a lot of prudential judgment about when people can differ. When does unity suppress all creativity and when does pluralism reach the point of chaos? Different people along the continuum see that at different points.”

Reese, whose 1992 book A Flock of Shepherds is a detailed look at the national conference, believes that the apostolic letter will effectively restrict the U.S. bishops from making major and timely pronouncements on most issues, since few matters pass without dissenting voices.

The two most ambitious and controversial pastoral letters undertaken by the conference, one on war and peace (1983) and the other on the economy (1986, “Economic Justice for All” on American University's server), generated considerable controversy. In each case, nine bishops voted against the pastorals on the final ballot.

Reese foresees gridlock in Rome if each of the world’s 108 national conferences begins to send documents to the Vatican for approval.

“What in fact is going to happen is the opposite of what Rome wants. Bishops’ conferences are going to stop issuing pastoral letters, and committees of bishops are going to issue more and more statements because the committee statements do not have to be unanimous.”

While officials like Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, see a distinction in teaching authority between the entire conference and the smaller committees, Reese said, “most people don’t care.”

“What the Vatican doesn’t realize is that in the 20th century, most people don’t care about the canonical authority of a teacher. What they care about is the tone and content of the teaching and whether it is persuasive.”

Whether or not the document was intended as a crackdown on national conferences, what is clear is that the tone of the Vatican today regarding national conferences is dramatically different from the tone of 1970s-era Vatican documents urging bishops to act in a democratic fashion and in unison as national bodies.

Although the precise nature of national conferences was never fully worked out before they became an accepted fact of life the world over, the Vatican apparently had a clear idea of how these national groupings should operate. In his book, Reese cites a document of Vatican II, “Decree on the Bishops’ Pastoral Office in the Church,” that “gave conferences authority over certain church issues.” Those responsibilities would be spelled out more precisely in canon law after the council.

“But the binding nature of these decisions,” wrote Reese, “was clearly expressed by the ‘Directory on the Pastoral Ministry of Bishops’ issued by the Vatican in 1973,” which ordered that a bishop accept “with loyal submission” the actions taken by the majority of the conference, “for they have the force of law through the church’s highest authority, and he puts them into practice in his diocese although he may not previously have agreed with them or they may cause him some inconvenience.”

Majority view subservient

In John Paul’s recent letter, the majority view clearly takes a subservient position to the role of individual bishops as authoritative teachers in their own dioceses. In explaining the letter, Ratzinger emphasized that the letter protected individual bishops who might be in the minority, further making the point that truth “is not determined by a majority vote.”

That sentiment is at the heart of Chaput’s understanding of the letter.

“The document isn’t ultimately about conferences at all,” wrote Chaput, head of the Denver archdiocese, in an E-mail response to NCR questions. “Rather it’s about the responsibility of individual bishops to lead and to teach, quite apart from their committees, staffs and structures.

“I know from my own experience that the pressure to escape from my main job as pastor and evangelizer, into all the administrative details of running a diocese, can be very intense,” said Chaput, widely considered a leading thinker on the Catholic right. “It’s just easier to delegate some hard decisions or teachings to a group. But that can really compromise a bishop’s personal apostolic presence. The problem is, administrative structures can turn very easily into a crutch.

“Joint national actions and statements can be important, but it’s the local bishop who makes the decisive difference. ... Finally, each bishop is the responsible agent -- not the conference. The conference won’t stand before God. I will.”

The letter, in Chaput’s view, is a corrective to contemporary trends. “I think that some of what calls itself ‘diversity’ today is really just unraveling by a different name,” wrote Chaput. In that context, the apostolic letter “seems like an effort to help ensure that national conferences are strong signs of Catholic unity when it comes to matters of doctrine.”

Chaput also said that talk about majorities and minorities invokes the notion “of a constituent assembly. That’s alien to the real substance of collegiality. Brothers don’t think in those terms,” he said. Ultimately, “I do what I believe my vocation as bishop obligates me to do before the Lord and his vicar. Whether I’m in the minority or majority usually doesn’t faze me much.”

Ironically, one of the more benign interpretations of the recent document came from Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm, Minn., a noted liberal among the bishops.

Lucker is willing to wait, before declaring on the document, until the bishops have had a chance to discuss it at a national meeting and to hear from theologians and canon lawyers.

Lucker is not even certain that any statements made by the bishops would come under the new rules. “Most of the statements and most of the pastorals we issue do not have binding teaching in them,” he said. “They are, rather, strong applications of the teachings of the church to specific issues.

“For example,” he said, “in our pastoral letters on ‘To Teach as Jesus Did’ -- which has to do with schools -- and on war and peace and economics -- in at least two, if not all three, there are certain things that are binding, but for the most part we’re talking about applications of the teachings, not dogma. Most of the statements we make are in that category.”

At a news conference announcing the apostolic letter, Vatican officials said the document had been prepared in response to a request made by several bishops during a special synod in 1985. The Vatican conducted a widely consultative process, asking responses from conferences around the world.

The first draft of the papal letter was sent to the world’s bishops in January 1988. Subsequent drafts were prepared by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in collaboration with the Council for Legislative Texts.

When the U.S. bishops received the first draft of the document, the reaction was swift and strong. A panel of high-ranking U.S. prelates -- each of whom had served as president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops -- sharply criticized the draft, saying it was “deficient enough to suggest that a new draft should be framed.” In other words, those responsible for the draft should scrap it and start anew.

In a 20-page report, the panel, made up of former presidents of the conference, used words such as “rigid,” “confused,” “inadequate” and “overly defensive and negative” to describe the draft.

Willing to argue

The list of those on the panel provides a telling insight into changes that the U.S. conference has undergone. The critics of that first draft included Archbishop John May, then president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and archbishop of St. Louis, as well as Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco, Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis, and Bishop James Malone of Youngstown, Ohio. Cardinal John Dearden of Detroit also served several months on the panel before his death in August 1988.

May, Bernardin and Krol have since died; the other panel members have retired. Bernardin, Dearden and Malone were particularly convincing advocates of a strong and fairly democratic conference that included significant participation by lay people. Dearden was, in most estimations, the architect of the national conference in its modern form as well as its first president.

It is particularly telling that even Krol, a noted conservative who did not always agree with his fellow bishops, signed on to the criticism. That was in line with his service of the conference as its president. In that capacity, according to Reese, he was known to carry the conference case to Rome, even on topics with which he might personally disagree, because honoring the conference decisions was paramount for him.

Reese made the point that the conference at that time was far more protective of the process that led to consensus and more willing to argue with Vatican congregations than is the case today.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998