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Declarations and threats won’t win hearts

The temptation is to turn and walk away. So many are disaffected. So many have walked.

The Vatican’s insistence on centralizing authority says to the people, including our bishops: “We don’t trust you to know or live the faith.”

The sad irony is that every new Roman edict intended to buttress Vatican authority makes faithful Catholics less inclined to listen.

Rome has correctly identified authority as a key issue in moving the church into the new millennium. But the prescription -- unilateral declarations of dogma coupled with threats against “dissenting” voices -- comes out of a 19th century mindset and stands little chance of attracting 21st century hearts and minds.

Yes, some will want the false security of absolute clarity, will want to be told what to think and what are the precise boundaries of belief. Most others will find such Roman Catholicism wanting.

The two apostolic letters released in recent weeks, one prohibiting dissent from almost any church teaching and the other tightening the reins on national conferences of bishops, have been in the works for years. These may be, as some contend, merely clarifications of issues debated for a number of years. But engraving them in canon law by papal fiat removes them from behind closed doors to front and center. With this sweeping gesture, the intent of Vatican II, a universal council of the church, is being dismantled.

In 1988, when the Vatican first proposed the document on national conferences, a panel made up of then-president Archbishop John May of St. Louis and past presidents 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, signed onto a stinging response.

“The document is overly defensive and negative. Its tone is that of a polemic response to another’s thesis,” they wrote. “The result is that the document could give the undesirable impression of an essay in ideology pretending to be a study, but with its conclusions already determined. Such an impression undermines the credibility of this document.”

The bishops eventually toned down the response a little, but their point remained unchanged: The document had to be totally redone.

The prelates who voiced this criticism were hardly a gang of radicals. They were acting, rather, on their understanding of Vatican II and specifically the documents about national conferences.

The members of that panel are either dead or retired. Since then the conference has been weighted with John Paul II appointments. It is no secret that those who handle the bishop-making paperwork in Rome understood clearly the change in mandate when this pope took over.

All of the immediate post-Vatican II excitement about more “pastoral” bishops, about seeking candidates from rectories instead of chancery offices, was swept aside. Paramount under the current regime is the understanding that a new bishop will never bother this papacy with questions about ordination of married men or women or any of the sexual issues that have proved so divisive.

“The Jadot regime,” those bishops selected when Archbishop Jean Jadot was the U.S papal delegate and Paul VI was pope, had strong pastoral experience, compassion and a collegial approach to governance. That regime is all but gone, its influence faded.

Jesuit Fr. Thomas Reese posed the dilemma well: “When does unity suppress all creativity and when does pluralism reach the point of chaos?”

We believe we weren’t anywhere near chaos, but if the pendulum had swung too far in one direction for some, it has come hurtling back beyond the point of any reasonable corrective.

Toward the end of his life, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin privately told friends of a growing uneasiness and even resentment among bishops worldwide as Rome continued to roll back the initiatives of Vatican II and interfere with the workings of bishops’ conferences. “We [bishops] did not give our entire lives to the church to be treated as altar boys,” he said.

Perhaps they are not yet altar boys, but some must be feeling inadequate these days. In the recent past, they have been told they did not know what they were doing when they approved a translation of The Catechism of the Catholic Church; they have been told they do not know what is best for their people when it comes to approving translations for liturgical texts; they have been told they do not know how to deal with their theologians; and they have been told that, despite years of deliberations, they do now know the best way to deal with the Catholic colleges and universities in this country.

For a brief time, Rome sought the bishops’ counsel as trusted religious leaders who best knew how the faith was to be lived out in the American context. Now, Rome sends directives and the clear message that those in control prefer far less consultation and thinking.

The powers of the conference have been clipped in favor, it is said, of protecting the teaching authority of individual bishops. If the conference acting as a body posed a threat to some, one need only look to Lincoln, Neb., Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz, he of mass excommunication fame, to know the danger lurking in the other direction.

No doubt there will be more edicts and more disaffection. But many more will stay, waiting for the advent of true authority built on mutual understanding and respect.

Eventually, today’s leaders will have to reconsider a gasping ecclesiology and a moribund church and will know the last word has not been written.

National Catholic Reporter, August 14, 1998