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Bishops, do church a favor: Speak up

U.S. bishops will hold their biannual meeting Nov. 16-19. The controversial U.S. norms to implement Ex Corde Ecclesiae linger on the agenda, threatening academic freedom for Catholic colleges and universities. May the bishops grasp their courage and rise to the occasion.

Nowadays bishops seldom make waves, although Jesus made waves for all he was worth. But popes prefer conformity.

Implicit in the deliberations of Vatican Council II, however, was the notion that the pope, all by himself, infallible or not, could not make every decision every place every day for everyone. To restore balance, the long-forgotten concept of the people of God was redeemed and dusted off.

That bishops collectively, through national conferences, complement the pope seemed a reasonable next step. Time passed. Occasionally episcopal conferences rose above the competence and will of individual members and did something special, such as the U.S. bishops’ documents on peace and economics in this country.

But in Rome, pressure grew to take back the powers given the bishops. This restoration is now nearly total.

Cases in point abound. The Vatican’s upending of the U.S. bishops’ proposed norms for higher education (NCR, Nov. 13) was one affront. That is the reason for that document’s return to the agenda of the coming meeting. The Vatican’s abrogation of the inclusive lectionary translations was another affront (NCR, Sept. 25).

Behind these questions lurk bigger issues about the nature of the church. Is it legitimate to question the way things are done? It ought to be. The church is so different now from what it was in the year 1000, not to mention the year 50, it would be intellectual suicide to lie down passively under the assumption that this is as good as Christ’s church gets, or that if it gets better only a pope and a few curial bureaucrats will know it when they see it.

Right now, most bishops’ conferences seem becalmed and in danger of drifting into irrelevance. An aging, ill pope, by contrast, is gathering ever more power within the Vatican walls. At a time in life when most people are letting go, John Paul seems eager to take total charge. Neither history nor tradition offers firm footing for this fierce tug, this inexorable sucking to Rome of all power, charisms and authority.

The bishops deep down know there’s an anomaly here. It’s not that they are overwhelmed by the sheer wisdom of each Vatican move. The passive obedience comes from some less exalted source. In private conversations their frustrations seep out.

They don’t need to become renegades or apostates. Our bishops, mostly decent, often holy men, are already the most loyal Catholics anywhere. They need only to speak out. If there is any area where a Christian has Jesus on her or his side, it must surely be in the area of speaking out.

In this the U.S. bishops are especially timid. The Canadian conference went ahead and published their own translations of the lectionary, to take again that example. The bishops of Austria have bravely confronted different circumstances, as reported in recent issues of NCR. The Asian bishops, at their synod last summer, spoke out firmly against lockstep solutions for all cultures and countries.

The American hierarchy, meanwhile, has fallen into John Paul’s trap of making a fetish of loyalty. Rome has for years encouraged an ecclesial McCarthyism, has listened to the voices and read the letters of the rabid right and all too often acted on them directly or indirectly. And the U.S. bishops, to their shame, allowed this to become normal church life. It’s no way to run a church.

At the most crass level, the Vatican desperately needs the mighty dollars so diligently handed over by our prelates. In addition to the so-called normal channels, one hears stories of bishops on their ad limina visits, squeezing fistfulls of dollars into the papal hand. Surely the leaders of such a generous church must feel some outrage when shoved around by junior bureaucrats at the Vatican.

But beyond the money a more serious question raises its head: What kind of church do our bishops want? When they are forced to reconfront critical issues affecting the future of the church in the United States, they are confronting themselves.

It seemed that one of the great achievements of Vatican II would be a church with fear cast out. We and the bishops should not lose sight of that.

To read Ex Corde Ecclesiae on the Vatican’s Web site, go to the site below. You will first have to pick a lanuguage in order to move thru the site. Then click on “Holy Father” then click on “John Paul II,” then click on “Apostolic Constitutions,” and finally the translation under “Ex Corde Ecclesiae”. To return to this page, use your browser's “Back” button. A link to “Ex Corde Ecclesiae” is also listed in our documents section of the NCR site.

  • www.vatican.va

National Catholic Reporter, November 20, 1998