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Neuhaus’ story of synod limited and unreal


By Richard John Neuhaus
Crossroad, $24.95, hardcover


Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, a former Episcopal minister who is now a Catholic priest, was chosen by Pope John Paul II to be one of five non-mitered members at the Synod of Bishops for America that opened in Rome in November 1997. This book is his version of the event.

It was a very boring assignment. “Not since that year in the fourth grade under Miss Woodward have I experienced such tedium” is the opening line in his account. Each of the 233 voting members, of whom he was one, was given eight minutes to speak. Latin, Italian, French, English and Spanish were the official languages. Although invited to do so, nobody spoke in Latin. Its only use was for the final voting in which each could record his placet or non placet.

Everyone, including Neuhaus, made his little speech. There was none of the give-and-take of the modern parliament, no opportunity to respond or rebut. Even the pope was bored. “There, right there in front of us, sits the pope, hour after tedious hour ... from 9 to half past noon, and then back again from 5 to 7. ... To be sure, he nods from time to time and sometimes seems to be reading a book or saying his prayers.”

Neuhaus does not hesitate to offer his own opinions and beliefs. If Gustavo Gutiérrez, for example, reads this book, he will be surprised to learn that liberation theology -- mentioned in the book a dozen times and consistently identified as Marxist -- is a long discredited aberration of the past. So will Rubem Alves, Leonardo Boff, José Miguez Boníno and a score of other Catholic and Protestant theologians, protagonists of the first theology cooperatively done by Catholics and Protestants since the Reformation, not to mention their countless readers. It will be news, too, to José Comblin, whose The Future of Liberation Theology was recently published by Orbis Books.

Equally unreal is Neuhaus’ idea that Latin America’s Christian base communities had to be purged of “ideological attachment to Marxist class struggle.” It takes imagination to envision these groups of 15 to 20 peasants reading by candlelight Das Kapital disguised as the Bible.

Neuhaus has also a very negative view of collegiality, deploring that some bishops still have “a vestigial longing” for it. In fact, he has a very negative view of many issues that were touched on at the Synod for America.

He scoffs at the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, blaming it for “getting women religious to follow the lead of progressive theologians in ‘renewing’ themselves into virtual oblivion.” An unidentified archbishop, with whom he lunched in “a delightful place” a few blocks from St. Peter’s, told him he fears these rascally sisters may end up absconding with billions of dollars in buildings, land, endowments and other assets.

He scoffs at a Spanish-speaking group of bishops who seem unable, he says, to decide whether to blame the United States for indifference to or exploitation of Latin America. Moreover, many Latin Americans are “thoroughly statist” because they think their governments should spend money “on education, medical care and a host of other activities to help the poor.” Shades of Ronald Reagan’s welfare queens!

The French language group is even worse. Its report is “a flight of abstractions, delivered with a fine rhetorical panache ... a linguistic convolution worthy of a theophilosophical address at the Sorbonne.”

But Canadian bishops are worst of all. In a “carefully crafted statement” presented to the synod, they represent “the National Catholic Reporter wing of the church in the United States,” stopping just short of saying the magisterium is wrong when it declares infallibly that the church has no authority to ordain women.

Even the U.S. bishops, although generally treated more positively, are less than perfect. “In recent years the U.S. Conference has issued a host of pronouncements on politics, economics, foreign affairs and other matters that have raised reasonable questions about whether the bishops may be exceeding their competence.”

Neuhaus is lavish with his praise of those who see things his way. Charles Chaput is the feisty young archbishop of Denver. Francis Stafford, formerly of Denver and now a cardinal head of the curial Office for the Laity, is intellectually intense. Cardinal William Baum is a holy man. Cardinal Alfonso Trujillo is large, robust, tough, intellectually acute. Cardinal Pio Laghi is “an attractive figure.” Also among the good guys are Opus Dei, the Legionarios de Cristo and their founder, Marcial Maciel, Focolare, the Neocatechumenate, and Comunione e Liberazione.

Although he confesses that his knowledge of contemporary reality is so limited that he does not know that the gap between the dwindling minority of the rich and the growing majority of the poor steadily widens, this does not inhibit him from an excursus into the debt issue. What emerges from a welter of generalities is his belief that forgiving debt wouldn’t make much difference, that recent market upheavals may mean that the rich countries cannot afford to forgive the debt and besides that “in the 1980s rich donor countries started forgiving debts.”

There was, indeed, some debt forgiveness in 1990 in the context of the coming to power in Nicaragua of a government favored by the United States. But who forgave what? Russia forgave $3.14 billion and Mexico over $1 billion. The generosity of the Paris Club -- the seven wealthiest nations in the world -- was less than that of Mexico.

“This book is, above all, a story,” Neuhaus writes in a preface. My Merriam Webster offers eight definitions of the word. It fits some of them but not all.

Author of a book on the Second Vatican Council and coauthor (with Redemptorist Fr. Francis X. Murphy) of a book on the first Synod of Bishops, MacEoin covered the Synod for America for NCR in 1997. He may be reached at gmaceoin@Compuserve.com

National Catholic Reporter, February 26, 1999