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Bishops get suggestions from Ratzinger session

NCR Staff

Doctrinal commissions of bishops’ conferences would have informal veto power over most documents produced by the conference or any of its committees, under a recommendation from a mid-February meeting between Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and bishops from the United States, Canada and the Pacific Rim.

Sources close to the U.S. bishops told NCR that the move would not mark a dramatic procedural change here, since the American doctrinal commission already reviews many conference documents before publication. Whether formalizing the practice signals a substantive shift -- an attempt to put a more Roman stamp on the documents or the workings of the conference -- remains to be seen, sources said.

The suggestion came in a Feb. 9-12 session in Menlo Park, Calif., involving Ratzinger, his staff and bishops from doctrine commissions in North America and Oceania (NCR, Feb. 26). A statement of conclusions from that meeting was mailed to all the U.S. bishops on Feb. 19 and subsequently obtained by NCR.

Ratzinger is the Vatican’s top doctrinal officer.

Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, chair of the U.S. doctrinal commission, and Archbishop William Levada of San Francisco, took part in the session. Dominican Fr. Augustine DiNoia, chief staff person for the U.S. commission, also participated.

Pilarczyk declined comment through a spokesperson.

The new recommendation said documents with “doctrinal aspect or implications” -- arguably, almost everything a conference publishes -- should receive the judgment of the doctrinal commission. The move would make it more difficult to publish documents without that group’s support.

How the American bishops will react to the suggestions made in Menlo Park is not yet clear, but since they come with the approval of Ratzinger and Pilarczyk, they are certain to be taken seriously.

To solicit support

Jesuit Fr. Tom Reese, who studied the U.S. bishops’ conference for his 1992 book A Flock of Shepherds, said this kind of review already happens in many cases. Chairs of other committees may ask the doctrinal commission to look at their documents, in part to solicit support when the time comes for a floor vote. In addition, all documents must go through the conference’s administrative committee, and the doctrine commission chair belongs to that group. As a result, the chair and his staff always have had the chance to review texts.

“I would not say that we see the majority of documents, but we see quite a few,” said auxiliary bishop Richard Sklba of Milwaukee, a doctrinal commission member for 17 years. “In that sense, this is an affirmation of what we’re already doing.”

On the other hand, Reese said, making the practice explicit represents another move by Ratzinger to bring conferences into greater harmony with Rome.

“Rome is very concerned that anything issued by a conference be in line with Vatican teaching,” Reese said. “This is another check to make sure that happens.” He said that because Ratzinger has more contact with the doctrinal commission than any other body inside a bishops’ conference, the move could position him to exert greater influence.

A former official for the U.S. bishops’ conference who spoke on background to NCR questioned whether the recommendation was necessary for that purpose.

“The truth is that the conference is so gun-shy today that, informally, they’re sending many documents over to Rome to see if there’s any problem even before they’re released,” the source said. “That the Holy See should subvert the position of the bishops is outrageous, but in some cases that’s where we’re at.”

If Ratzinger wants an exacting analysis of the fine print of every document -- similar to the kind of review the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith performs for Vatican documents -- Reese questioned whether the U.S. bishops have the wherewithal to pull it off.

“They don’t have anyone of Ratzinger’s caliber to do that,” Reese said. “They just don’t have bishops with the credibility to play this gatekeeper role with respect to the other bishops.”

Sklba, however, said he did not think Ratzinger was asking for more aggressiveness from the doctrinal commission. “I don’t hear that,” he said. “I don’t hear a centralizing mentality.”

Other points from the statement of conclusions included:

  • The doctrine commission of the conference should be available to assist individual bishops;
  • the doctrine commission should prepare an annual report for the CDF on the doctrinal situation in the country, as well as a special report to coincide with ad limina visits of bishops to Rome;
  • the doctrine commission should make itself available to bishops in evaluating requests for imprimaturs -- official permission to publish a book in a given diocese -- and requests for the mandatum or license to teach Catholic theology.

Requests for intervention

The document also discussed what to do about publications that present doctrinal problems. “The responsibility of the first instance belongs with the local [bishop], who may seek the assistance of the doctrinal commission. Later, if necessary, an intervention on the part of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith may be requested,” it said.

“However, the congregation may intervene on its own if the gravity of the case demands it, or whenever a doctrinal problem goes beyond the territorial boundaries of a particular conference,” the statement said.

Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., former chair of the conference’s liturgy committee, told NCR that he found this language potentially troubling. “It will depend on how it’s implemented,” he said. “Normally the bishop is the teacher of the faith in his diocese. The curia can be a support and a service, but it’s not supposed to act as a new layer of jurisdiction between the bishop and the pope,” Trautman said.

Trautman said he expected the U.S. bishops to discuss the recommendations at their spring meeting in Tucson, Ariz., June 17-22.

Along with the recommendations, the conclusions also contained summaries of remarks made by participants in the Menlo Park meeting. While much of it was familiar from statements made to the press, there were some new wrinkles.

About infallibility

The summary said that Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, Ratzinger’s chief aide, spoke on the nature of infallibility enjoyed by the “ordinary and universal” magisterium, as well as the problems posed by public dissent and the means to remedy them. The document did not specify what Bertone believed those problems or remedies to be.

In public remarks at a Feb. 14 press conference, Cardinal Aloysius Ambrozic of Toronto had stressed positive contributions of feminism to Catholic theology. In the summary of his speech, however, he noted three areas of divergence between Catholic theology and feminism: the “ontological significance” of the difference between the sexes, the originality and historicity of Christianity, and the symbolic or sacramental dimension of the body and sexuality.

Other bishops called for greater attention to bio-ethics, and the role of women in society and the church. On the latter point, the statement called for further development of the theology of the “nuptial significance of the human body and the corresponding notion of the complementarity of the sexes.”

The Vatican has often invoked “complementarity,” or the theory that men and women play distinct roles that complement one another, in support of the ban on ordaining women.

The full texts of all the speeches at Menlo Park were collected by Levada, who was then to send them on to Rome for eventual publication.

National Catholic Reporter, March 12, 1999