e-mail us
Rome said no, so Sr. Euart is out, Fr. Fay is in

NCR Staff

Lay Catholics are capable of being president of the United States, of running America’s and the world’s largest corporations and universities and of heading up countless public and private agencies. But, the Vatican has ruled that a layperson cannot be general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

That job, said Rome, has to go to a priest.

As a consequence, Mercy Sr. Sharon Euart, for 13 years associate general secretary, will leave her conference post in January.

Given that some U.S. bishops were keen to see Euart move into the top position, two larger issues emerge: First, that the U.S. bishops’ conference felt it had to ask Rome who it could appoint as top bureaucrat, and, second, that the bishops themselves failed to honor their own 1994 public commitment to bring women into top church positions.

What happened, said Euart in an interview with NCR, was that last year the NCCB Administrative Committee asked the conference president, Bishop Joseph Fiorenza “to check with Rome to see if it was possible for me to be a nominee. The Holy See said no.” Euart said she was not aware of why she was denied the opportunity to apply.

Fiorenza, who leads the Galveston-Houston diocese, told NCR he was not surprised at Rome’s decision. Asked why the bishops felt it necessary to check with Rome rather than go ahead on their own, the conference president said, “It was not something the bishops felt you could just do. We felt that rather than move down that road and have it become a very serious embarrassment for whomever might be chosen, it would be best to clarify.”

Euart said, “From my experience, I do think it is a position that a nonordained person could hold.”

Several earlier general secretaries agree with her.

“Could a lay person do the job? Definitely,” said Anchorage Archbishop Francis Hurley, general secretary from 1957 to 1970. “The trust factor would be the same for one who was a priest or not a priest. Did [the bishops] have to go to Rome? Personally I don’t think so. Was it advisable? That could be an arguable point, precisely because the U.S. is such a major player in everything that affects Rome.”

Hurley said his guess was that if the question had been put to the bishops: “ ‘Do you think we should have a priest or lay person [as general secretary]?’ the majority would say it could be either. The majority would also say it would be better to check it over [in Rome] to see what happens.”

It had an effect

What did happen, the archbishop said, is “As far as I recall, we were informed of the thinking in Rome -- I don’t know whose -- and I’m sure that had an effect on the election.

“A big part of me,” said Hurley, “says it’s unfortunate we didn’t do it. If anyone were going to be the first [nonordained general secretary], Sharon would qualify right at the top of the list. She would have been a great person to work with.”

Msgr. Daniel Hoye, general secretary in the 1980s, said, “Nothing you do in the job requires you be ordained. At one time the general secretary might have been involved in vetting episcopal candidates” -- candidates for the office of bishop -- “but not anymore.”

“I think Sharon Euart would make a great general secretary,” Hoye said. “It’s not a job confined to clerics, in my opinion. I think that glass ceiling has already been broken. I believe a religious brother was general secretary of the South African bishops’ conference.”

Hoye is correct. Marist Br. Jude Piertse was the South African bishops’ general secretary in the 1990s, and a woman religious is general secretary for the Scandinavian conference.

NCCB communications director Msgr. Francis Maniscalco said that a year ago, when a search committee for Schnurr’s replacement was created, Rome was asked how wide the committee “could throw the net. Could they include religious and lay people?”

The Vatican said no. The only reason given, said Maniscalco, was “it is not the custom throughout the world. It is believed there are one or two conferences headed by laypeople, but in very small countries.”

Louisville, Ky., Archbishop Thomas Kelly, general secretary in the late 1970s and early 1980s, said the job depends on “skill, knowledge, brains. It does not particularly require ordination. Sharon would have been excellent. Ours is a particularly large conference of bishops. I can understand why Rome might say that to us. I’m not trying to defend it.”

Subsequently, because the U.S. bishops knew of Rome’s response, Euart’s name was not placed on the ballot when prospective candidates were considered for election.

Currently, two of the three associate general secretaries are laypeople, Euart and Bruce Egnew. The third associate, Fr. William Fay, five years on the job, steps into the general secretary spot Feb. 3 when Msgr. Dennis M. Schnurr leaves his post after six years.

Once he was appointed, Fay announced he wanted to create his own associate secretary team. Euart offered her resignation, which was accepted. Egnew, according to Maniscalco, remains in place.

NCR calls to Fay and Egnew were referred to Maniscalco who said, “We’re not going to get into any details on personnel matters.”

Asked if she felt she was leaving unwillingly, Euart replied, “I’m sad to be leaving. I think that’s how I describe it. I love my work. I have enjoyed it. It has been a privilege and an honor.”

The Sisters of Mercy have offered Euart a sabbatical. “During that time,” Euart said, “I’ll see what’s available and what I’ll be going into next.” Mercy President Sr. Marie Chinn wondered if the bishops had taken a serious enough look “at having someone as competent as Sr. Sharon” in the post.

Competence, dignity

“Such competence, such dignity, such grace. All she wants now is to leave the position with dignity,” said Chinn. “I am so saddened, though.”

As associate secretary, Euart said, she felt she had the most influence in helping staff committees, particularly her work on the Mission and Structure Committee with the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin and more recently with Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk on the Statues and By-laws Committee.

Rome is also dictating what goes into NCCB by-laws. Maniscalco said Rome has instructed the conference to amend its by-laws to reflect the requirement that the general secretary be a priest.

A former high-ranking woman in the conference, Dolores Leckey, the now retired executive director of the bishops’ Secretariat on Family, Laity, Women and Youth, said that in 1994 the bishops in their statement “Strengthening The Bonds of Peace,” “made a public commitment to seek leadership roles for women.” As part of her role with the secretariat, Leckey was the chief staff member for the bishops’ committee on Women in Society and the Church.

Not only did Euart not get the top job, but now there will no longer be a woman in a high conference position.

National Catholic Reporter, September 1, 2000