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Peoria’s John Myers takes conservative message to Newark

Special Report Writer

Bishop John Myers, 60, considered one of the most conservative bishops in the nation, will have a much larger pulpit from which to preach as he moves from predominantly rural Peoria, Ill., to the densely packed, urban archdiocese of Newark, N.J. The seventh-largest diocese in the nation, Newark has almost six times as many Catholics as Peoria, more than three times as many priests, three times as many Catholic schools, plus four auxiliary bishops (Peoria has none) -- all packed into a geographical area one-thirtieth the size of the Peoria diocese.

Peoria has a growing Hispanic population (and Myers is fluent in Spanish), but their numbers are dwarfed by the half million Hispanics in Newark. Newark also has substantial groups of Portuguese, Haitians, Filipinos and Koreans. Peoria has suffered economic decline, but Newark has experienced greater loss. As a result of massive flight of business and industry, devastated neighborhoods proliferate.

Newark’s social service agency is the largest in New Jersey. The former archbishop, Theodore McCarrick, recently appointed to Washington, is considered a theological conservative but is regarded as a progressive in social justice issues. He is often cited for his talent in diplomacy. Under McCarrick, Newark became a mecca for Catholic-Jewish relations, much of it through programs at Seton Hall University. Newark is also the home of Renew, a lay leadership formation program that has spread nationwide but is a frequent target of conservative criticism.

Myers may see his elevation as a license to wield stronger conservative leadership in Newark and within the U.S. hierarchy. Last year he agreed to be one of 10 bishop advisers to the Cardinal Newman Society, an organization seeking rigorous compliance with Ex Corde Ecclesiae, the controversial Vatican document on higher education. His peers in that body include Bishops Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., Thomas Doran of Rockford, Ill, and Raymond Burke of LaCrosse, Wis.

During his 11 years as Peoria’s ordinary, Myers demonstrated a top-down, autocratic management style that earned him respect in some quarters and intense, though rarely public, resentment in others. Some 30 priests have opted to leave the diocese during Myers’ tenure, though their positions have been more than filled by younger clergy fully committed to the bishop’s approach.

Fr. Patrick Collins, former rector of the Peoria cathedral, left the diocese shortly after Myers became bishop, in part because of disagreements, in part because he wanted to teach and give retreats. Myers’ “operative style has been doggedly conservative in its agenda and firmly clerical in its style,” he said. “He has been able to assemble around himself a determined and cohesive group of supporters.”

Msgr. Steven Rohlfs, vicar general under Myers, said Catholics with few exceptions approve the bishop’s policies. The diocese, he said, “is almost a Camelot with no significant financial problems and a high degree of spirituality among the faithful.” The bishop’s reputation as conservative developed, he explained, “because he did a number of things in an upfront fashion when it was not customary for bishops to do so.”

Among Myers’ controversial moves was a 1990 pastoral letter declaring that Catholics holding pro-choice positions should not receive Communion. Wrote Myers, “Catholic faith does not recognize a right to dissent from teachings that have been proposed authoritatively and are integral to Catholic life.” Myers opposed use of the “morning after” pill for rape victims in Catholic hospitals, later modifying his position in cases where tests determined the victim was not yet pregnant.

He has been insistent that teachers in Catholic schools be impeccable in conduct and orthodox in their views. Positions are denied to anyone in an invalid marriage, practicing a homosexual lifestyle or dissenting from official positions including the intrinsic evil of contraception, the ban on women’s ordination and the prohibition of intercommunion among Catholics and Protestants.

Concerned about children’s “minimal knowledge” of the faith, Myers called in Regis Martin, a professor from Franciscan University of Steubenville, to assess the religious education program. In a scathing report, Martin cited “egregious omissions” including failure to emphasize the primacy of Rome, the sacrificial nature of the Mass and “the ontological distinction between the ministerial and common priesthood.” Subsequently, the four top educational administrators resigned, and since then, many decision-making positions in religious education have gone to graduates of the Franciscan University.

Rohlfs also cited Myers’ success in ordaining surprisingly large numbers of priests for such a small diocese (13 in 1992, 12 in 1996). Many were recruited during Myers’ tenure came from outside the diocese and most studied theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, [Md.], known for its conservative approach.

When the announcement came of Myers’ appointment, the Peoria Journal Star quoted laity who praised him as a compassionate, holy man who extended himself to those in need while keeping a rein on every aspect of the church. “You know where he stands,” said one woman, “because it’s with the pope.” The Journal Star added its own editorial endorsement: “Myers built his ministry … on the principle that Catholic doctrine was unique and demanding. Catholics could not decide what rules they would follow and which they would not; they had to buy the whole package or risk becoming the secularized heirs of a watered down faith.”

Anecdotes of Myers’ demanding interpretation of Catholicism are legendary. Marlynn Kelsch, a veteran Catholic high school teacher, was terminated in 1993 when she permitted -- at students’ request -- a debate on women’s ordination in her class. “I wasn’t even a proponent of it at the time,” she said, “but the administration claimed I was interfering with the students’ ability to assent to the faith. I saw it as a question of academic freedom.” Later, when Kelsch’s pastor attempted to hire her as a religious education director, Myers informed him by letter that he could not do so because she was “a cause célèbre” in the diocese.

Many liberal-minded Catholics expressed concern about Myers’ major legacy -- the highly conservative parish clergy he leaves behind.

“This is a very hierarchical diocese,” said Joanne Bloom, a member of the Roncalli Society, a church reform group named for Pope John XXIII. “Don’t question. Don’t discuss. What Father says is the way it is.” The society has brought a series of speakers to Peoria in the past 10 years, including Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit and Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, but none was allowed on diocesan property. Theologian Monica Hellwig, who has addressed the U.S. Bishops’ Conference, declined a Roncalli invitation when informed she could not speak at a Catholic institution.

Fr. Thomas Kelly, a retired Peoria priest, said he and 10 other pastors met with Myers early on and expressed concern about the rigid views of the priests educated at Mount St. Mary’s and the polarization developing in parishes. “Our concerns were dismissed,” he said. “I think the bishop marginalized us -- or we let ourselves be marginalized. So we tried to take care of our own vineyards.”

Mary Cignarelli, a college English teacher, said, “Many Vatican II Catholics have gone inward to make their lives productive. We study, we read, we challenge each other. Parish life is difficult.” Like many others, she expressed hope the new bishop will come from outside the diocese.

“Please, we need a fresh start,” said a veteran pastor who declined to be identified.

National Catholic Reporter, August 24, 2001 [corrected 09/07/2001]