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If the U.S. church leaders want to understand why it is so difficult to gain control over the the sex abuse scandal, they need only look as far as one of the latest communications between Cardinal Bernard Law and certain members of his flock (see story, Page 3).

Reacting to a lay attempt to organize an association of parish council members, Law had one of his auxiliary bishops write a letter, replete with multiple references to appropriate canon law, to all priests instructing them not to endorse or recognize the proposal.

Forget any discussion of pastoral approaches or of the right of laity to engage in governance of the church or to inform church leaders of their sense of things. Taken solely from a crisis management point of view, the letter was, in the words of one Harvard professor, “astonishingly stupid.”

That is, perhaps, too harsh an assessment. The church’s response is probably entirely correct, canonically. But that is also the point. This matter is beyond canon law, it has to do with the relationship between bishop and people, with deep trust broken and real human beings who were deeply hurt. The response by Law will certainly prompt more lay people around the country to pronounce a phrase that increasingly is apt in describing the bishops’ ongoing handling of the crisis: They just don’t get it.

Or maybe they do. Maybe the word in Rome was to stay in place and preserve hierarchical privilege at all costs.

What a welcome and refreshing turn of events, however, if they were to take on the attitude of St. Augustine, quoted in the Vatican II document on the church: “When I am frightened by what I am to you, then I am consoled by what I am with you. To you I am the bishop, with you I am a Christian. The first is an office, the second a grace; the first a danger, the second salvation.”

Too many bishops, one might conclude these days, are more enthralled than frightened by what they imagine they are to laity.

Then there are bishops who want to envision a different future. John Allen’s report on Page 7 tells of 31 bishops, including a cardinal and a senior member of the Roman curia, who have signed a petition asking for a new ecumenical council.

The story contains information on where to find the petition on the Web and who’s organizing the drive. The effort is quite apart from our own Blueprint for Vatican III, published last week, but it is a happy coincidence. We’re receiving lots of hints that similar conversations are happening at all levels and all over the world -- talk of lay synods, lay organizing efforts and pressure to open again conversations that we’ve been told are taboo.

To join the conversation on our Web site, go to www.natcath.org and click on the Vatican III button. You’ll find material we were unable to fit into last week’s issue. Add your own comments, if you’d like.

To obtain extra copies of the Blueprint for Vatican III issue, contact Jo Ann Schierhoff at 1-800-444-8910, extension 2239. Extra copies of the Paths to Peace supplement, published April 26, are also available, though the supply is dwindling quickly. We’ve had a good response to the supplement from people who plan to use it for classes and seminars on peacemaking in parishes and Catholic schools.

-- Tom Roberts

My e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, May 10, 2002