National Catholic Reporter
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July 30, 2004

Letters Vasa’s ‘Affirmation’

Having been trained by Jesuits in the arcane art of “making a distinction,” I was fascinated by the endless possibilities that a good Jesuit would have with the “Affirmation of Personal Faith” issued by Bishop Robert Vasa for the good Catholics of the Baker, Ore., diocese (NCR, July 2).

Our good old American adage “Innocent until proven guilty” no longer seems to be valid; rather, “guilty until proven innocent” appears to be the new motto for Bishop Vasa’s coat of arms.

Columbus, Miss.

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I took the trouble to go to the Web site for the diocese of Baker, Ore., and to read the bishop’s pastoral letter to diocesan lay ministers, “Giving Testimony to the Truth.” In the letter, Bishop Vasa makes his case for requiring of these ministers an “Affirmation of Personal Faith.”

Referring to the recent child abuse scandal, he says, “The truth seems to be that there was an excess of compassion for erroneous priests, a defect of concern for the children who were repeatedly put at risk and a lack of resolve to deal with manifest sinfulness.”

The bishop doesn’t mention what his plans are for the supervision of priests, but regarding lay ministers he is clear. He intends to make sure that children in their charge are protected not only from sexual abuse but also from any spiritual harm that might come to them from contact with dissidents.

“Bishops are now severely criticized for their failure to hold priests to a strict and appropriate code of conduct. Some suggest that the widespread legitimization of dissent from Catholic teaching plays a part in this scandal. This is an opinion with which I would agree.”

Excuse me if I offer a dissenting view of my own. First of all, “excess of compassion for erroneous priests” is not a good description of the motives of bishops who covered up and facilitated the abuse. The responsibility for the abuse falls squarely on the shoulders of the priest abusers and the bishops who tolerated their behavior. Proclaiming a witch hunt against lay ministers is merely a spiteful attempt to shift responsibility for the crisis to the laity, who are, in truth, the victims, not the perpetrators of the crimes.

Newark, Del.

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Bishop Vasa of Baker, Ore, has managed to alienate a large number of the good Catholic people who work in ministries that spread the Word of God in his diocese. With a single, narrow “litmus test” document he has asked people to leave their consciences at home and blindly follow his priorities for being a “good” Catholic. By his own admission, he stated that he is not acting pastorally, but canonically and legislatively. At least he admitted that he is no longer a pastor to his people.

Bishop Vasa must not have read, or must have conveniently overlooked, what St. Paul said in the second reading for June 27, the 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time. St. Paul said: “For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ ” These words are the only “litmus test” for any honest, good Catholic.

Merritt Island, Fla.

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I am sure that in the interests of fairness and objectivity, NCR readers might wish to know that a substantial number of Catholics in the Baker, Ore., diocese fully support our bishop as he reminds us of the importance of adhering to essential beliefs of the church. The title of your recent article (“Bishop requires lay ministers to sign orthodoxy affirmation”) is misleading. At his presentations around the diocese, Bishop Vasa has made it clear that those who are involved in supportive ministries are not required to sign an affirmation of belief. Rather, they are expected to read the booklet he has provided, examine their souls and if they conclude that at present they do not support the beliefs outlined therein they should voluntarily withdraw from ministry.

Like many other Catholics in the diocese, I believe it is important that the church resume an insistence on adherence to the important values and beliefs of the church. For too long, the church in the United States as an institution has stood silent as growing numbers of Catholics have picked and chosen what they wish to believe and practice.

If the Catholic church is to stand for anything of importance, then it is time to return to values and beliefs ignored by too many for too long. I believe that is all the bishop is asking and I, like many others, find that to be perfectly acceptable.

Baker City, Ore.

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Wonderful! Finally a bishop is speaking out -- teaching the truth and saving souls. Too long, the bishops and priests have been silent on anything controversial. The silence has bred an “anything goes” philosophy. Society today does not know what sin is or its consequences. It is sad that NCR put such a negative slant on their reporting of the “Giving Testimony to the Truth” document. I agree with Bishop Robert Vasa 100 percent.

La Verne, Calif.

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After reading “Bishop requires lay ministers to sign orthodoxy affirmation,” I knew that, if I were serving in some lay parish ministry in Bishop Vasa’s Oregon diocese, I could never sign an “Affirmation of Personal Faith” that expressed my “full assent to a list of a dozen doctrinal statements” as well as to “all the teaching of the Catholic church.” I have enough trouble each Sunday trying to figure out where I am belief-wise when I recite the Nicene Creed.

Bishop Vasa’s “litmus test for orthodoxy” brought to mind this passage I found in one of Madeline L’Engle’s memoirs, A Circle of Quiet:

“Since the crisis in faith ... that so often comes during college, I had seldom darkened the doors of a church when a service was going on. But when our children were born, two things happened simultaneously. We cleaned up our language. ... And we discovered that we did not want our children to grow up in a world which was centered on man to the exclusion of God. ... I found myself explaining to the young minister that I did not believe in God, ‘but I’ve discovered that I can’t live as though I didn’t believe in him. As long as I don’t need to say any more than that I try to live as though I believe in God, I would very much like to come to church, if you’ll let me.’ So I became the choir director.”

Park Forest, Ill.

Parish ownership question

The archbishop of Boston, a “corporation sole,” is closing 20 percent of the parishes in the diocese without the assent of parishioners because all property is held by the archbishop. In Portland, Ore., the archbishop, also a “corporation sole,” declares bankruptcy and states, “Under canon law, parish assets belong to the parish. I have no authority to seize parish property.”

There obviously are substantially different views of one fact. Should I refer to the archbishops as cafeteria Catholics?

Newton, Mass.

Love thy neighbor

Preparing my homily for this Sunday’s Gospel on the Good Samaritan, my mind could not help returning to the image of the church, among others, as both the Good Samaritan and “the man who fell in among robbers.”

Despite its own frailties and sins, the church has nonetheless managed to stop and bandage the wounds of the hurt, even taking victims to an “innkeeper” and paying for his help out of its own resources.

At other times, especially these days, I see the church as the one who fell in among robbers. (The Gospel deliberately omits any further description of that character.) Not only do the “more respectable” pass it by, but some actually stop to give it yet another kick. What grieves me is that some of those are the church’s own people.

Whom are we really willing to accept as “neighbor”?

Waltham, Mass.

Response to letters

I am grateful to NCR for printing my opinion piece on abortion May 28, and also to the readers who sent letters that were printed in the July 2 issue. Allow me to comment briefly on those letters.

Eileen O’Sullivan laments the fact that I did not discuss “the other human person involved: the woman undergoing the procedure.” Actually, most of my work involves ministry to precisely those women, through the promotion of the many alternatives to abortion and through the work we do of healing those who have had abortions. The Gabriel Project assists local parishes to become a refuge for those who are tempted to abort; Rachel’s Vineyard and the Silent No More Awareness Campaign assist those hurting from abortion to find forgiveness and healing. These are just some of our activities in solidarity with women.

Joseph Brinley puts the abortion debate in the realm of religious rather than purely rational arguments. But the section from “The Gospel of Life” that he quotes is indeed a rational argument, the same one we use when we refrain from shooting when we don’t know whether what is moving behind the bush is a bear or a man. Actually, the pro-choice movement makes far more use of religious arguments than does the pro-life movement. They have to, because all the nonreligious evidence keeps moving in the pro-life direction.

Finally, I thank Peter Farley for emphasizing the approach I always prefer, that of “persuasion and charity.” Not only is it the most Christ-like; it’s also the most pragmatic. It actually works.

Staten Island, N.Y.

Pavone is national director of Priests for Life.

Stem cells still a dilemma

Had I not been confined to bed away from home, I would have responded sooner to “Stem cell dilemma” (NCR, June 18) and accompanying articles.

Relying on the integral veracity of the writers, I think a crucial distinction has been overlooked by opponents to stem cell research: namely, the difference between human life and nonhuman life.

As the graphic on Page 17 so clearly illustrates, human life requires the impregnation of a female egg by a male sperm. Only this kind of fertilized egg -- assuming that it is living -- is the possible receptor of a human soul. The regenerated egg from nuclear transfer has been cleared of its female component to make way to become the housing for a cell body: a living object without female components, without male impregnation, without the condition for receiving a human soul. Killing this living object is no more immoral than frying a fish you just caught from the Missouri River.

Sherman Oaks, Calif.

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“Stem Cell Dilemma” is marred by a continuing begging of the question regarding the nature of the entity produced by somatic cell nuclear transfer as distinguished from that produced by natural fertilization or in vitro fertilization.

Is the entity produced by each process a human embryo or is it not? Granted, the entity produced by regeneration is not destined to be implanted in a woman’s womb or in any artificial environment where it can develop through the various stages of human life. But what really matters is the nature of the entity in itself when it is produced.

Stowers Institute president William Neaves denies that the entity is a human embryo, while all the other contributors explicitly or implicitly admit that it is. Prof. Thomas Shannon seeks to devalue the early embryo (however produced) by reference to the phenomenon of twinning, but such an event proves only that up to a certain point, one human embryo can give rise to another human embryo, not that no one organized entity exists from the beginning. Prof. Shannon’s “unity of individuality” seems more a mental category imposed on the embryo than an objectively definitive condition of the embryo.

Thus we’re back to the reality that “regeneration,” or somatic cell nuclear transfer, produces a human embryo that will be destroyed for its cells even if these cells are intended to benefit only the donor of the genetic material used for the transfer. Since the end does not justify the means -- killing an innocent human being at his or her beginning -- Archbishop Burke’s reasoning stands firm.

Lindenhurst, N.Y.

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I need help from Archbishop Burke and his supporters on understanding what they want to teach me. It seems the archbishop differentiates life’s beginning from its full development -- life in the womb is absolute, outside it’s not. Is that a scriptural distinction? Does that distinction appear in the Gospels or any Epistles? If we do not find a scriptural basis, then what is the philosophical or ethical basis for saying that life is absolute in its undeveloped state, but not in its developed state -- why does a human egg (e.g., the blastocyst) have absolute right to life, but a convict on death row does not? What value intervenes to demote life according to the situation of the condemned inmate?

If Archbishop Burke is saying that life’s beginning is a fundamental and prior moral consideration to all others, then how am I to understand a bishop firing a pregnant diocesan employee (true story) because she’s not married? Perhaps Burke says the bishop is right to do so, but how does that decision respect the life within that woman’s womb?

What would the archbishop tell my cousin Eugene, who watched his wife melt away and slowly suffocate to death from ALS?

I believe that to respect life absolutely, you need to face questions like these. You can’t blithely say about the beginning of life and the rest of life (e.g., death penalty, war, child abuse), “So the approach is different because they are two different situations. Both involving human life and the protection of human life, but the situations being different and, therefore, the way to address them has to be different” (Archbishop Burke to NCR). If life is absolute at the beginning, what happens to it along the way that it becomes less?


Protect the living

Regarding Cardinal Bernard Law: Can Eucharist be refused to those leaders of our church who are not willing to ask forgiveness or act accountably to those born children who were subsequently abused by Christ’s representatives on earth?

Redwood City, Calif.

The Summa speaks

Regarding Fr. David L. Smith’s letter, “Never choose evil” (NCR, July 2): St. Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologicae says: “God, despite his omnipotence and supreme goodness, allows evils he could prevent to exist in the world, if removing them would cause greater good to be lost or greater evil to ensue. So human rulers may also tolerate some evil for the same reasons; ‘Forbid prostitution,’ says Augustine, ‘and lust will turn everything upside down.’ The religious rites of disbelievers, though sinful, can be tolerated if doing so brings good and evil.”

St. Louis

Quality, not quantity

In reference to John Allen’s article “Numbers show the toll of infirmity, age on John Paul II” (NCR, May 28), I remind Mr. Allen that it is not about the numbers. Numbers are the idols in our secular world. It is unfortunate that Mr. Allen also sees the numbers as the method of choice for measuring the value of a holy life like John Paul II’s. John Paul bears witness to the beauty of the aging process as a natural part of moving from new life to supernatural life with God through death. How wonderful that John Paul has the self-esteem and courage to age gracefully in full view of the entire world. Mr. Allen should be celebrating a life well led, not analyzing the numbers of earthly productivity quotas.

Durham, N.C.

Voter’s guides

The report on election guides (NCR, June 18) amused me and brought back memories. When I was a young boy there was a great deal of talk in my Catholic family about the defeat of Al Smith by Herbert Hoover in the election for president of the United States in 1928. In the opinion of many, Al Smith lost because he was a Catholic. Many who opposed Smith charged that if he won, the Vatican would be dictating U.S. policy, and Catholic dogma would replace the Constitution. In rebuttal, Smith’s supporters pledged loyalty to the doctrine of separation of church and state.

John F. Kennedy, our first and only Catholic president, made it clear that Catholic church policies would not determine his political views. They never did. Nevertheless, he won the open support of most of the Catholic bishops.

The advent of election guides brings a clearer perspective on the dispute about religion and politics in 1928. Some U.S. Catholic bishops are ready to deny Communion to the Democratic presidential candidate, John Kerry, because they judge him to be pro-abortion. A Vatican cardinal, moreover, identified as a possible successor to the current pope said that those who support abortion should be denied Communion. If some of those who opposed Al Smith because of his religion are still around, they may be justified in gloating.

Locust Grove, Va.

Prelates then and now

Your fine coverage of the bishops and politics brings to mind the old saw from the 19th century that “the Church of England was the Tory Party at prayer.” The U.S. bishops seem to have become “the Republican Party at prayer.”


Good Methodist teaching

Some bishops and Catholic pundits are saying that good Catholics should not vote for John Kerry and other Democrats who have ever cast a vote for a bill legalizing some kind of abortion.

I’m not happy with those votes myself, but what really shocks me is that no Methodist bishop has said that good Methodists should not vote for George Bush because he has not only plunged us into a stupid, disastrous, unjust war, but he supports capital punishment, opposes universal health care, pollutes the environment, cuts taxes on the rich that might have been used to employ the unemployed, provide health care and lift millions of poor American children out of poverty. All of these policies are clearly contrary to good Methodist teaching.

By the way, I wonder if any of our pro-Bush bishops and pundits are aware that two of the five Supreme Court Justices, Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O’Connor, who helped make up 5-4 votes for abortion, were appointed by Republican presidents?

We live in a secular, un-Christian world, friends, and the truth is that its spirit has infected both parties and some churches. But one thing is clear: We can’t pick presidents on the basis of one or two issues. We have to look at the whole spectrum. On that spectrum John Kerry is by far the better man.

Nahant, Mass.

‘Call’ from all sides

“Faith-based, pro-life left seeks a political home” (NCR, June 4) could have done a better job lifting up the focus of the “Pentecost Call to Unity” mobilization -- to unite Christians from across the theological and political spectrum to put poverty on the electoral agenda. The leadership and constituency of Call to Renewal is not, as you assert, the “faith-based left.” Instead, the Call network is very diverse, which is evident from the national leaders, organizations, and grassroots Christians who participated in and supported the event. There are certainly fissures between us and the Democratic Party, as well as the Republican Party. And there is agreement at times with each. Call to Renewal has supported policies that prevent us from being easily characterized as just “left” or “right.” Moreover, with a very involved board of directors comprised of individuals who voted for all three candidates for president in 2000, to claim Call to Renewal is the “faith-based left” is simply not accurate.


Shelton is national coordinator for Call to Renewal.

Policies dilute Eucharist

Regarding “Quotable and Notable” (NCR, May 28): This is quite a statement coming from a bishop of the church: “You cannot have your ‘waffle’ and your ‘wafer,’ too.”

In devising a play on words, the bishop has displayed a shallow and even disrespectful view of the celebration of the living Christ in our midst. Further, the deprivation of the Eucharist as a punishment is close to being sacrilegious and again displays a rather shallow understanding of the nature and purpose of celebrating this presence. The function of the bishop is to proclaim the Gospel and move people toward observing it. They are servants of the servants of God.

Latham, N.Y.

Access to God?

Sr. Marie Vianney Bilgrien, in “The rise of Pentecostalism” (NCR, June 18), asks, “Why are Catholics leaving the Catholic church in such numbers -- and why are they joining the Pentecostals?” and goes on to give us what could be called an enthusiastic account of the virtues of Pentecostalism and the corresponding defects of the institutional church. Much of what she says is true and important, for example, the empowerment of people in the Pentecostal church to take an active role in their communities.

But when she says Pentecostalism “provides unmediated access to God” through the speaking of tongues, she does not pause to ask whether this is true or not. Yet this is a point of critical importance. Pentecostalism often acts as if beyond the ego is only to be found the spiritual worlds of either God or the devil. If I didn’t do it, then it is either a gift of God or a temptation of the devil. But there is a third possibility, which is the world of the psychological unconscious. Speaking in tongues, for example, does not have to be seen as a direct working of the spirit. It can be more reasonably viewed as a genuine spiritual impulse that has clothed itself in what it finds in the unconscious, and thus is mediated by the unconscious.

This kind of psychological approach would not deny the positive attributes of Pentecostalism, but would allow us to engage it more deeply as a human as well as a spiritual phenomenon.

Chiloquin, Ore.

Nuns speak out

How good it is to hear the voice of St. Cloud, Minn., Bishop John Kinney in his Pentecost statement on May 24 proclaim, “No human is capable of judging someone else’s relationship with God.” In these times when bishops wantonly deny Communion to various categories of people, it is refreshing to hear sensible words.

The National Coalition of American Nuns applauds Bishop Kinney for refusing to allow the Eucharist to be used as a political weapon. He sanely states what seemed to be obvious in times past: Each individual must examine his or her own conscience regarding the reception of the Eucharist.

The coalition believes that the church needs to listen to the marginalized and oppressed as they reveal their consciences. We believe that women are capable of making good moral decisions regarding their pregnancies. We believe that loving and respecting one another is more important than homosexual or heterosexual ways of expressing that love.

There is a communion that happens between God and oppressed people. Therefore, no one who believes in God’s presence in their lives should be denied the opportunity to receive the body and blood of Christ. Instead of rejecting or judging some, we need communion (or communication) among all of us.



National Coalition of America Nuns Executive Committee, on behalf of the board of the coalition

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National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 2004