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Issue Date:  July 15, 2005

Reticent bishops shift away from wider world

We are grateful for the candor of Archbishops Wilton Gregory and Joseph Fiorenza of Atlanta and Galveston-Houston, respectively, who provide, in recent remarks, a structure against which to understand the changes that have been underway in the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for more than a decade.

If the changes have been apparent, it is nonetheless helpful to have two former presidents of the conference offer their understanding of the shifts.

“Today, there are probably more bishops in the conference who would tend to accent Dei Verbum [a Vatican II document dealing with how God reveals himself to the church] than Gaudium et Spes [the Vatican II document on the church and the world], Fiorenza said during a recent interview. “What’s emerging out of that experience is a sense of the importance of catechesis, of faithful transmission of what the church teaches.”

Perhaps the shift from broader themes and topics to internal matters was inevitable in the broad swings of history. For Vatican II, the reform council of the 1960s, so jolted the church into a new attitude of openness to the world that, in hindsight, a backlash was inevitable.

The other side of Fiorenza’s polite characterization of this new focus, however, is the retreat of the conference from the larger issues of the day, save for partisan political involvement by some bishops on a narrow range of subjects. At the start of the 21st century, with the United States involved in two wars, with growing assaults on the environment, with poverty rampant in the developing world and with globalization often having detrimental effects for the poorest of the world, the bishops have been, to put it mildly, reticent.

They recently completed a meeting in which two of the central topics were a return to consideration of sex abuse norms and the memorial acclamation during Mass. Last November they finished their meeting several days early. They clearly have little to say as a conference to the wider world.

Gregory sees hope in a growth of activity within provinces, where bishops are having more frequent meetings. He said that bishops are “holding open listening sessions, they’ve strengthened diocesan pastoral councils, there’s more give-and-take with finance councils.”

Those things, indeed, may be going on in some dioceses. But he must also know that increasingly new bishops are reverting to old ways: authoritarian imposition of programs on “their church” and an increasing reliance on the clericalism and hierarchical privileges of an earlier era.

We are, as a church, in a mixed time, a time of transition. So perhaps it is natural that our leaders would take time for introspection. However, the question ultimately will arise: Where do we go from here? And who will be following?

National Catholic Reporter, July 15, 2005

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