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Issue Date:  May 12, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

Community and authority

The calls come with some regularity. Catholics wanting to know why a bishop or a pastor can come into a diocese or parish and upend what went before. Usually it is a program or two, or maybe a change in emphasis, in a committee, a ministry training program. Because of the limits of staff, resources and space in the paper, those complaints often go in a file. Once in a while we’ll go into a diocese or parish and cover the situation. All of the tips help to inform us of what’s going on in the wider church. They don’t constitute the total picture, of course, but if the same complaints are heard regularly enough, it is usually safe to suspect that questions are appropriate.

It is against that backdrop that what some describe as the perfect storm developed in the Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo., diocese, where we happen to be headquartered. Given all the situations I’ve heard Catholics from across the country describe, I have never come upon a case where the uprooting of a diocese’s culture, ministries, personnel and character occurred with such thoroughness and so quickly as happened here. I think this story about the Kansas City-St. Joseph diocese -- and the questions it raises -- will have considerable resonance throughout the church in the United States.

This is a story not so much about doctrine as it is a story about community; about how authority is exercised in a community; about what a community that is by every visible measure succeeding, growing and vibrant can expect of its investment of time and energy; and about whether it can expect to have any say whatever in how things change. Or whether the direction of a community is the sole province of a single individual, the bishop, without regard to what has gone before.

Those questions are at the heart of the story, they are the questions that all the reported details of this “transition” ultimately raise. They are pondered further on the back page.

The answer, canonically, of course is that the bishop has every right to do whatever he wishes in “his” diocese. Bishops do automatically enjoy that degree of autonomy and authority by virtue of their position. The question remains, however, whether that is the way the Christian community called Catholic should be run, whether that is the reality the community should expect and accept.

~ ~ ~

I’ve met Bishop Robert Finn twice. We have exchanged pleasantries, and I can say from those cursory meetings that he seems a pleasant and personable church leader. I believe he has nothing but the best intentions for the church and wishes and works fervently to inspire the pursuit of holiness in everyone in his care.

From the five pages of questions we submitted weeks before the interview with him occurred, he knew that our months of reporting had documented widespread discontent with his style and many of the changes he has imposed.

We are grateful that he graciously gave our reporter an hourlong interview. We wish others in his new administration had been permitted to talk with us. They probably would have shed more light on the story and provided a missing enthusiasm for the bishop’s initiatives.

Our best hope, of course, is that the story will inspire discussion here and elsewhere around the questions that arise; that administrators will recognize the fidelity and talent of those who have sustained the church in years past even as new plans and methods are put in force; and that we all recognize that the tensions inherent in the community will fade only in the fullness of time and with the ultimate understanding that, in the end, it is God’s project.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, May 12, 2006

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