WASHINGTON — The president of the nation's Roman Catholic bishops on Monday warned that "a growing and dangerous disaffection" threatens to divide elements of the American church and the Vatican.
To effect a reconciliation, Bishop James W. Malone of Youngstown, Ohio, proposed that a delegation of prelates meet with Pope John Paul II in Rome to smooth out their differences before the pontiff visits the United States next September.
At the same time, in an apparent attempt to ease the tensions arising from the recent Vatican disciplining of Seattle Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen for his liberal practices, the Pope sent the U.S. bishops an unusual, seven-page letter expressing "fraternal solidarity" and encouraging their work.
But the Pope's letter, read on the opening morning of the prelates' annual four-day conference here, pointedly reminded the U.S. bishops that they "are, and must always be, in full communion with the successor of Peter" (the Pope) and thus cannot act independently of Rome. In other years, the Pope's letter has typically consisted of a simple exchange of greetings.
For many bishops, strains between the U.S. church and the Pope--fueled by the current Vatican crackdown on dissent from official church teaching--underline the simmering debate about the proper relationship between John Paul and national bodies of bishops.
In his opening talk Monday, Malone, the outgoing president of the 315-member U.S. bishops' conference, recognized the right of the Pope to intervene in the Hunthausen case. But he also emphasized the "collegial spirit" uniting the U.S. bishops with each other and with the Pope.
"We recognize that our conference of bishops has no competence to interject itself into the special relationship between the Holy Father (the Pope) and a local bishop. Nor have we any intention of engaging in a retrospective review of events which have already occurred," Malone said.
Details of Hunthausen's censure by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican watchdog agency for orthodoxy, came to light after Hunthausen, a liberal on sexual ethics as well as a social activist, revealed last September that he had been relieved of pastoral authority in five sensitive areas. The duties--relating to liturgy, marriage annulments, ministries to homosexuals, training of priests and dealing with priests who have left the priesthood--were turned over to a Vatican-appointed auxiliary bishop, Donald Wuerl.
The bishops, in a three-hour closed-door session today, are scheduled to discuss how the issue might be resolved in a way that would support the Seattle archbishop without appearing to disregard the Vatican's right to take direct actions against him.
"The purpose . . . of addressing this matter in our executive session," Malone told his fellow bishops, "is simply . . . to offer fraternal support to Archbishop Hunthausen and Bishop Wuerl in their future efforts to minister to the church in Seattle. We look to this as a constructive expression of the collegial experience which unites us with one another and with the Holy Father."
But, in order to give the Pope a firsthand perspective on the American Catholic Church, Malone proposed that officers of the U.S. bishops' conference fly to Rome "in late winter or early spring." Malone said the bishops of the host dioceses in the six states that the Pope is to visit next year and active U.S. cardinals would be included in the delegation.
Malone said John Paul's U.S. trip, which includes Los Angeles, is a "welcome, timely opportunity . . . to direct our attention to the fundamental unity among the people of the church even in times of misunderstanding and tension."
Referring to current controversy over the role of theologians versus the teaching authority of bishops, Malone added: "What makes the question of dissent all the more complicated in our local church is the passion we have in this country to let all persons have the freedom to give their point of view."
Seeds of Discord
But that freedom has sown seeds of misunderstanding and discord, Malone conceded.
"No one who reads the newspapers of the past three years can be ignorant of a growing and dangerous disaffection of elements of the church in the United States from the Holy See," he said. "Some people feel that the local church needs more freedom. Others believe that more control is in order. Some feel that appeals to authority are being exercised too readily. Others applaud what they perceive to be a return to needed central control.
"Wherever you stand, this division presents the church in the United States with a very serious question: How will we move to address this developing estrangement, to strengthen the . . . bonds between the church here and the Holy See?"