America is watching with keen interest and profound concern the tensions among Roman Catholics in the United States, and the tensions between the national church and the Vatican. Some of the issues, including that of authority, have a relevance to secular society as well.
The role of national conferences of bishops in the Roman Catholic Church was enhanced by the Second Vatican Council that concluded its work 21 years ago. This was an important step toward broader recognition of the diversity that is embraced by a universal church, but it made no easier the task of sorting out a division of authority and in establishing priorities for both the Curia, which governs in Rome, and the bishops who are pastors in their own lands.
Recent efforts by the Pope to impose a more rigorous orthodoxy in Holland appear to have had little effect. The more than 200 bishops of Brazil have been remarkably effective in maintaining control of the national church and resisting such Roman intrusions as the move to silence the Rev. Leonardo Boff, a prominent liberation theologian. Now the bishops of the United States are taking the measure of their position in the face of Vatican actions that challenge the ideas of many of them, and in anticipation of the visit next September of Pope John Paul II.
There is evidence that a substantial number of American Catholic bishops and lay people are in disagreement with the decisions to reduce the authority of Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle and to terminate the teaching license of Father Charles E. Curran, a theologian at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Many of the practices for which the archbishop was disciplined are common in the dioceses of the United States. Curran's challenges to Vatican positions on some issues appeared to many of his colleagues as consistent with his role as a leading American theologian. But many other American Catholics were scandalized by the actions of the two, and welcomed the disciplinarian interventions with unconcealed satisfaction.
The fundamental issue is authority. The primacy of the Pope is unchallenged within the Roman Catholic Church. That was clear Wednesday when the U.S. bishops dutifully supported the Vatican's disciplining of Hunthausen.
Some positions of the church must be immutable, but many of the issues in dispute today would appear to be elements of doctrine in transition. Archbishop Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee has argued that the church, in its desire to preserve doctrinal purity, must "avoid the fanaticism and small-mindedness that has characterized so many periods of the church in history--tendencies that lead to more cruelty, suppression of theological creativity and lack of growth."
The Roman Catholic Church is not alone in struggling to identify fundamental standards for society and to understand the role of authority in winning respect for those standards. The response inevitably is confused in a society that, from its origins, has celebrated individual freedom. Many, appalled at what they interpret as growing profligacy, propose a punitive repression. Others ignore any signs of moral and ethical decline, assuming that there will somehow be an automatic course correction as the nation stumbles ahead.
Bishops of the U.S. Catholic Conference have already demonstrated their ability to rise to great social challenges--witness their careful and constructive pastorals on nuclear arms and on justice in the economy. Their wisdom in dealing with those complexities is cause for optimism that they will find their way to a useful resolution of the tensions that now beset their church. Their search for answers can be helpful to a nation beset itself by challenges to its fundamental principles and debates over authority.