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U.S. Bishops Side With the Vatican--or Do They?

November 16, 1986|Peter Steinfels | Peter Steinfels, author of "The Neoconservatives," is the editor of Commonweal magazine, an independent journal published by Catholic laypeople

WASHINGTON — Dissent versus authority, liberals versus conservatives, the Vatican versus Archbishop Raymond G. Hunthausen of Seattle and Father Charles E. Curran of Catholic University, even Pope John Paul II versus the American Catholic Church. For months the media have been chronicling conflicts in the Catholic Church in terms of dramatic dichotomies. Everything was supposed to come to a head at the meeting of U.S. Catholic bishops last week in Washington.

Such neat, paired-off terms are, at one and the same time, virtually unavoidable and highly unsatisfactory. Unavoidable, because there are genuine conflicts among Catholics about how they understand their church. Unsatisfactory, because scholarly dissenters like Curran do not deny the need for church authority; because bishops who are conservatives on some issues may be liberals on others, and because Rome's disciplinary measures are not simple cases of good guys versus bad.

But if the task of sorting through these events is difficult to begin with, the bishops have added to the confusion. Confronted by questions agonizing many Catholics, the bishops' meeting sent two different, almost contradictory messages.

Message One was conveyed by vote and gesture as much as by word. On no less than eight occasions, for example, Cardinal Bernard Law, the U.S. Catholic churchman most closely identified with the Vatican's recent "crackdown," was a top contender for an elected position. All eight times, he was defeated. The newly elected president and vice president of the bishops' conference, Archbishops John L. May of St. Louis and Daniel P. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati, are likely to maintain the continuity of the bishops' national policies. In a vote that defied ordinary protocol, the bishops chose an auxiliary bishop from Brooklyn, Joseph M. Sullivan, rather than Los Angeles' Archbishop Roger Mahony, to head a major committee. A number of bishops said this reflected a distrust of Mahony, who has sided with Law and other critics of the U.S. church on questions of internal church discipline.

Message One was also expressed in the bishops' unprecedented discussion, in closed session, of the Vatican's stripping of key powers from Hunthausen. A number of important bishops did not even want that discussion on the agenda. They lost. Hunthausen's telling replies to the charges were distributed to the bishops and released to the press. The discussion itself was frank, sometimes emotional, and all in the presence of Archbishop Pio Laghi, the papal representative.

Message One was further expressed in numerous small ways, above all by the warm personal support that Hunthausen encountered on every side. It was expressed in the opening address of the conference president, Bishop James W. Malone, when he acknowledged the danger of a growing "disaffection" among Catholics from Vatican leadership, and when he insisted that serious questioning is a sign of life in the church.

But what was the content of Message One? In diverse ways, the vast majority of bishops were affirming what Malone reported to the extraordinary synod last year in Rome: The American church is "basically sound." It faces problems, serious ones, but the direction it has been moving is correct. No dramatic change in leadership or leashing of its national conference is called for. In circumstances where pastoral sensitivity comes into conflict with strict legality, the bishops want to be able to reach out to those suffering or excluded, even if this sometimes risks a blurring of church teaching. At the very least, the bishops want to be able to make "judgment calls" on the spot, without second-guessing by Rome.

In some respects, Message One was limited. Hunthausen's case turned on issues of pastoral judgment, not theological doctrine. But here Message One seemed clear: We have something less than confidence in Rome's understanding of America. Vatican interventions of the Seattle variety are costly.

What the bishops said to Rome stood in marked contrast, if not exactly contradiction, to what they said to the American public. That was Message Two, and it was conveyed in Malone's "personal statement"--made with conference approval--about the Hunthausen case.

Malone's statement led by affirming "unreservedly" the bishops' loyalty to the Pope. While declaring that the bishops' conference had "no authority . . . to review, much less judge," a case involving a diocesan bishop and the Holy See," it went on to emphasize how "carefully and charitably" the Vatican proceeds in matters like these. The established procedure was carried out. The decision "deserves our respect and confidence."

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