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No. 11- 5:30 PM 6/17 MP
Bishops agree to remove sex offenders from ministry

No. 10- 8:00 PM 6/16 TF/TR
Bishops urged, in a most unusual morning, to press for reforms beyond sex abuse policy

No. 9- 11:00 AM 6/14 TR
Bishops urged, in a most unusual morning, to press for reforms beyond sex abuse policy

No. 8- 9:15 AM 6/14 MP
Bishops issue ‘profound apology,’ hear victims’ stories, strong calls for reform

No. 7- 9:00 PM 6/14 TF
NCR Editor Tom Roberts assesses Dallas meeting on “News Hour”

No. 6- 1:45 PM 6/13 TF
Bishops caught in the middle as meeting opens

No. 5- 10:00 AM 6/13 TR
Serious questions for wider church loom after Dallas meeting

No. 4- 9:45 AM 6/13 TR
For victim leader Clohessy, years of work lead to 15 minutes before the bishops

No. 3- 4:30 PM 6/12 TF
Arriving in Dallas, bishops greeted with more bad news

No. 1- 4:35 PM 6/11 TF
Cardinal lashes out against U.S. media as it prepares for Dallas

Posted 11:00 A.M. CST Wednesday, June 12, 2002
Number 2

U.S. bishops, facing church division, lack authority to set U.S. course

NCR Publisher

At first blush the Dallas bishops’ meeting is about establishing guidelines for dealing with sex offending priests. It is more than that. At another level, it is a public display of a decades long simmering dispute about the nature of the Catholic church.

The division is real and can be seen most visibly as the bishops assemble inside the Dallas Fairmont hotel and Catholic advocates of change gather outside and in various other Dallas locations.

While the bishops focus on the issues of priest sex abuse, the other Catholics will focus on the bishops’ themselves. This difference is indicative of the wider division, one that seems to be immobilizing U.S. Catholicism.

This division is not new to most Catholics who have had to endure it most of their lives. It is complex and embedding in church theology. It involves conflicting models of church. Out of these conflicts have emerged other disputes that get to the heart of church governance and especially church teachings on human sexuality.

At the risk of oversimplification, one faction says the church is comprised primarily of bishops and priests who receive their authority through the sacrament of ordination. They work with the laity, but control every aspect of decision-making. The other faction claims that church is by nature more inclusive. It says all Catholics receive their basic rights and obligations through the sacrament of baptism.

The former group emphasizes the importance of church hierarchy. The latter group emphasizes the need to introduce more inclusive and even democratic notions of church governance.

A generation back, these conflicting notions were debated at the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. Following months of debate, the bishops issued a document that attempted to help resolve the conflict. This document, called Lumen Gentium, came to be known in English as the “Dogmatic Constitution on the Church.”

The traditional way of looking at the church emphasized the church as a perfect society, constituted by the divinely instituted hierarchy. The model looked like a pyramid, with the pope at the top, followed by cardinals, archbishops, bishops, priests, religious, and finally lay people way at the bottom. Lumen Gentium reaffirmed much of traditional Catholic ecclesiology. Nevertheless, it rejected an original schema that had been prepared by the conservative members of the curia, which described the church in only traditional terms. Lumen Gentium represented a victory for the more progressive forces as it defined the church primarily, in more inclusive terms, as “the people of God.”

Soon the forces that had worked for a more inclusive notion of church were also speaking of a less centralized church and the importance of local churches. Out of this came the idea of national conferences of Catholic bishops, including the U.S. bishops’ conference meeting in Dallas this week. It was recognized that local churches were best equipped to deal with local customs and needs.

Pope Paul VI, the pope from the time of the council until 1978, was sympathetic to these efforts. Pope John Paul II, elected in October 1978, has not been.

Pope John Paul II, having grown up under the Nazis and later the Communists, remains deeply suspicious about any efforts to “accommodate” the church to local conditions. Similarly, he has adamantly opposed notions that blur traditional distinctions between clergy and laity.

His pontificate has emasculated national conferences. So opposed has he been to the idea of national conferences of bishops that in 1998 he stripped them of authority in an apostolic letter he wrote called Apostolos Suos (“His Apostles”). The letter declared that national conferences could only issue statements on matters of importance if they gained the unanimous support of their members. Even one dissenter could stop a declaration. The conferences had been gutted of authority. Until then, they could issue declarations if they gained a two-thirds majority.

This has practical implications for the Dallas meeting. Whatever guidelines the bishops come up with in Dallas, they can only recommend them to Rome. This was not the way most of the bishops who gathered at Vatican II envisioned the work of their decentralized church.

So it can be said that the U.S. bishops today lack the authority to make decisions related to the greatest crisis in American Catholic history.

U.S. bishops are caught in the great divide. An increasingly outspoken laity, talking about their baptismal rights, is demanding greater involvement in decision-making. The Vatican, meanwhile, has concentrated decision-making exclusively in Rome.

In this light, Catholics who follow church proceedings closely recognize that Dallas can resolve nothing of substance. Moreover, if the bishops come to be viewed as not responding to the growing demands of lay Catholics for greater accountability, Dallas has every chance to exacerbate lingering divisions.

Meanwhile, for the larger issues to be discussed and resolved, Catholics will have to wait for a new pope and a new church council.