|U.S. bishops, facing church
division, lack authority to set U.S. course
By THOMAS C. FOX
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
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
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
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
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
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