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May 24, 2004
Vol. 2, No. 8




Tom Roberts The fringe captures the spotlight

Tom Roberts NCR editor

In recent weeks, what Fr. Andrew Greeley has labeled "the fringe of the hierarchy" has been busy overtime. The theological offspring of the peculiar ways of Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., (where the real cathedral is a football stadium), and their spiritual kin, many newly in bishops' robes, have been grabbing headlines.

Bruskewitz is famous for, among other things, excommunicating Catholics in his diocese who belonged to a reform group that counted among its members several other bishops and hundreds of priests and nuns.

It is all rather embarrassing for many Catholics who wouldn't mind their bishops mixing it up in the public square with reasonable arguments. But when the fringe captures the spotlight by using the Eucharist as a political bludgeon, few in the media pay much attention to the more senior members of the hierarchy (and a few with red hats) who speak in more moderate tones.

Also by Tom Roberts
March 15, 04 Uneasy rites of spring
Jan. 14, 04 God-talk in politics
Jan. 12, 04 Looking before leaping
Nov. 14, 03 Sports fascinate me
Nov. 10, 03 Visible symptoms of deeper troubles
Sept. 5, 03 Horses, a child and a fancy recently revived
Sept. 4, 03 'Not what I thought it was going to be'
Sept. 3, 03 Reporters on the religion beat
"Where did these guys come from?" novelist Greeley asks about the fringe in his May 21 column for the Chicago Sun-Times. "Never in my wildest moments could I come up with these high jinks for one of my stories. They're not typical, I hasten to add, but they're out there just the same, making the church look terrible."

They may not be typical, but they are in favor in Rome.

That's how Archbishop John H. Myers, who grew up in rural Illinois and was formerly bishop of Peoria, Ill., ended up in Newark, N.J. Myers fits this papal administration's template for upward career mobility. Staunchly conservative, he is a prolific pastoral letter writer, a soldier in a campaign against the prevailing culture and someone for whom, given the nature of those letters, there are no unanswered questions or shades of gray.

That sort of thing plays well in Rome, as it may in Peoria, where Catholics who disagree are long-suffering, and the light of big media scrutiny fades to non-existent. Newark, it turns out, is a different story.

Meyers zipped off one of his pastoral letters recently criticizing Catholic politicians who take pro-choice positions in public and said they shouldn't come to Communion.

Many New Jersey residents reasonably considered that a direct hit on their governor, James E. McGreevey, even though he was not directly named. McGreevey, a former altar boy, responded to the pastoral letter by saying he would not change his political position but he also would not receive Communion at public services.

In one of the more curious bits of political casuistry, the archbishop, who said he was "deeply disappointed" that New Jersey citizens would take his words the way they did, applauded McGreevey's method of handling the situation. "I think he handled it brilliantly," said Myers, according to a May 22 report in The New York Times. "Conservatives could appreciate that he accepted the authority of the church, and liberal Catholics could respect the fact that he stood by his convictions."

For a hardliner, that's a deft bit of don't ask-don't tell around the altar.

It is difficult to imagine that Myers did not intend to include the governor as part of his admonition, since he didn't mention any politicians by name in his pastoral letter. What were readers supposed to think?

The real reason he was upset at the public's "perception" may be more apparent in another statement he made in the Times' interview. "We have an understanding that I won't personally criticize him," Myers said of McGreevey. "And we are working together on a lot of issues, like providing social services for the poor and helping people with HIV. So I think we reached an understanding. I actually like him, and I think we have a cordial relationship."

Myers might be learning something about practical politics that he didn't have to be concerned about in rural Illinois - that to survive as a strong and outspoken conservative in a very liberal state, he's got to make certain accommodations.

In this case, he apparently found out he can't have it both ways - he can't be publicly slamming politicians at the same time he's accepting government money for a host of programs. He needs the governor and the government machinery as much as the other way around. Probably more.

On another level, of course, the church is made to look silly at a time when the last thing it needs is more bad public relations. So much of the hierarchy's credibility has dissipated because of the sex abuse scandal, and these outlandish pronouncements do nothing to restore it. (Myers, by the way, has joined dozens of other bishops in trying to nullify the National Review Board, one of the few mechanisms available to the bishops for regaining some credibility.)

Bishops like Myers, Bruskewitz, Michael Sheridan in Colorado Springs and a few others may be on the fringe of the hierarchy, but that fringe is dictating the public agenda. They have moved from teaching to trying to exercise muscle in the halls of power. Some of the more senior members of the hierarchy, who seem to understand the values of moderation and when to keep quiet, might consider making such points forcefully during the group's upcoming closed meeting in Denver.

There is a difference between speaking truth to power and trying to play the games of the powerful.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is

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