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Posted September 3, 2005

Catholic church has no national voice
in America anymore

Tom Roberts NCR editor

Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh has issued a plea to his brother bishops to "establish a process, mechanism or procedure" for coming to consensus over such issues as when it is appropriate to deny communion to a politician because of his or her stand on abortion.

Wuerl released his 2,800 word statement on the matter to Catholic News Service in mid-August, according to a CNS report. In the statement, he noted the hubbub that arose last year during Democratic Sen. John Kerry's run for president. Kerry, a Catholic, has opposed legal restrictions on abortion.

"Given the mobility of the population and the ubiquity and influence of the means of social communications," he said, "actions taken by one bishop within a diocese can have immediate national impact and affect the bishops of the rest of the dioceses throughout the country, especially neighboring dioceses which share the same media market."

One suspects that's the public way of saying what Wuerl and others say in less polite terms in private: That they need some protection against the possibility that an extremist bishop would be appointed next door and cause all sorts of unwanted problems. If the new guy next door comes in determined to demonstrate he's more Catholic than the pope, that could cause problems for everyone around the block. If the newcomer is condemning politicians and refusing communion, reporters (the social means of communication) are going to have questions for the old timers.

It can quickly get very messy, as was apparent during the election year when several bishops decided to assert their authority and, like Thomas More's son-in-law Roper, get after the devil with no regard for law or consequences or, in the contemporary case, the complexity of legislating about abortion.

It is astounding that the same group of religious leaders who, the record in Boston and elsewhere would show, can find the language to nuance sex abuse by fellow priests, take elaborate measures over the years to hide priests, manipulate facts and betray the community at large, can find the easy answer to issues like abortion and stem cell research.

What Wuerl pleads for on another level is leadership. One of the hallmarks of bishops appointed during the 25-year reign of John Paul II was loyalty. He wanted no questions about ordination -- no questions about women or married men. He wanted functioning administrators. He wanted no questions about sexual issues. What he got over two decades was a cadre of bishops who understood the terms of their appointments -- no questions, keep the ship steady, unshakable loyalty.

That is hardly the kind of profile one would write if the expectation were developing dynamic and creative leadership in an institution.

The Vatican, in addition to desiring docility from individual bishops, wanted to curb the power of the national conference in the United States. It didn't want a national body that sometimes asked embarrassing questions or that wrapped its collective intellect and curiosity around difficult issues that had no easy, one-solution-fits-all answers.

The Vatican got everything it was seeking.

In times of crisis, a leaderless conference that shuns the "national" part of its identity, ends up defensive and in disarray. There is no national voice of the Catholic church in America anymore. The conference's ability to speak with authority has been too compromised by the bishops' handling of the sex abuse scandal and too split by new bishops in love with the idea that they are absolute and autonomous rulers within the boundaries of their dioceses.

Wuerl's plea makes sense. It would be good if the bishops could come up with a mechanism that relied on cooperation and consultation. One fears, however, that Wuerl is seeking the impossible: The instinct for developing consensus is directly at odds with authority that believes itself absolute and beyond accountability.

There is, as we noted elsewhere during the election season, an upside to the situation in the American church today. There is real benefit in seeing, for instance, the bishop in Colorado Springs or St. Louis boldly exclaiming that neither a certain candidate nor anyone who votes for him is permitted communion in his diocese while the cardinal in Washington says he'd never use communion as a political weapon. Catholics saw clearly that bishops disagree over important issues.

What Wuerl seems to realize is that in an age of instant mass communications, one bishop can no longer control his flock's understanding of things. If Catholics don't like what one bishops is saying, they might shop around for another whose views they agree with.

Open disagreement is healthy. It puts the lie to the impression that the church is forever and always in perfect harmony from the grassroots up to the highest levels in the papal palace.

Church leaders themselves disagree. A safe bet would be that they disagree, particularly about political strategy and tactics, far more than we're led to believe.

Tom Roberts e-mail address is troberts@natcath.org