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The Imperative of Courtesy

Any American seeking to understand the Catholic Church’s position on homosexuality is likely to be referred to a 1997 document titled Always Our Children. The status of that document, and the circumstances under which it was enacted, are symptomatic of the deep confusions now affecting American Catholicism.

Always Our Children does not contain an unequivocal statement about the immorality of homosexual acts. In theory it addresses the concern of a small number of American Catholics—how to act if their children are homosexual. The document cautions parents not to be “judgmental” lest they alienate their offspring who may be on a path that diverges radically from Catholic morality. The Church’s teaching about homosexuality is reduced essentially to a single principle: Homosexuals are to be accepted for what they are and in no way are to be made to feel excluded.

Catholics with an adequate knowledge of their faith know that this does not represent genuine Catholic teaching, and they may turn to the Catechism of the Catholic Church for a full statement. But priests and others in authority in United States often treat Always Our Children as the final word, reminding people that the document comes with the official approval of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and is to be viewed as the American “application” of universal teaching.

The authority of the national bishops’ conference is now being closely scrutinized because of the scandal of clerical sexual abuse and the failure of so many bishops to discipline the abusers. During the bishops’ June meeting in Dallas, Texas the leadership succeeded in gaining majority approval for a policy of “zero tolerance” whereby any priest guilty of a sexual offense against a minor will be removed from the active priesthood. But the same leadership also bushwhacked proposals to scrutinize the role of theological dissent and clerical homosexuality in causing the abuse. A considerable number of bishops disagreed with one or both of these policies, but the expressed wishes of the national conference leadership are seldom thwarted.

Until after World War I the American bishops had no corporate identity except occasional “provincial councils” held in Baltimore, the last of which, in l884, authorized the famous Baltimore Catechism. In 19l9 the bishops founded the National Catholic Welfare Conference, an organization designed to give the Church some kind of national voice, especially on matters of public policy.

The National Catholic Welfare Conference remained a fairly modest body. According to some reports, leading prelates such as Cardinal Francis J. Spellman of New York all but ignored it, and journalists and others seeking to know what “the Church” thought about particular issues were more likely to consult individual bishops like Cardinal Spellman than the staff of the national body in Washington, D.C.

Following the Second Vatican Council, the bishops reorganized themselves into the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, with a subsidiary bureaucracy called the United States Catholic Conference. (In 200l the two bodies merged into the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

The authority of this national organization derives from the Second Vatican Council’s teaching about “collegiality” in its decree on the Church, Lumen Gentium (Light of the Nations). The conciliar decree contains a strong reaffirmation of papal authority but also a strong statement on the authority of the bishops (in communion with the Holy See). It was on the latter basis that the relatively unimportant National Catholic Welfare Conference was transformed into the powerful body that exists today.

The national organization set up in the late l960s was principally the work of its first general secretary, Bishop (later Cardinal) Joseph L. Bernardin. Designed to provide the Church with a stronger voice in national affairs, it also had the affect of molding the bishops into a collective bloc. Whereas at one time there was a range of episcopal opinion on matters not of faith, with each bishop setting policy in his own diocese in harmony with canon law and the decrees of the Vatican, since l966 the national conference has in effect articulated positions that all bishops are expected to follow and to which few fail to adhere.

The bishops meet formally twice a year and pass resolutions on a number of matters, even as their national bureaucracy is constantly involved in issues both internal and external to the Church. At their twice-yearly meetings the bishops are asked to vote on a large number of questions. Some bishops complain privately that they scarcely have time to read all the documents, much less study them carefully. Typically a few bishops raise questions about, or make objections to, certain documents, and sometimes amendments are adopted. Most of the time the fact that the national bureaucracy has recommended a particular statement is sufficient to persuade most bishops that they should approve it.

The episcopal officers of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops are elected for three-year terms, and there is a number of standing committees whose members are also elected. These include an executive committee that is the guiding engine of the conference. These groups issue statements of their own, which may or may not be submitted to the entire episcopacy for approval.

Thus, for example, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pennsylvania, sometime chairman of the committee on the liturgy, has long been in open opposition to efforts by the Holy See to regulate liturgical practice, claiming that such efforts constitute interference with the authority of the American bishops. Although the majority of bishops probably accept the authority of the Holy See on liturgy, no prelate has ever publicly contradicted Bishop Trautman nor questioned the propriety of his statements.

Until recently two “official” documents were commonly invoked as authoritative in matters of liturgy: Environment and Art in Catholic Worship and Music in Catholic Worship. Both diverge from the decrees of the Holy See-for instance, Environment and Art in Catholic Worship virtually requires that tabernacles not be placed on the main altar. Yet neither document was issued by even a committee of bishops, much less by the bishops as a whole, but merely by the staff of the bishops’ liturgical office.

Always Our Children was issued by yet another kind of official body-an ad hoc committee chaired by Bishop Thomas O’Brien of Phoenix, Arizona, set up for just that purpose. Always Our Children would probably not have been approved by a majority of the bishops, at least not without significant amendments. Bishop O’Brien’s committee issued it in a kind of preemptive strike. Now the document occupies the territory in American Catholicism marked “homosexuality,” and few bishops express public disagreement with it. Even if a bishop disapproves of the document, priests and bureaucrats in his diocese may nonetheless treat it as official Church teaching.

If pressed, proponents of Always Our Children usually say, “Of course we accept the teachings of the Church,” but steer the subject to the obligation to accept homosexuals unconditionally. Thus the document has in effect brought about a revolution in the Catholic approach to homosexuality.

In the same way, a statement titled One in Christ Jesus in effect laid the groundwork for the ordination of women. Over a period of several years the bishops’ conference debated this proposed statement, which incorporated an essentially feminist viewpoint. Eventually, after amendments were adopted to bring it closer to Catholic teaching, feminists lost interest in it, and the project was abandoned. Yet the proposed statement is still often treated as authoritative and used to claim plausibly that the “American bishops” consider women as a group to be excluded from their rightful place in Church and society.

As with Always Our ChildrenOne in Christ Jesus does not explicitly repudiate official teaching. But they prepare the ground for its repudiation by others, enjoining on Catholics an attitude of fundamental sympathy for homosexuals and radical feminists that seems to makes it sinful to deny them whatever they demand from the Church. By such means Church teachings are effectively undermined.

It is seldom noted that the very existence of elected officers of the national bishops’ conference is an alternative to-if not a contradiction of-the structure of ecclesiastical authority established by canon law. For many centuries dioceses have been grouped into provinces, each presided over by an archbishop (called a “metropolitan”) with limited responsibility over the “suffragan” sees under him. Thus, for example, Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Illinois is a suffragan bishop of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago. Yet, as the current president of the bishops’ conference, Bishop Gregory has primacy in some sense over Cardinal George.

In choosing archbishops, the Holy See presumably promotes those prelates whom it deems best qualified to lead their respective provinces, a judgment that becomes even more significant when some of those archbishops are elevated to cardinals. Yet for thirty years no cardinal has been elected to head the American bishops. Often the elected officers are from smaller dioceses. The elections reveal that the bishops diverge significantly from the Holy See in their judgment of each other. With one exception-Cardinal John J. Krol of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania-the bishops have never elected a president who strongly supports the authority of the Vatican.

In May 1998 Pope John Paul II issued Apostolos Suos (His Own Apostles), a definitive statement reminding bishops that national episcopal conferences are mere practical arrangements with no doctrinal standing. The pope is the successor of Peter, and individual bishops are successors of the apostles; but the national conference, according to Apostolos Suos, is a merely prudential arrangement that cannot override the authority of the Holy See nor of individual bishops in their own dioceses.

The next year retired Archbishop John R. Quinn of San Francisco, California, a former president of the national conference, published a book titled The Reform of the Papacy. In it he effectively denied Apostolos Suos and urged that the authority of the Holy See be severely modified by the authority of the national conferences.

Documents issued by the national conference become authoritative because most bishops feel constrained not to speak against a statement made in their name. The imperative of episcopal courtesy is strong, and there is evidence that even the Holy See cautions bishops against taking public positions that appear to be at odds with that of the national conference. The appearance of unity, even when it requires the compromise of official teaching, is highly valued.

The rhetoric of “trust” is often invoked by the bishops’ bureaucrats, with the implication that expressing doubts about recommended policies manifests a lamentable lack of trust within the body of Christ. It is a tactic that silences most bishops who may have doubts about proposed policies because, even though they may acknowledge privately that they do not trust the bureaucracy, it would be a severe violation of protocol to admit this openly.

It is the orthodox bishops who feel especially bound by the rules and who refrain from taking public stands at odds with those of the national conference. Thus, for example, Bishop Trautman has consistently found himself outvoted by his fellow bishops on liturgical matters, yet he continues to champion the agenda of the liturgical bureaucracy.

Indeed, bishops inclined to disagree openly with official Church teaching seem to feel free to do so. The late Bishop Raymond A. Lucker of New Ulm, Minnesota was a strong advocate of the ordination of women. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit, Michigan frequently castigates the Church for its teachings about homosexuality. Episcopal courtesy seems to demand that no bishop publicly chastise fellow prelates or call attention to their errors.

Understandably, bishops do not wish to advertise their differences to the world, and most bishops choose to suppress whatever doubts they may have about the conference. Thus most bishops become passive instruments of the agenda of their own bureaucracy, an agenda that moves relentlessly in the direction of an “American Church” semi-independent of the Holy See.

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