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Bishops Try to Reassert Control of a Restive Flock

5 years ago
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BALTIMORE -- The leader of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States on Monday launched a new effort to rein in Catholic debates and dissidents and to remind the flock that the bishops will be the arbiters of what it means to be a Catholic.

In remarks at the opening of the hierarchy's annual meeting in Baltimore, Chicago Cardinal Francis George made it clear that after years of repeated questions about the bishops' credibility, it was time for the bishops to clarify just who can and cannot speak for the church. He also confirmed that he had set up three committees of bishops to develop guidelines for determining what will be considered legitimate Catholic entities.

"Since everything and everyone in Catholic communion is truly inter-related, and the visible nexus of these relations is the bishop, an insistence on complete independence from the bishop renders a person or institution sectarian, less than fully Catholic," George, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, told some 300 of his fellow bishops. "The purpose of our reflections, therefore, is to clarify questions of truth of faith and of accountability or community among all those who claim to be part of the Catholic communion."

George's address followed a tumultuous year that saw both lay Catholics and many bishops sharply and publicly divide over almost every newsworthy development: the election of Barack Obama, the role of Catholics in public life, hot-button issues such as gay marriage and health care reform, the independence of universities such as Notre Dame, the freedom of theologians to speak and publish, and even the question of whether Ted Kennedy deserved a Catholic funeral.

Church insiders said the divisions and open dissents, and the criticisms that often bombarded the bishops from right and left, increasingly frustrated George and others in the church leadership, and led George to quietly form several committees that will try to find a way to certify which universities, media, and other organizations can claim to be Catholic.

Setting the tone for his argument for episcopal control, Cardinal George prefaced his remarks by twice citing the 2nd century bishop, Ignatius of Antioch, who famously wrote to his flock "that you do nothing without your bishop."

"Your submission to your bishop, who is in the place of Jesus Christ, shows me that you are not living as men usually do but in the manner of Jesus himself," Ignatius wrote in a citation noted by Cardinal George.

That elevated view of the bishop's authority guided George's remarks. For example, he made it clear that even the recent years of crisis would not cow the bishops in their effort to reassert their authority and relevance.

"There are some who would like to trap the church in historical events of ages long past, and there are others who would keep the bishops permanently imprisoned in the clerical sexual abuse scandal of recent years," George said. "The proper response to a crisis of governance, however, is not no governance but effective governance."

George noted that the "clerical ranks have been purged of priests and bishops known to have abused children" and said that whatever the sins of those abusers, they "cannot be allowed to discredit the truth of Catholic teaching."

Church officials said George's decision to establish the certifying committees reflected his frustration with the many differing Catholic voices and organizations that sprouted up during last year's presidential campaign and claimed to be representing Catholic positions, some of them in support of Barack Obama.

Many of the most prominent bishops were vocal opponents of Obama, who nonetheless won 53 percent of the key Catholic vote despite espousing pro-choice positions on abortion, which is the overriding issue for the bishops. And many of those outspoken bishops -- perhaps still a minority of the entire hierarchy, but an influential one with close ties to Rome -- were also incensed at the University of Notre Dame for inviting Obama to give its commencement address last May. The anger over that invitation, which was issued despite the opposition of the local bishop, John D'Arcy, and the rifts it exposed among the bishops and lay Catholics, still bother George, church officials said. Hence his effort to establish clear parameters on who speaks for the church and what it means to be Catholic.

But several bishops and church officials I spoke with doubted whether George's desire to implement the certifying committees would gain any traction among the bishops. For one thing, beneath the surface of civility, the bishops are as divided on many of these issues as the rest of the American church.

In addition, George played it so close to the vest in setting up the committees -- he launched the initiative over the summer -- that up until the first day of these meetings many bishops didn't know who was on the committees or how many there were. There are, it turns out, three such committees: on Catholic universities, Catholic media, and other Catholic organizations, reportedly those involved in lobbying.

San Francisco Archbishop George Niederauer, chairman of the committee on Catholic media, told reporters after Monday's opening session that in recent years the political and media landscape has sprouted so many organizations and websites and lobbies using the Catholic label -- and advocating competing agendas -- that churchgoers are confused.

"Catholics will approach us, and approach their pastors in their church, and ask us, 'Well, I hear this outfit is called Catholic and it says this and another says this and another one something else. Can they all be Catholic and disagree so vehemently with each other?' That does challenge us to makes sense of it and to speak as bishops," said Niederauer, who is widely regarded as a media-savvy prelate with a moderate temperament.

Still unclear, however, was exactly how these committees on Catholic identity will work, what sort of deadline they have, and above all how they might go about establishing criteria for what the bishops consider a legitimate Catholic university, magazine, or organization. "Are you going to baptize a Catholic organization?" said one skeptical bishop. "The name 'Catholic' isn't trademarked. So how is it going to work?"

Also difficult will be convincing lay Catholics to go along with any such "licensing" program -- and not just liberal Catholics who are often cast as the chief thorn in the hierarchy's side. In fact, several bishops and church insiders said that conservative publications and organizations that often cast themselves as "more Catholic than the bishop" are a major source of concern -- and irritation.

Moreover, the bishops have plenty of other items crowding their agenda. They are to vote on a contentious new translation of the mass; debate new documents promoting marriage, the ethics of fertility treatments, and end-of-life care; and elect new officers, as well as meeting unofficially on pressing matters such as how they can or should continue to affect the health care reform debate.

In fact, the only applause line in George's address was when he cited the health care debate -- one in which the bishops have played a critical role so far -- and reiterated the desire of the bishops to have affordable and universal health care, and without abortion funding. The cardinal said the bishops "are most grateful for those in either political party who share these common moral concerns and govern our country in accordance with them" -- though he did not mention that only one Republican, Rep. Anh "Joseph" Cao of Louisiana, voted for the House reform bill that the bishops backed.

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