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Episcopal and ecclesial communion? Not this time.

October 20, 2008

We Roman Catholics talk an awful lot about being in communion with one another. Whether we are describing the nature of the Church, as in “communion ecclesiology,” or describing what we are doing at eucharist, or describing the collegial relationship of the bishops throughout the world and in each local church, the image of “communion,” being of one mind and of one heart, is often central to these discussions.

We all know the damage political elections do to our communities and to our Church as a whole. Partisan allegiances not only blind us to the motivation behind approaches to politics that differ from our own, but also to the demands of the Gospel. Election-time ugliness — american style — colonizes every moment, every conversation. Take, for instance, the fact that an acquaintance of mine recently sent me a message on Facebook to congratulate my wife and I on the birth of our daughter on Friday, only to punctuate it with a jab about how Obama is intent on killing babies. Is this what we have come to?

Sadly, this is not only a problem for “the faithful.” Our bishops — admittedly, human like the rest of us — are failing us too. Their Faithful Citizenship document indeed was overall an impressive moment of teaching, far more sophisticated than past efforts. As we draw nearer to November 4, we are seeing handfuls of american bishops, though, attempting to retract huge portions of that teaching under the guise of “clarification.” Baffling, isn’t it, that these bishops feel the need to “clarify” the content of FC, a document that is revised and updated every four years in order to be as clear as possible in each election’s political context? If the bishops really intended to say that a Catholic may not vote for a pro-choice candidate if there is a “suitable” “pro-life” candidate available, why wasn’t this said in the document itself? Not only was this not said, it was not even remotely implied. Indeed, the new (and few) “interpretations” of FC cannot in any real sense be connected to passages from the original document at all.

Among these new (and few) “interpretations,” the absolute worst moment so far has got to be the recent heavy handed approach of Scranton bishop Joseph F. Martino who didn’t even try to link his teaching with that of his brother bishops. He expressed his open defiance at a parish discussion on FC recently, saying, “No USCCB document is relevant in this diocese . . . . The USCCB doesn’t speak for me . . . . The only relevant document … is my letter. There is one teacher in this diocese, and these points are not debatable.”

And unfortunately the result is that already confused Catholics are now even further entrenched in their own double standards. For years now, Catholic republicans have dismissed the teaching of the USCCB, especially FC, as irrelevant, as nonauthoritative. They continued to hold this view until said “clarifications” (such as that of the Dallas bishops) emerged. Suddenly, FC (or at least its “interpretations”) is seen to be as authoritative as scripture itself. Then, like watching a tennis match, comes Martino who is cheered by republican Catholics for his dismissal of the USCCB.

Such moves are revealing of several realities. First, they reveal another example of what many of us have known for a long time: Church teaching, at whatever level of authority, is used and abused over and over again for partisan political purposes and not for the true illumination they bring on the fullness of our social reality.

Second, they reveal that our bishops, human like us, are not immune from such nonsense.

And third, and most tragically, they reveal the extent to which we kid ourselves with talk of “ecclesial and episcopal communion.” We couldn’t be further from it.

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26 Comments
  1. radicalcatholicmom permalink
    October 20, 2008 11:21 pm

    Out.standing. Essay, Michael!

  2. Mike J. permalink
    October 21, 2008 1:05 am

    Michael I,
    I think one must recognize, however, that the creation of national synods and episcopal conferences doesn’t really fall within the traditional hierarchy of the Church. Bishop Martino is, indeed, the only person solely enjoined to be the leader of the local Church in his diocese. He has a very real point that documents made by the USCCB must give way to his own leadership.

    I do agree, however, that this move was a bit ridiculous of him.

    Peace,
    Mike J.

  3. Policraticus permalink*
    October 21, 2008 1:12 am

    I think there is no question that the USCCB and individual bishops have their fair share of fair weather fans. They are quoted as authorities when convenient and accommodating, and dismissed as merely “prudential” when challenging and radical. I find this to be true among some circles of Catholic Republicans and Catholic Democrats (if really such things exist).

  4. October 21, 2008 5:00 am

    Why is any emphasis placed on the teaching of episcopal conferences that are defined by the borders of nation-states?

    Where is the conference in the hierarchy of the Church? What is the level of authority of the USCCB? Does anyone know? I’ve never seen a clear answer to the question. I’m sure there is one, but what is it?

  5. Christopher permalink
    October 21, 2008 6:33 am

    Where is the conference in the hierarchy of the Church? What is the level of authority of the USCCB? Does anyone know? I’ve never seen a clear answer to the question. I’m sure there is one, but what is it?

    For starters, we could try exploring Pope John Paul II: Apostolos Suos: On the Theological and Juridical Nature of Episcopal Conferences.

  6. October 21, 2008 7:38 am

    Sadly, most of us truly are more American (or Republican or Democrat) than Catholic. It is a sad state of affairs.

  7. Greg permalink
    October 21, 2008 8:47 am

    The USCCB document Faithful Citizenship has no binding authority on an individual bishop whatsoever. If Bishop Martino refuses to abide by this document he is entirely free to do so. He is absolutely correct that he is the one teacher of the diocese. Not the USCCB! Cardinal Ratzinger was never a fan of large episcopal conferences and I can see why.

  8. October 21, 2008 9:15 am

    As for FC versus the various “clarifications” of it — consider how the thing was written in the first place. The bishops discussed and argued and revised and put forth different versions until they reached something that they were all willing to accept. However, it was doubtless pretty far from what some of the individual bishops would have liked. The nature of a compromise is to not be what many of its authors wished.

    So since the bishops are individually tasked to be the shepherds of their diocese — they’re certainly not just regional representatives of the national bishops conference — it’s hardly surprising that those bishops who most felt that FC failed to be sufficiently clear on the application of principles to this particular election would issue their own teaching statements making their judgements clear.

    I would think that you of all people would very much appreciate this. After all, you consider any statement in which a bishop says that the Iraq War fails to meet just war criteria to be a binding statement. Taking the same approach, would you not need to say that given that a number of bishops have provided their judgements that it would in no way be acceptable to vote for Obama (and none of issued statements in the contrary direction) it is clearly the “teaching of the Church” that one may not vote for Obama?

    Surely you too are not merely a fairweather friend of the episcopacy? Or have you made a sudden late discovery of the fact that accepting the doctrinal teaching does not necessarily mean agreeing with a given bishop’s application of that doctrine to a particular situation?

  9. M.Z. Forrest permalink
    October 21, 2008 9:29 am

    I hope people don’t just paper over Iafrate’s third point. It is probably the most important.

    I don’t have a whole bunch of enthusiasm for episcopal conferences. I would prefer the greater emphasis placed in the Eastern rite upon metropolitans and primates for addressing super-diocesean issues. Of course this election has been almost a parody of what the role of bishop should be anyway. In the same breath Martino is applauded for marking his territory, Chaput is applauded for inviting Sen. Biden to meet with him to discuss his eligibility for communion.

  10. October 21, 2008 9:45 am

    Let’s put this in perspective. For the first time ever, the Faifthful Citizenship document was discussed in debate by the bishops themselves, who were allowed to offer amendments, changes in language etc. The final document was overwhelmingly approved by all but 4 bishops. Just yesterday, I asked somebody with contacts at the USCCB what they thought. As I expected, there is a feeling of great frustration, given that some of these bishops who are now going out on a limb actually endorsed this document (on the grounds that there are more than 4 who are speaking out). What I find most depressing is that some are deliberately distorting the document itself (and here I point the finger at the Texas bishops), not only by fudging the theology, but by actually altering the set of relevant intrinsically evil acts.

  11. October 21, 2008 10:13 am

    Ecclesially speaking, I do not believe the USCCB has any “real” authority, and a Catholic in a given diocese should “submit” to his/her bishop. However the manner in which the bishops have been “clarifying” FC has only added to the confusion, bewilderment, and lack of identity of many Catholics in America. I think this is largely because, as I alluded to previously, we are more American than Catholic. We don’t see ourselves primarily as members of the Church in New Orleans or Chicago or St. Louis, etc. We see ourselves as Americans who happen to be Catholic. Thus even Catholics who know they should “submit” to their own bishop will look to other bishops to hear what they want to hear. Similarly, some bishops are “butting in” on the consciences of Catholics which are not part of their jurisdiction and are implicitly encouraging Catholics to go over the head of their ordinary.

    Generally speaking I am pleased to hear the bishops speaking up. But their voice is muddled and its reception by Catholics is confused.

  12. October 21, 2008 10:23 am

    Again, let’s be clear. We need to distinguish between a bishops’ conference as an administrative organ, and a group of regional bishops sitting in conference passing judgement on matters of local interest. What the US bishops did on Fiathful Citizenship is more akin to the latter– precisely because it was subject to a floor vote and floor debate.

  13. ben permalink
    October 21, 2008 11:32 am

    MZ,

    The democrats chose to hold their convention in Denver, and that is Chaput’s turf. He had no choice but to comment on the questionable catholicity of those who came to his city and trumpeted their catholic virtue. He is our shepherd, and he must warn us about the wolves.

  14. October 21, 2008 11:41 am

    After all, you consider any statement in which a bishop says that the Iraq War fails to meet just war criteria to be a binding statement.

    No, but I consider those statements to be true and courageous statements.

  15. October 21, 2008 12:17 pm

    I think one must recognize, however, that the creation of national synods and episcopal conferences doesn’t really fall within the traditional hierarchy of the Church.

    They are certainly a development, but they do have a role, as described in the document Christopher linked to.

    Why is any emphasis placed on the teaching of episcopal conferences that are defined by the borders of nation-states?

    Conferences generally, but need not, correspond to the borders of nation-states. While the borders of nation-states, in my view, are totally arbitrary, those borders impact people’s lives living within them and they impose a certain similarity of circumstances upon the citizens of those states. While I reject the nation-state project, I don’t see the organization of bishops’ conferences to be problematic. They are merely making a practical organizational move. As long as the conferences don’t end up acting like national churches, a la Anglicanism, then I think it makes sense.

    The USCCB document Faithful Citizenship has no binding authority on an individual bishop whatsoever. If Bishop Martino refuses to abide by this document he is entirely free to do so.

    The more important issue is whether FC expresses the episcopal communion of the U.S. bishops. With only 4 bishops opposing it, I’m inclined to think that it does. A related question is what happens when 1 or 2 renegade bishops actively and publicly dismiss the teaching of the rest of the bishops.

    Ecclesially speaking, I do not believe the USCCB has any “real” authority, and a Catholic in a given diocese should “submit” to his/her bishop.

    The USCCB does indeed have authority. The important question is what kind of authority:

    “22. In dealing with new questions and in acting so that the message of Christ enlightens and guides people’s consciences in resolving new problems arising from changes in society, the Bishops assembled in the Episcopal Conference and jointly exercizing their teaching office are well aware of the limits of their pronouncements. While being official and authentic and in communion with the Apostolic See, these pronouncements do not have the characteristics of a universal magisterium. For this reason the Bishops are to be careful to avoid interfering with the doctrinal work of the Bishops of other territories, bearing in mind the wider, even world-wide, resonance which the means of social communication give to the events of a particular region.

    Taking into account that the authentic magisterium of the Bishops, namely what they teach insofar as they are invested with the authority of Christ, must always be in communion with the Head of the College and its members,(83) when the doctrinal declarations of Episcopal Conferences are approved unanimously, they may certainly be issued in the name of the Conferences themselves, and the faithful are obliged to adhere with a sense of religious respect to that authentic magisterium of their own Bishops.”

    It seems obvious that the USCCB does not have the authority of the universal magisterium. But they exercise magisterial authority nonetheless, within the context of their particular region.

  16. October 21, 2008 12:23 pm

    Thanks for clarifying that Michael I. I meant to emphasize the “I do not believe” part of my statement, but I forgot to.

    Nevertheless, the USCCB does have some authority. FC does have some authority. How is a Catholic in Scranton to respond to Bishop Martino? What is the relationship between his teaching authority and the teaching authority of the conference?

  17. October 21, 2008 12:28 pm

    What is the relationship between his teaching authority and the teaching authority of the conference?

    I think that’s a tough and divisive question. Martino seems to have taken the power trip route rather than the episcopal communion route, which sends signals for me. Unlike the Dallas bishops, Martino is deliberately separating himself from the other bishops.

  18. ctd permalink
    October 21, 2008 1:58 pm

    Martino’s reaction and choice of words is unfortunate, although he is acting within his ecclesial authority.

    That said, I am not convinced that Martino’s comments were, in fact, contrary to FC and I am more certain that the statements by the Dallas bishops, Archbishop Chaput, Bishop Aquila, and the Bishops of Kansas City area – to name just some – are not contrary to FC.

    FC was not meant to be the final say on matters of voting. It merely sets out principles. As with any moral issue, bishops can explain, clarify, and expound on those principles.

    The situation is comparable to the application of the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Facilities. The ERDs set forth basic guidance and principles. The bishop has the responsibility of interpreting, clarifying, and even expanding upon those principles.

  19. Franklin Jennings permalink
    October 21, 2008 2:01 pm

    “Election-time ugliness — american style — colonizes every moment, every conversation. ”

    Might I suggest you reconsider how you live your life then? Because, in my experience, nothing could be farther removed from reality. In fact, in the last month, I have been asked 3 times who I will vote for, followed by why. All three were polite brief conversations, all with non-catholics, and 2 with people very much opposed to the Faith. I have also been involved in a couple of discussions among fellow members of the CL fraternity regarding our flier on politics for this election (which conversation and flier are notremotely “american style”.) Those discussions were intentional opportunities to share judgements on the position after some consideration.

    Perhaps you’ve found evidence here that your approach to reality is horrendously flawed? Consider it, please, for your own happiness.

  20. October 21, 2008 2:23 pm

    FC was not meant to be the final say on matters of voting. It merely sets out principles.

    Absolutely.

    As with any moral issue, bishops can explain, clarify, and expound on those principles.

    You forgot that they also seem to be able to ignore, revoke, and subvert those principles.

  21. ctd permalink
    October 21, 2008 2:48 pm

    Well, then you missed my point. Show me where they actually ignored, revoked or subverted those principles.

  22. Nathan permalink
    October 21, 2008 4:11 pm

    US Bishops set the record straight in yesterday’s statement on the importance of the abortion topic. “Our faith requires us to oppose abortion on demand and to provide help to mothers facing challenging pregnancies,” Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop William Murphy of Rockville Centre, N.Y., said in an October 21 statement. The bishops urged Catholics to study the teaching of the Church, rather than rely on statements and materials from outside groups and individuals… They voiced concern that the pending pro-abortion “Freedom of Choice Act” (S. 1173, H.R. 1964) in Congress would threaten strides made in limiting abortions.”

    See: http://www.usccb.org/comm/archives/2008/08-154.shtml

  23. October 21, 2008 4:56 pm

    Nathan, thanks for the link. I don’t see much there in terms of clarification, though. They articulate well the positions that Catholics should hold when it comes to Roe v. Wade and assistance for mothers. Nowhere do they directly address the issue of voting and they do not bind the consciences of u.s. Catholics in terms of who to vote for.

  24. nathan permalink
    October 22, 2008 2:32 pm

    I do find the current criticism of the few outspoken bishops rather confusing. When a few U.S.bishops went above and beyond the USCCB’s own collective statement on Iraq to declare “direct participation and support of this war against the people of Iraq is objectively grave evil, a matter of mortal sin”, they were praised as having “the balls to give pastoral weight to the Holy See’s judgment on the war, something that the USCCB was not willing to do.” I don’t understand why on some political topics bishops allowed to teach unilaterally from the pulpit and on other political topics they are not. Do you know why? I would love to understand this better. The mix messages on the role of the bishops is very confusing to me.

  25. October 22, 2008 3:17 pm

    I addressed this very question in the combox of another blog. I won’t give the link or the name of the blog because it’s not worth your time. But perhaps I will respond to that question in another post.

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