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Issue Date:  May 28, 2004

From the Editor's Desk

No longer one voice

I was one of those who, in recent years, thought it regrettable that the Vatican was insisting on diminishing the power of national conferences of bishops. There was a time when the conference spoke confidently with an American voice. Once in the mid-1980s, as the notion of the mandatum (Remember that? Essentially an approval from the local bishop to teach theology) was beginning to surface, I, along with other journalists, was invited to a meeting with the head of a major Catholic university in the Northeast. The university president told us we were making too big a deal of it, that once the Vatican was made to understand how the system in the United States worked, a compromise would be found on the mandatum. And so it proceeded until enough new bishops had been appointed who wanted nothing to do with such compromise. Their mission was to please Rome and to reclaim the individual voices of bishops. They would reassert the reality that no authority -- certainly not a national conference -- stood between the individual bishop and Rome.

The mandatum eventually became the law. Never mind that it had fallen from view in many academic circles, the larger point was made.

That point has become exceedingly clear in recent weeks. At the same time, I find myself changing my opinion about the loss of a unified conference voice. In that previous era, had bishops begun one-upping each other in the orthodoxy crusade (the most extreme declaration came recently from Bishop Michael Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colo., that anyone who votes for a candidate such as Kerry should refrain from receiving Communion) a few of the heavy hitters would have swung into action. They would have quieted the extremes by reinforcing the conference’s annual statement on political responsibility, traditionally a document of sufficient moderation to be acceptable as a practical political guide for most. Such statements don’t seem to matter much to some of the bishops today.

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In this new era some bishops seem intent on applying absolute rules and attendant punishments. It is fast becoming clear, however, that not all bishops hold the same absolutes in common. So John Kerry would be denied Communion in St. Louis and Philadelphia, but be welcomed in Cincinnati and Los Angeles; he and his followers presumably would be turned away in Denver and Colorado Springs but permitted to receive in Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Word has it that another East Coast bishop will announce on the side of tolerance sometime soon. Where would the pope land in this discussion? After all, as John Allen reported in his Jan. 2 column and as America magazine points out in its May 24 editorial, the pope himself, in February 2003, gave Communion to England’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, a pro-choice politician and an Anglican.

The payoff for U.S. Catholics is the public discussion that has gone on around the questions of whether Catholic politicians who take pro-choice positions can receive Communion and whether Catholics can, in good conscience, vote for them. The charade of old, that bishops spoke with a single voice, is exposed. It is true that some speak with a certitude that would call down heaven’s wrath on those who disagree. It is equally true, however, that bishops, archbishops and even cardinals don’t agree on strategy or the moral consequences of decisions and actions in the political arena. As we said in our editorial last week, that’s OK. We lay people have these kinds of discussions around our kitchen tables and in our workplaces all the time, with each other and with our non-Catholic brothers and sisters. We know that life doesn’t give us perfect candidates, not even the Catholic ones.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, May 28, 2004

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