National Catholic Reporter ®

October 12, 2001                                                                                                        Vol. 1, No. 7

U.S. bishops at synod gently
advocate greater local authority

The American bishops are never going to make a splashy declaration of independence, for the very good reason that they don’t want to be independent. They are convinced Catholics for whom communion with the universal church is a core value. 

A certain kind of Catholic has long wondered when the American bishops will “stand up” to Rome. By that, they usually mean they wish the bishops would ignore Vatican directives on issues ranging from liturgy to the role of women.

One can see the logic. Theologically, bishops are successors to the apostles and have authority that does not depend on the Roman curia. Politically, the American church is perhaps the richest and most powerful in the world. One statistic makes the point. The Vatican’s annual operating budget is $203 million, while Sunday collections in the U.S. over two weeks bring in approximately $226 million. It would take American Catholics exactly two Sundays, in other words, to fund the Holy See for a year. Given the way money talks, it’s hard to imagine that Rome wouldn’t think twice about a showdown with a determined American episcopacy.

Yet the demand to “stand up,” in the sense of telling Rome where to get off, has always been a fantasy. The American bishops are never going to make a splashy declaration of independence, for the very good reason that they don’t want to be independent. They are convinced Catholics for whom communion with the universal church is a core value. 

That’s not to say, however, that many bishops aren’t sensitive to the need to find a better balance between Rome and the local churches. Without trumpet blasts and cavalry charges, two U.S. prelates have made this point at the Synod of Bishops now underway in Rome.

Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. bishops conference, spoke Oct. 3 in the name of the conference. He said the bishops had discussed the working document for the synod during their June meeting, and he was carrying their reactions.

Fiorenza briefly addressed inter-religious dialogue. The heart of his speech, however, was on the question of "subsidiarity," the principle that when decisions can be made at lower levels of authority, they should be. It’s a warrant for a more decentralized church.

Fiorenza acknowledged that there is a debate about the extent to which subsidiarity, a term drawn from secular politics, can apply to the church. As he observed, both Pius XII and Paul VI referred to the desirability of subsidiarity. He reminded listeners that the 1985 Synod of Bishops called for a study of subsidiarity that, so far as anyone knows, has never been carried out.

Obviously, Fiorenza believes the church has a problem with over-centralization. After noting that local churches can set the dates of some liturgical feasts, Fiorenza said, “There are other ways in which the Holy See can give to particular churches the authority to decide on matters which do not impinge on doctrinal issues but would be an expression of communion exercised in a new form of participation and collegiality.”

I spoke with Fiorenza after his speech. He told me that in the present climate, even seemingly trivial decisions such as changing the name of a parish, or consolidating two parishes into one, sometimes wind up being made in Rome.

“This should happen at the local level,” Fiorenza said, “without the possibility of being appealed.” Fiorenza said that all it takes to trigger an intervention in some cases is for “a few people to get upset,” who find a ready ear in some curial offices.

I asked if the recent case of Milwaukee’s Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who fought a long battle with the Vatican over plans to remodel his cathedral, was an illustration of what Fiorenza was talking about.

“I didn’t have it specifically in mind,” he said, “but it would certainly fit under this. As long as people follow the guidelines in the Roman Missal, all these decisions should be made locally.”

Cardinal William Keeler of Baltimore spoke Oct. 2 in defense of bishops’ conferences. He argued that the conferences allow bishops to do things together they could not accomplish separately, in areas ranging from catechetics to ecumenism. 

Keeler also cited publications of the U.S. bishops on social justice and peace. In the 1980s, documents on these topics from the American bishops had a wide international resonance, leading to Vatican fears about a parallel teaching authority. In 1998, Rome issued a ruling, Apostolos Suos, asserting that conferences have no teaching authority independent of individual bishops or the pope.

Keeler, however, did not shrink from concluding that the American documents imply “a teaching dimension of the ministry of the bishops involved in the communion of the bishops’ conference.”

Keeler also challenged the latest Vatican attempt to roll back the authority of the conferences in the field of liturgy. After the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), it was understood that conferences would oversee the translation of the liturgy into local languages and cultures. Recently, however, the Vatican has attempted to retake control of this process.

Keeler was not buying it. 

“Translation and decisions regarding the implementation of the Constitution of the Liturgy and subsequent Roman documents would be impossible without the collaboration of the bishops of a given area through their episcopal conferences,” he said. “It is the conference which remains the primary teaching authority for the legitimacy of language and suitability of cultural adaptation.”

Keeler ended by calling for “a more profound study of the role of episcopal conferences in support of the communion of the church.”

Granted, Fiorenza and Keeler did not deliver the rebel yell some might like to hear. But within the limits of ecclesial communion and sound political sense, they defended the local church in a way that should make Americans — and Catholics around the world who look to the U.S. hierarchy for leadership — proud. 

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is

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