|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
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
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
“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,
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
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
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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