Bishops Regaining Their Voice

Published February 9, 2005

The Catholic Difference

Catholic editors around the country voted “Catholics and politics” the #1 religious news story of 2004. Fair enough. Still, I’d argue that the most significant development in U.S. Catholic life in 2004 was a story-within-that-story: the story of individual bishops vindicated Vatican II by rediscovering their voices as authentic teachers of Catholic faith.

The Second Vatican Council was called, in part, to complete the work of the First Vatican Council. Vatican I had initially focused its attention on papal authority; the conversation was truncated, though, because the Franco-Prussian War interrupted things before the Council could discuss the authority of local bishops and its relationship to papal authority.Vatican I was suspended, never to be reconvened; the Papal States then collapsed; the Pope exiled himself inside the Leonine Wall as the “Prisoner of the Vatican.” Vatican II, it was thought, would finish what was left undone at Vatican I, giving a greater symmetry to Catholic ecclesiology – the doctrine of the Church – by addressing the nature and functioning of the episcopate in local churches around the world.

Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s dogmatic constitution on the Church, and Christus Dominus, the Council’s decree on the pastoral office of bishops, fulfilled that expectation. By teaching that bishops received the fullness of the sacrament of orders at their ordination, that the bishops form a global “college,” that every local bishop shares apostolic responsibility for the universal Church, and that the teaching office has “pride of place” among the bishop’s duties, Vatican II rejected any “branch office” model of the local churches, in which the local bishop is a junior office manager who simply implements directives from corporate headquarters. In the immediate aftermath of the Council, and in the argot of that era, it was often said that local bishops had been “empowered” by Vatican II.

Yet the past four decades in the United States saw a considerable disempowerment of local bishops as teachers of Catholic faith, as the national bishops’ conference assumed a new (and mediagenic) teaching function. That the bishops ought to speak in a unified voice on some matters, and on some occasions, is obvious: the most important example of effective, coordinated U.S. episcopal teaching has been on the life issues, as with the 1998 pastoral letter, “Living the Gospel of Life.” But as the bishops of the United States got accustomed to leaving the “big questions” to the bishops’ conference, a certain debilitation of the local bishop’s role as teacher took place – a debilitation that meshed neatly with the managerial concept of the episcopate promoted by the modus operandi of the national conference.

Then came 2004: in retrospect, a real emergency. The first Catholic nominee for the presidency in two generations was a man who had long defied Catholic teaching on issues the bishops themselves had declared primary in assessing a candidate’s fitness for office; to make matters worse, that same candidate was busily misrepresenting the Church’s pro-life position as a “sectarian” one that could not be “imposed” on a pluralistic society. The episcopal conference’s reaction to Catholic politicians’ claiming to be in full communion with the Church while voting for what the Pope had called the “culture of death” was, sadly, bureaucratic and managerial: form a committee. It quickly became clear that the committee would defer any serious action on “Catholics and politics” until after the 2004 election.

Then something dramatic happened. With the archbishops of St. Louis and Denver in the lead, local bishops around the country decided that, rather than waiting on the conference’s lethargic “process,” they would reclaim the teaching authority Vatican II had taught was theirs. Thus, while the bishops’ conference had nothing of consequence to say about “Catholics and politics” during the heat of the 2004 debate, Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver (to take but one example of the new trend) produced a magisterial op-ed essay for the New York Times, demolishing the notion of Catholic sectarianism and challenging the entire nation to bring conscience to bear in public life.

The episcopal voice has been rediscovered. Don’t expect newly assertive bishops to muzzle themselves anytime soon.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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