Thursday, September 18, 2003

In trying to identify viable responses to the current crisis, I find it necessary to work through certain conceptual structures. Caroline argues that “Talk of dissenters dissenting from dissent supported by priests and bishops is a clever way of handing me the dirty end of the stick and I won't touch it.” I don’t feel that I have that same luxury of refusal. I have to touch it. I have to toy with it and examine it and search for the loopholes that might allow fidelity to all that I believe. I believe that the numerous Catch-22’s so evident in our current dilemma are more apparent than actual. I would even go so far as to say that my sense of limited options is “a trick of the devil.“ I suspect that the answer I’m seeking, when I find it, will amaze me with its simplicity. But the search for it isn’t simple at all.

One might imagine that, in a perfect world, the pope would issue a single message and local bishops would simply re-iterate that message, much as the repeaters in a transmission line amplify the information coming down the line. Quite possibly, in an imperfect world, the Church could work this way; but I doubt that it was ever intended to do so. I think that, if we lived in a perfect world and all of our bishops had perfect judgment, a difference in message would still exist between the Holy Father, and individual bishops and from one bishop to the next. The world is too wide and the depth of Catholicism is too vast for a strict conformity to one man’s vision.

It helps me to think of each bishop as a direct heir to the original Apostles. Just as each of the apostles spoke with his own unique voice, each bishop comes to his office with his own perspective and his own priorities. Just as the various Apostles tailored their message to the people they hoped to convert, a modern bishop should have a sensibility for and responsiveness to the unique attributes of his local Church.

Obviously, the Pope speaks to the universal Church. In times as troubled as our own, his message may be quite particular and pointed. It deserves a broad audience and, in a perfect world, it would be promoted in every parish. The promotion of the Pope’s message doesn’t necessarily mean that the local Bishop would act merely as his mouthpiece. The local bishop has his own authority and his own responsibility to his local Church. Being intimately tied to the region, he might see the challenges impacting his people differently and possibly more clearly than the Pope…who after all is far away. Without negating the Pope’s message, a bishop, in gentle times, could quite legitimately place his emphasis on a different aspect of Church teaching. In this manner, the local Church would be moved to action by both messages.

In America, for example, the local bishops might lend much greater emphasis to “social justice” issues. After all, America is the richest and most powerful country in the world. Catholics are the richest segment of the American population. Materialism may be one of our greatest social problems and it does have spiritual dimensions. In addition, one might argue that American Catholics hold the purse strings of the global Catholic community. Assuming a perfect Church, it is well within reason, that a large number of American bishops would stress the responsibility implicit in such material wealth.

Beyond America, many Catholics are among the very poorest people and the very poorest nations in the earth. Others live under the most oppressive of governments or are only beginning to emerge from the shadow of communism. Some live in nations so damaged by corruption that the population can barely sustain itself. Huge portions of the Catholic population are being abused by various United Nations initiatives, the remnants of Communism or the onslaught of a virulent form of Islam. This large body of Catholics, living in quite different circumstances from our own, need to hear a different message. In one country, fidelity to the Faith may demand martyrdom. In another, it might require the rejection of the life-giving financial aid that attaches to population control programs. In each of these situations, the local bishop could particularize the requirements of the Faith to the demands of the world in which his people live.

Even within a diocese, local parishes may have radically different and equally legitimate agendas. While all Americans may be wealthy by Third World standards, wealth remains relative. A parish in the South Bronx would have different needs and might have different gifts than one in Scarsdale. Again, it makes sense that authority would to some measure devolve to the local pastor so that the Church might be most present in the world. At some earlier point, I made the argument that the hierarchical nature of the Church is topsy-turvy. Authority (and the concurrent responsibility) is always maintained at the lowest feasible level so that the Church might be most efficacious in the conversion of the world. This is a principle known as subsidiarity.

While the principle of subsidiarity would seem to contradict the rule of obedience, it is the necessary complement to obedience and can actually work to enhance Catholic submission to authority. In Catholic thought, authority is the necessary condition for liberty rather than its antithesis. And somewhere here lies the key…


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