Blunt Words from Cardinal Dulles

November 12, 2003 Note: Each week we will be bringing you a "New Oxford Note" straight from the venerable New Oxford Review. This week's originally appeared in the October 2003 issue.

If we were asked to name someone who is a model of tact, understatement, and restraint, Avery Cardinal Dulles would be the first person to come to mind.

So we were pleasantly taken aback by an article by Cardinal Dulles in First Things (Aug.-Sept.) on the question of reform in the Church. What is authentic reform? It is, says the Cardinal, "to give new and better form to a preexistent reality, while preserving the essentials. Unlike innovation, reform implies organic continuity; it does not add something foreign or extrinsic…. The goal is to make persons or institutions more faithful to an ideal already accepted." Does the Church in the U.S. need such reform? Dulles answers that the Church needs "far-reaching" reform. Well! Great balls of fire So perk up and listen to Dulles’s list of things that need to be reformed (we’ll cite only the key lines):

· "Religious illiteracy has sunk to a new low."

· "Dissent is rampant…."

· "The call for a new evangelization strongly issued by Paul VI and John Paul II has fallen, it would seem, on deaf ears."

· "Liturgical laws are often flouted."

· "Religious practice is falling off. Many fail to attend Mass on Sundays. The sacrament of Penance is neglected by the vast majority of Catholics. There is a serious dearth of vocations…."

· "The immoral behavior of Catholics, both lay and clergy, is a cause of scandal and defections…. The morality of Catholics all too often sinks below the standards commonly observed by Protestants and unbelievers."

These are blunt words. And Cardinal Dulles goes on: "Reforms ought to be undertaken under the leadership of the bishops. Unfortunately, however, the prestige of the bishops is today at a new low." But it’s worse even than that. Dulles says: "According to the job description in the official documents, the bishop ought to be a man of high culture, firm in faith, solid in orthodoxy, a paragon of holiness, graciously winning in personality, able to assess the talents and weaknesses of others, skilled at managing large corporations and conducting fiscal policy, eloquent in the pulpit, fearless under criticism, indefatigable, and always self-possessed." However, says Dulles, "Many of the candidates being elevated to the episcopate, it would seem, are men of ordinary abilities…." Ouch! It is highly unusual for a member of the hierarchy to say any such thing. Blunt words indeed So where to turn? Dulles would like to see the talents of the laity deployed for the benefit of the Church. "There is every reason why the voice of the faithful should be heard, provided it does not come from an adversarial stance as part of a scheme to seize power." Dulles wants "cooperation" between clergy and laity, and that means saying goodbye to "clericalism," but without introducing "laicism."

But if the Church is in need of "far-reaching" reform and if, as Dulles also says, many bishops are "incapable of measuring up" to their office, then cooperation between clergy and laity will inevitably involve some criticism — even "far-reaching" criticism — of the hierarchy by laymen. However, there are those Catholics, usually on the conservative side, who believe that the bishops and especially the Pope are beyond any sort of fraternal correction or criticism. Cardinal Dulles disagrees: "Since all the members of the Church, including the Pope and the bishops, are limited in virtue and ability, they may fail to live up to the principles of the faith itself. When guilty of negligence, timidity, or misjudgment, they may need to be corrected, as Paul, for example, corrected Peter (Galatians 2:11)."

Of course, who among us is a St. Paul? Yet and still, we do witness negligence, timidity, and misjudgment in the hierarchy, and therefore we must speak up — but without self-aggrandizement and with a loyal Catholic spirit.

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