Bishop Accountability
  11/21/03 3:11PM

Dear Father Landry:

I would like to respond briefly to the letter you and two priest colleagues published (Zenit 03111936) on the Voice of the Faithful. I would be grateful if you could share this letter with them.

I had the privilege of addressing a VOTF group on the Cape last spring. At that time, I wrote Bishop Coleman, whom I had met at the Stonehill College graduation a few weeks earlier. I offered to meet with him to discuss VOTF if he thought that would be helpful. Unfortunately he did not respond.

I cannot deal here with all the statements made in the letter, but I would like to make three points.

First, your letter does not honor the sincere effort which the VOTF and its leaders have made from the beginning to make clear their commitment to the church and their determination to work in and with and not apart from the community of faith and its leaders. Those bishops who have met with the VOTF have affirmed that point. Dr. Post and his colleagues have worked hard to avoid association with "well known and oft-quoted critics of the Holy Father who publicly dissent from the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church." They have distanced themselves from the groups associated with Call to Action, which many regard as dissenters. When critics assaulted them for the choice of speakers at their national assembly in Boston in the summer of 2002, they disassociated the organization from a European reform group whose representative addressed the gathering. (I spoke at that meeting and assume you did not include me among the dissenters). In their most recent statements regarding their controversial call for "structural change" (not "cultural change" as your text states) the organization has made clear that it has in mind improving parish and diocesan pastoral councils and finance committees in order to bring about greater transparency, accountability and shared responsibility, goals altogether in line with Vatican II teaching and much of post Vatican II pastoral practice, as you well know. If you ask why a group is needed to promote these goals, you need only assess the state of these structures in most New England dioceses.

Second, your all of nothing approach to Catholic teaching allows no distinctions and amounts to a kind of papal fundamentalism. It does not allow for a hierarchy of truths, for distinctions between doctrinal and moral teaching, or between doctrine and discipline. Your position makes a joke of all calls for dialogue within the church, or even serious reflection on the genuine tension between many church teachings and pastoral practice. Readers of your letter would be astonished to learn that the Holy Father himself has called for serious dialogue about the role of the Papal office in the life of the church, and that one of our most respected retired bishops, Archbishop John Quinn, has responded with a scholarly discussion which would seriously modify your position. Doctrine and moral teaching arise from and always return to the life of the church as it is lived out by the communities of faith, as you well know. Your position regarding teaching would reduce theology to reflection on doctrinal formulations approved by Vatican authorities and catechetics to head nodding recitation of the catechism. In his ground breaking encyclical Pacem in Terris Blessed John XXIII drew attention to the gap between the extraordinary advances in the technical education of the Catholic people, and their religious education, which remained, he said, "at an elementary level." Vatican II's calls for the universal pursuit of holiness, for shared responsibility for the life and mission of the church, and for an apostolate aimed at the transformation of our world, all arose from and depended upon an adult church of responsible, educated, thoughtful priests, religious and lay people. Your approach would cancel out the Holy Fathers appeal for a dialogue of faith and culture, reserving it for the professionals who help write Papal and Vatican pronouncements. Recently a Vatican reporter asked an official why they were writing an official statement on a controversial question on which the church is clearly divided: because the American bishops asked for it, he responded. Now we can see why: if a group, even bishops, does not have a Vatican imprimatur on any question, they will never satisfy people like yourselves. One is reminded of the nineteenth century English convert who yearned for a daily encyclical to guide his daily reading of the London Times.

Third, and by far most important, your letter, professing to speak on behalf of the priests of the diocese of Fall River, expresses no humility and less responsibility. Surely the crisis we have lived through is one that touches all of us who were and are part of the church. You and I were not on the moon when children were abused, when priests covered up for their brother priests and when bishops failed to provide leadership or even in some cases failed to protect the integrity of the local church--and when we lay people deferred to bishops and priests and failed to ask tough questions when we served on parish and diocesan councils and committees. Fall River, like Worcester, has had some terrible cases, so bad that all of us react with genuine horror. But why did we not notice? Why did we not act when the stories broke over a decade ago, act to make sure that our diocese and our national church acted appropriately? And where were our priests between January 2002, when the latest crisis broke around us here in New England, and this moment? I have seen many cases in the region of compassion and a yearning for justice on the part of individual priests, almost none from presbyteral councils or diocesan pastoral councils.

The most important truth about Voice of the Faithful is that it is composed of a very few lay men and women who have attempted as best they can to take responsibility for their church. They are amateurs at our brutal church politics--surely they can be forgiven a few mistakes. They are remarkable because they are so unique. The most ardent reformers apart from those you would dismiss as dissenters take the position best illustrated by a cover of Commonweal magazine featuring a large ear under the heading "Are the Bishops Listening?" Like you the editors and most commentators seem to believe that only the bishops can act--the best the rest of us can do is speak up and wait. I don't have to tell you that the presbyterate shares fully the responsibilities of the bishop. How have you exercised those responsibilities in this crisis? That is not a self-righteous question but one you should ask before accusing VOTF of being irresponsible. The Voice of the Faithful is composed of people who took seriously our talk over forty years that our church is the people of God, that we are the church, and that we share responsibility for the life and work of the church. They are striving to help resolve the crisis because they, unlike most of us for far too long, they believe that they are already responsible for what has happened: that is why they have to take some responsibility for responding to victims, supporting beleaguered priests and seeking reforms that will allow all of us to better share responsibility in the future. That, my friends, is why they are important, and why they deserve at least a few words of respect before you demand that they accept what we have as the best we can do.

Peter Steinfels in his recent middle of the road book says that we have a crisis in front of us as American Catholics and we would have had a huge crisis even if there had never been a sex abuse scandal. We will flourish or we will gradually erode on the basis of the choices that each of us makes in the next few months and years. Let’s listen to one another, let’s try to find the common ground that can support our common life. Let’s pray for each other that we will find the grace and wisdom to be the presence of Christ--together--here in our part of the vineyard.

David O'Brien
College of the Holy Cross
Worcester Mass 01610


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