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News from the U. S. Bishops, Whoever They Are

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 18, 2005

Three controversial issues surfaced at the U.S. Bishops’ November meeting in Washington: the death penalty, the rejection of Church teaching by Catholic politicians, and liturgical translations. All three are important; one would also think they are fairly straightforward. Yet the bishops clearly have no clue how to handle any of them, apparently because they don’t understand their own identity. Who are the bishops, anyway?

(1) The Bishops as Laymen

The only issue on which the bishops largely agree is the abolition of the death penalty. To this end, they overwhelmingly approved an eleven-page statement endorsing a campaign to eliminate capital punishment in the United States. Whether or not one agrees with this position, it staggers even the boldest imagination that the bishops should still be playing the part of laymen when the Church herself has so many pressing problems that only bishops can address. And make no mistake, the question of whether or not capital punishment should be abolished is a prudential judgment reserved to the laity.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn gave the game away after the vote when he stated in a press conference that while abortion and euthanasia can never be justified because they are “intrinsically evil”, Catholics may disagree with the bishops’ position on capital punishment without separating themselves from the Church. This is exactly true, and it immediately shows why the bishops should not be issuing statements on this topic. It is a usurpation of a role proper to the laity to proclaim this position and launch this campaign. And quite apart from the ecclesiological impropriety, what in actual practice have the bishops managed so well lately that we would want them to take over American politics?

(2) The Bishops as Laymen a Second Time

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington reported that his task force for the study of how to deal with Catholic politicians who reject Church teachings will soon meet with politicians from both major parties to seek their opinions. Of course, if the bishops were laymen, this approach would make perfect sense. Clearly, before deciding what to do about Catholics who reject Church teachings, laymen should consult widely. One might even expect them to consult with their bishops, as this would be the logical path to the right answer. (It goes without saying that the last thing they would expect their bishops to imply is that the litmus test is opposition to capital punishment.)

But wait, these are the bishops. They are obliged by their office to decide what to do about faithless political leaders and to implement a policy for the good of souls without regard for what the politicians on either side may think. They are obliged precisely not to make this question into a political question. This is the kind of pastoral and Church governance issue which bishops have a special charism to handle. In fact, it is the kind of issue on which they should consult with nobody except themselves. Perhaps, as a start to being bishops again, they could decide this question for themselves and instead ask the politicians what we ought to do about capital punishment.

(3) Uh, Well, The Bishops as Laymen Once More

Apparently a lively debate arose over recently-proposed changes to the English translation of the liturgy designed to make it more faithful to the definitive Latin text. The chairman of the Liturgy Committee reported that 53 percent of the bishops were in favor of the new text, while 47 percent opposed it. Defenders of the translation currently in use argued that ordinary Catholics would find the proposed text “stilted” or “unfamiliar”. One may presume that by “ordinary Catholics” they mean the laity. Funny how this keeps coming up.

There is, of course, a legitimate concern that liturgical and Scriptural texts should not be changed frequently or without grave reasons. Constant change reduces familiarity, diminishes Christian memory and, to put it in a single phrase, keeps the texts from settling into our bones. But this was an effort to restore meaning, and it raises grave suspicions to see the same bishops who have so long advocated destruction by linguistic tinkering now defending permanence against the onslaught of fidelity. A two-thirds vote is required to make a change. Perhaps the bishops could first give us fidelity and then see if they really need to worry about a groundswell of opposition to “stiltedness”.

Déja Vu All Over Again, Again

Real lay people might, of course, make all kinds of useful suggestions to their shepherds. The future of the death penalty might be decided by the voters of each state. Catholic politicians whose policies contradict Church teachings might be opposed at the polls. And astute listeners might find that a stilted, unfamiliar translation is actually different enough to sound sacred. In any case, what is neither stilted nor unfamiliar is the confident confusion with which the bishops so often handle their affairs. Or are they our affairs?

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