Monsignor Harry J. Byrne, JCD * * * Comment/

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January 31, 2009


In my last blog post, I tried to make the point that as Catholics we accept the voice of the Pope on the narrow range of basic matters of faith and morals, but feel free to comment, or even to disagree, on his selected priorities and on polices and practices that he has established on his own human terms. At issue was his canceling of the excommunication of four schismatic bishops, who had rejected the ecclesiology of Vatican Council II, with one of them espousing anti-Semitic views. I was unhappy that Benedict XVI had received back the four dissidents without their rejecting anti-Semitism and and agreeing to accept the documents of Vatican II. The response to my blog was, for the most part, favorable. A few respondents, however, were dismayed at my criticism of Benedict. After all, he is now our Pope! We must go along with the current pope in all matters!

Is that really true? In that blog, I pointed out that John XXIII had assembled bishops from around the world in Vatican Council II, which, in its document "Nostra Aetate", was a landmark in forging congenial relations with the Jewish community. John had endeared himself personally to the Jews by many of his actions. He had greeted a Jewish group, saying, "I am Joseph, your brother." As a papal nuncio prior to becoming pope, he had authorized the issuing of Catholic baptismal certificates to help Jews escape the Nazi death traps.

John Paul II had established good relations with the Jewish community from his days in Poland and on through his papacy. Among other things, he had established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel; had visited Israel and prayed at the Western Wall. He was not the collegially minded John XXIII, but was noted for dominating the many Synods of Bishops, to the diminution of the influence of the gathered bishops. He has also been perceived as unhappy with some of the Vatican II reforms. He has, to some degree, diminished the role of the laity in the liturgy. He has weakened the collegial influence of the national conferences of bishops, requiring unanimous consent by the bishops to its policy conclusions. Without unanimity, the matter goes to him!

My blog post pointed out the different policy position of these three popes on relations with the Jews and on their different attitudes toward collegial policy-making. I suggested that the faithful were quite free to choose which of the popes they preferred in light of their relationship towards the Jewish community and on their attitude towards the reforms of Vatican II, especially regarding collegiality.

Yesterday in his N Y Times column, Peter Steinfels, took my thought a big step forward. He reported the anger of much of the Jewish world at Benedict's recent reception of four dissident bishops, one of whom has public espoused anti-Semitic views. He reported the concern of many of the faithful that the four dissidents, each of whom had separated from the Church by rejecting Vatican II, had been un-excommunicated without making any change in their dissenting views. Steinfels suggests that this dissident, ultra-conservative group has received a welcome that has not been and will not be extended to the non-schismatic faithful, who espouse liberation theology or the ordination of women. The columnist goes on to say that "the further problem, for the Catholics, no less than for the Jews, is puzzlement about the pope and his leadership".

Steinfels goes further. He wonders why not one of our 433 bishops have voiced some misgivings about Benedict's action. Bishop Wilton Gregory, a USCCB official, has merely said that Catholics were "embarrassed" by this episode. But Steinfels continues, "No bishop, it appears has added a public word of doubt about the wisdom of Pope Benedict's action or wondered out loud how it came about".

Sic dixit Steinfels! He gives facts and his opinion. But the larger question lies ahead:"Why?" Is a bishop like a corporate officer or a branch manager, who can say nothing critical about the boss? Where is the much touted, but ignored, collegiality? We know that bishops are regularly promoted to bigger dioceses and power positions, if - an important "if" - the boss likes them. Crude? Yes. But that's the answer to why bishops don't speak up. It's in the structure and in the atmosphere. What to do about it? Comments welcome!

January 26, 2009


We Catholics accept a Pope's declaration on matters of faith and morals. Some Catholics will accept anything the Pope says or does as unquestionably "dignum et justum" - appropriate, just and true. For example, when John Paul II appointed Cardinal Bernard Law, driven from Boston by his priests and people for his history of covering up and reassigning pedophile clerics, such papal enthusiasts quickly justified his act, despite its calamitous public relations effects. After all, he's the Pope; he's the boss! Think with the Church!

A few days ago, Benedict XVI removed the excommunication of four schismatic bishops, an excommunication placed on them by John Paul II. The schismatic bishops had not changed their views; the policy of Benedict changed the policy established by John Paul II. If a papal enthusiast, whom do you applaud, Benedict or John Paul? If Pope's disagree, which one do you accept and precisely why?

Benedict's welcome back to the dissidents dismayed those Catholics who had been energized by the reforms of Vatican II. These Lefebrist dissidents had totally rejected that Council and had shown no signs of a new acceptance. Benedict's welcome back without requiring their repudiation of their views says something about Benedict's attitude towards the Council. George Weigel, a strong "pro pontifice nostro" type has observed that "It is not easy to see how the unity of the Church will be enhanced unless the Lefebrists accept Vatican II's teaching on the nature of the Church, on religious freedom, and on the evil of anti-Semitism, explicitly and without qualification." Benedict has shown other indications of his movement away from the words and spirit of Vatican II. He has been following the line of JP II in diminishing the role of the eucharistic ministers. Women are still prohibited from being formally installed as Lectors. He has authorized in strong terms the use of the Tridentine Mass, encouraging the faithful to request it from their bishops, and if denied, they may appeal to Rome.

Benedict's welcome reception of these four dissident Lefebrists, one of whom, Bishop Williamson, has denied the existance of the Holocaust of the Jews and others from the Lefebrist group, who have manifested anti-Semitic attitudes, prompted strong objections from major Jewish figures. The Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish spokespersons contrasted Benedict's attitude towards the Jews with that of the more brotherly John Paul II, who had established diplomatic realtions with Israel. Benedict had already raised the ire of the Jewish community by restoring a Holy Week prayer that called for "the enlightening of the Jews". John XXIII established cordial relationships with the Jewish community. In the 1960s, he greeted a Jewish delegation, saying "I am Joseph, your brother".

These three popes have a commonality in the truths of the faith. But each has his own priorities. Benedict seems intent on doctrinal unity and has expressed a desire for a smaller Church, but one more intensely Catholic in its identity. He has harked back to the Catholic identity of the old Europe and would seem to favor its restoration. He seems unconcerned about broad public reaction to his views as seems the case here with the Jews and in 2006 with Muslims, when in an address he quoted a medieval scholar, who said that Islam brought things "evil and inhuman". He had not anticipated the angry Muslim response and later apologized. Does he fail to consult with others who could broaden his view of the world to which he speaks? Cardinal Walter Kasper, the liaison for Vatican-Jewish relations, said that he had not been consulted by Benedict about the welcome of the Lefeborists, and thus seemed unprepared for the strong Jewish reaction.

John Paul II was not a practioner of listening to others. In his "Exhortations", summing up the work of the many Synods of Bishops during his regime, he clearly projected his own vision of the Church, not that of the assembled bishops. This was most notable in his "Exhortations" after the 1998 Synods for Asia and for Oceania. Most notable for relying on others was the beloved John XXIII in his convocation of the world's bishops for Vatican Council II. It produced documents that touched every phase of church life and that would reenergize the Church. John's successor, Paul VI attempted to follow through on the path of consultation and collegiality by establishing the Synods of Bishops. But his successor, John Paul II, as has been pointed out, did not see things that way. He and Benedict, despite their glowing statements about Vatican II, have clearly been attempting to bypass its words and challenge its true spirit, thus consolidating a single voice that needs little input from outside. Each stands as a single figure and sits in solitary judgment over the work of the world's bishops, united with their Pope.

Three popes, a common faith; three popes, different priorities. The faithful share that common faith. But many of us would choose John XXIII and his priority: listening to the voices of a diverse world-wide Church! Feel free to pick a Pope!