Hands of Change Hold the Catholic Church

By Brian Lyman
Bulletin [Norwich CT]
April 21, 2003

The Diocese of Worcester held a meeting last year to plan its future, and Bishop Daniel Reilly, head of the diocese and Norwich bishop from 1975 to 1994, took part.

Unlike previous gatherings, though, the clergy did not dominate.

"Someone said if we held a meeting on planning for the pastoral future of the parishes 30 years ago, it would have been primarily priests," Reilly said. "At the meetings this year, it was primarily lay people, which is a tremendous change."

With changes to the Catholic Church have come changes to the perception of the bishop's role. From a position of solid, if not supreme authority among congregations before World War II, a combination of missteps by the church and liberalizing attitudes in society have changed how parishioners view bishops.

Bishops, while always serving their religious roles as heads of dioceses, were often the political face for American Catholics, particularly when the majority of them were immigrants facing discrimination. After Nativists burned down several Catholic parishes in Philadelphia in 1844 and threatened to riot again in New York, Bishop John Hughes posted armed guards at a cathedral in Greenwich Village and warned the mayor Gotham would burn if a single parish was harmed.

While few prelates imitated Hughes' example, some, like New York's Francis Cardinal Spellman, wielded enormous power with governors and municipal officials, lobbying for everything from construction work to public funding for parochial education. Joseph Cardinal Ritter of St. Louis, despite fierce opposition among some Catholics, integrated the diocese's Catholic Schools in 1947.

The postwar period brought changes to Roman Catholicism in America, as Catholics gradually found their way into the mainstream. Bishops, particularly after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), began to collectively voice their feelings on social issues.

"One thing that's noticeable about the role of bishops as group, more than as individuals, is they take a stand on social issues and represent a moral voice," said Brian Stiltner, a professor of religious studies at the Hersher Institute for Ethics at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. "Whether people agreed or disagreed with them, they listened pretty well to the bishops on war and peace."

Reilly himself helped draft an influential 1983 pastoral letter, "The Challenge of Peace," which urged arms control and nuclear disarmament.

"To be that public, to be that national, to be that international, you probably never dreamed that at the seminary," Reilly said. "But it was a sign of how the Catholic Church was growing in the U.S., in that we had entrČe to Reagan's closer advisers."

Among Catholics, though, the church's authority began to slip. The recent spate of child abuse scandals, while another blow to the church's authority, wasn't the first undermining of it. "Humane Vitae," the 1968 encyclical issued by Pope Paul VI condemning birth control, has been traditionally thought to have driven many Catholics out of the church, but liberalizing attitudes in the '60s and '70s also helped reduce the church's aura among the faithful.

The church's cover-up of molestation by priests, though, has led to the most serious challenge to its authority in recent memory. Members of the Boston Archdiocese last year formed a group called "Voice of the Faithful," demanding a greater amount of involvement by laity in church decisions.

'Faithful' meeting nixed

James Loughlin, organizer of the Voice of the Faithful branch in the Diocese of Norwich, sought a meeting with Bishop Daniel Hart last year to discuss the abuse scandals, but was turned down. Loughlin, who lives in Waterford, said he was not surprised.

"It's quite typical of the behavior of so many of the American bishops," he said. "Things such as parish councils have been around a long time, and obviously they did nothing to prevent the pedophile abuse crisis that we have."

Parish councils were set up shortly after the Second Vatican Council, to encourage greater participation of the laity in church decisions, but often vary in activity. "There's very little attempt to look at what their role is, or communicate what their role is," Stiltner said. "The quality depends on a pastor willing to work with them as partner."

Diocesan councils set up in the wake of the abuse scandals, he said, might provide a model for future involvement.

Role 'undermined'

The bishop's role has also been undermined, Stiltner said, by increased skepticism of all public leaders, requiring the prelate to become a more cheerful individual. Bernard Cardinal Law, who resigned from the Boston Archdiocese last December, and John Cardinal O'Connor, who died in 2000, are cases in point.

"Both had strong opinions, but with O'Connor, it was felt there was integrity behind his positions, and he did not seem removed from people," he said. "Law was always dogged by a sense that he was removed and above, and when the crisis of integrity came to a head, he lost great respect among the people."

The decline in the number of men becoming priests has become a mounting challenge for the church. In the late 1970s, Reilly was able to turn several "mission" parishes in the diocese into full-fledged parishes. The key for planning now is to shuffling a shrinking number of priests among established parishes; the number of men training for the priesthood, at about 41,000 in 1960, had fallen to about 4,500 by 2000.

This has increased the church's dependence on lay members, and increased demands among some members of the laity for greater input in church governance. Voice of the Faithful, for example, has asked to for personnel and financial records from the Boston Archdiocese, calling for more "transparency."

Loughlin, who said he was "thankful" for the church's stand against the war in Iraq, said the group wanted to challenge the "secrecy" among the hierarchy. But he was pessimistic the culture could change, in light of Pope John Paul II's appointment of bishops who reflect his own belief in centralizing church administration.

"It will not be reversed," he said. "There's a tremendous number of bishops he has appointed. He appoints people who want to look to Rome for every move they make."

Reilly has made financial records available and removed priests facing "credible allegations" of sexual misconduct from active service, but he questioned the role of the organization, saying the call for records of living and dead priests was "irresponsible."

"They said it would lead to healing," he said. "If they saw themselves as lay people there, playing their proper role in church, trying to advise the leaders in the church as helpful, that's a very good thing and we're looking for that all the time."

Loughlin, for his part, wants to see more vigorous leadership from the hierarchy.

"I think things can be better than they are," he said. "I don't see the church leadership challenging people enough to meet the standards of Christianity."


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