Just Say 'No' to Episcopal Extremism

Yesterday the Vatican appointed a new auxiliary for Washington, D.C., forty-five year old Bishop-elect Barry Knestout. This is a big feather in the cap of D.C.’s Archbishop Donald Wuerl: Getting such a young auxiliary through Rome’s sometimes arcane appointment process is not easy. Wuerl, of course, has declined the invitation from conservatives and from some of his more extreme fellow bishops to refuse communion to pro-choice Democratic politicians.

Last week, Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, Missouri was a candidate for chairman of the U.S. Bishops Conference Communications Committee. Finn, it will be remembered, said those thinking of voting for Barack Obama should consider their eternal salvation. He garnered 97 votes, losing to Los Angeles’s Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala who received 129 votes. Zavala went on the record before the election to assert that Catholics need not be one-issue voters. Major committee chairmanships are rarely awarded to auxiliaries so Zavala’s victory was especially striking.


Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas made headlines last spring when he instructed that state’s Governor Kathleen Sebelius to abstain from receiving communion because of her pro-choice stance. At the conference, Naumann argued persistently for the entire episcopal bench to adopt his "no communion" policy for pro-choice politicians. Naumann was a candidate for the Bishops’ Committee on Pro-Life Activities. He lost to Houston Cardinal Daniel DiNardo 165-59.

To be clear: All bishops are opposed to abortion. That is not the issue. At issue is how the bishops should conduct themselves in the public square. Bishops hate to disagree in public so you are not likely to hear more moderate bishops publicly say what must be said. But, yesterday a Vatican source said it on background and pointed out that I can say it in the light of day: These bishops who want to turn the altar rail into a battlefront in the culture wars, these clergy who wish to drag the Church’s teaching into the partisan arena, these prelates who believe that their approach to a complicated legal issue is the only approach, they are extremists and they are a minority within the hierarchy. They stand outside our American traditions of political behavior and outside our Catholic traditions of episcopal governance. They are Pharasaic in their skimpy appraisal of the super-abundance of God’s mercy and delusional in their assessment of the political landscape.

The ad limina visits have been delayed until 2010, so the Holy See will not speak comprehensively to the American hierarchy until then. But the Holy Father would be well advised to make a statement in his selection of new bishops: No Pharisees. And, the USCCB deserves credit for sending the same statement in their selection of new committee chairmen: No extremists.



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8 years 11 months ago
From your lips to Gods ears (or rather from your modem to God's eyes).
8 years 11 months ago
So, as I understand it, you talked to some third level official at the Vatican to get the Vatican view. On the other hand, the former Archbishop of St. Louis says that pro-abortion politicans like John Kerry should not receive communion, writes an historical-canonical-theological article that proves that the Church has always upheld such a pasotoral practice as necessary for protecting the Eucharist and the common good, after which a first level official, the Pope, makes him the head of the Apostolic Signatura. Yeh...I think you've nailed it.
8 years 11 months ago
As a lawyer now going through RCIA and studying Catholic history, I am intrigued by how much the positions of some of the more extreme and vocal bishops remind me of those who espoused the Donatist heresy in the 300s and 400s, A.D. The Catholic Encylopedia article on them, as well as a Vatican-approved history book I'm reading on that era described the Donatists as rigorists who taught that the Church was to be one of saints not sinners, and those who had hidden or denied their faith during the Roman persecutions should not be welcomed back without rebaptism, and further that sacraments performed by priests who were in sin were invalid. The Donatists were defeated by the ''forgiving'' Roman Catholic church who demanded only confession and penance of those who had sinned and wanted to return to the church. Of course, the issues are different today, and there are many distinctions in the analogy, but I think the essential comparison is an extreme, rigorist, and fundamental understanding of Church teaching that allows for no varying moral judgments--a black and white understanding of complex issues. This is not to say the bishops should not strongly promote the Church's views on life, but to use harsh rhetoric and simplistic logic and reasoning only drags the Church universal closer into partisanship and belies the strong intellectual underpinnings of the Church's teachings that attracted me to the Catholic faith in the first instance. The Donatists lost to Rome, which was back by the Emperor at that time, but held on in North Africa to varying degrees until the Muslim conquest in the 600-700s. As we see even today, rigorism and fundamentalism are very appealing to many. But Donatism was defeated.
8 years 11 months ago
Finally! At last a sign from your source that the Vatican realizes that most Catholics in this country are not Wanderer readers, we don't want the church to become a version of the Southern Baptists, and we don't want bishops doing James Dobson imitations. Cardinal George’s statement at the bishops’ conference set exactly the tone bishops SHOULD offer. He was forthrightly, unapologetically against abortion. Yet he pointed out that Barack Obama was elected because of the economy, not his stand on abortion. (None of the condescending references to concerns about the economy or the war that some of our wouldbe Dobsons offered.) If, the cardinal added, Obama misread his election as a mandate to push the Freedom of Choice Act, or move to require Catholic hospitals to provide abortions, the church would fight him every step of the way, as it should. As I said, the proper tone. I also suspect that between the economy, ending the war, and other high priority concerns, it will be a long time, if ever, before the Freedom of Choice Act is pushed in any serious way. As for your descriptions of certain bishops as ''pharasaical'' in their approach to religion, and ''delusional'' in their political views- right on!
8 years 11 months ago
Please name the Vatican source.
8 years 11 months ago
You say, "Zavala went on the record before the election to assert that Catholics need not be one-issue voters." I was attending a Jesuit University in 1973 when Roe vs. Wade made the abortion issue a major issue. What I remember and what was a great relief to the consciences of many including myself was the statement backed by many Jesuits that one, "Need not be a one issue voter". In fact,it sort of morphed into, "One should not be a one issue voter". I repeated this mantra to myself and others for many years. However, what is missing in all this is that some issues are much more important and fundamental to society than other issues. All issues are not equivalent as the mantra seems to imply. My take is that the "extremist bishops" are trying to emphasize this in regards to abortion. Are they right and even if they are, is their method the best approach; these are the questions for me.
8 years 11 months ago
Bruce Barker: Burke was promoveatur ut amoveatur,that's he was kicked off S. Louis. Yeh...I think you've nailed it.
8 years 11 months ago
Abortion is only a major issue because of the way it has been exploited by the right wing. The Pro-Lifers, including Bishops such as Burke, are running scared - as they should be. Until they actually offer a coherent plan, they will become increasingly irrelevant. There was no "Right to Life" prior to Roe - abortion was punished with a fine. Creating one is a noble goal, but it must be done with care and deliberation - not the hysteria shown to date by the movement. Of course, doing so would be seen as compromise with evil, even if it is nothing of the kind. Most pro-life Catholics have figured out that until there is actually a PLAN in place which really deals with these issues THERE CAN BE NO OBLIGATION TO SUPPORT THESE CANDIDATES AND OPPOSE THOSE WHO DISAGREE. Promising to punt to the states does not qualify - since it would upset the balance of the federal-state relationship in a way that is unacceptable. It also says nothing about HOW a right to life would be granted at the state level. The dirty little secret of the pro-life movement is that its solutions don't poll well. This is why it does not mention them. Where I come from, this is called dishonesty. You should probably take what I say to heart, especially if you disagree - because until you do it will be impossible to reach people like me - the emerging Democratic Catholic majority.
8 years 11 months ago
"The Donatists were defeated by the 'forgiving' Roman Catholic church who demanded only confession and penance of those who had sinned and wanted to return to the church," says JP Melkus as he moves the goalposts for the successors of those bishops. And here we see the continuity of the Church. None of these supposed "extreme" bishops are asking anything other than the confession and penance of those who have sinned. One could arguably say today's "extremists" are those who would have the bishops be keep mum rather than fulfil their responsibilities by warning their flock that there are grave spiritual consequences for receiving the Eucharist unworthily. It would be nice though if they made these warnings on a whole host of sins and not just the political ones.
8 years 11 months ago
I would like to remind the reader posting the second comment that the pope himself, when he was still prefect of the CDF stated that it is fine for a Catholic to vote for a pro-choice politician as long as the vote is not cast because of the pro-choice stance. Also, the former Archbishop of St. Louis (Archbishop Burke) was most likely moved to Rome because of the constant scandal he was causing within his local Church by constantly excommunicating people and imposing his conservative, pre-Vatican II agenda on his diocese.
8 years 11 months ago
Thanks for this article. My ration of the manna of hope for the day...
8 years 11 months ago
I am really struggling with the views expressed in your magazine. I have not yet decided to cancel my subscription, but it looks like I should reconsider my decision. As someone who benefits from a Jesuit high school education, your magazine's bias is painful for me to witness. The purpose of denying communion is not to punish the politician. It is to make Church teaching clearer to the faithful. Many Catholics believe that abortion is acceptable. When Catholic pro-abortion politicians receive communion, it is a source of scandal for the faithful. It reinforces the errant views of so many Catholics regarding this issue. Working for peace and working to help the poor are what we are called to do. However, while watching your magazine's apparent attempts to put abortion in a box in the corner and focus exclusively on other issues, I am reminded of Mother Teresa's words at the National Prayer Breakfast in 1994: "Many people are very, very concerned with the children of India, with the children of Africa where quite a few die of hunger, and so on. Many people are also concerned about all the violence in this great country of the United States. These concerns are very good. But often these same people are not concerned with the millions who are being killed by the deliberate decision of their own mothers. And this is what is the greatest destroyer of peace today - abortion which brings people to such blindness." While nearly 50 million unborn children have been killed in this country since 1973, America publishes articles complaining about bishops who want to end the scandal caused by pro-abortion politicians receiving communion? If it were 50 million killed in concentration camps in this country, what would be your reaction? If it were 50 million immigrants killed trying to cross the border, what would be your reaction? What if elected officials called themselves Catholic and yet supported such killing? Would you protest vigorous efforts to correct the effects of these leaders' actions on the views of the faithful? Abortion should not be separated from justice issues. It should be the primary justice issue. Where is the justice in an unborn child that is dismembered in the womb?
8 years 10 months ago
No one ever said abortion is not a justice issue. Many times, abortion is a symptom of greater economic and social injustice. The quarrel people have has to do with solutions, not goals.


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