Pope John Paul II will begin four days of talks with three dozen American prelates here today in an effort to reassert papal authority over the independent-minded U.S. Roman Catholic church.
Although relations between the American church and the Vatican are strained, they have improved of late, and spokesmen for both the Pope and the 36 American cardinals and archbishops insist that the encounter will not be confrontational.
In preparation for it, though, the pontiff has carefully chosen the players, written the program and arranged the playing field to his own liking.
The main theme in 10 give-and-take sessions will be the proper role of bishops, although other concerns of the American church may also be brought up, ranging from lay preachers to a greater role for women.
‘Forum Is Open’
“This is an occasion to discuss all issues,” papal spokesman Joaquin Navarro said Tuesday. “The forum is open.”
Officially, the unusual meeting is described as a summation of the Pope’s 1987 visit to the United States and of regularly scheduled visits here last year by groups of American bishops. The Vatican has titled it “Evangelization in the Context of the Culture and Society of the United States, With Particular Emphasis on the Role of the Bishop as the Teacher of the Faith.”
Bishops are the church’s spiritual and administrative supervisors at the diocesan level. The participants include the five active U.S. cardinals, from Chicago, Washington, Boston, New York and Detroit. Among the archbishops are Roger Mahony of Los Angeles and John Quinn of San Francisco.
Although the talk around the Vatican on Tuesday was of “a meeting of brothers,” the idea for it grew out of adversarial viewpoints. In 1986, American bishops called for a meeting with John Paul to discuss “the growing and dangerous disaffection” of American Catholics from the Holy See as a result of Vatican sanctions against a liberal theologian and an archbishop judged too lenient in enforcing church teachings.
After the 1987 papal visit to the United States and subsequent calls on the Vatican by American bishops, relations improved, and the bishops withdrew their request for a meeting.
The Pope, who has had similar encounters with feuding Dutch bishops and free-thinking Brazilians, decided the meeting was a good idea. The U.S. Bishops’ Conference then elected delegates to the meeting. But the Pope decided to choose the delegates himself and named the cardinals and archbishops who head the nation’s largest dioceses.
A suggested American agenda for the meeting would have focused on the role of the church in light of America’s singular cultural and secular traditions. Instead, the Vatican turned the focus more on the role of the bishops.
The American bishops have brought their own press spokesman, a priest, to Rome for the meeting, but he will not attend the sessions. The Pope’s spokesman, a layman, will attend. He will give all the post-meeting briefings.
Pope to Open Session
The Pope will open the meeting this afternoon with an address. Archbishop John May of St. Louis, president of the Bishops’ Conference, will respond. Then will come the first of the discussions on specific issues--all, according to American sources, selected by the Vatican and submitted to the U.S. bishops in the last few weeks.
At each session, a Curia cardinal will speak for the Vatican. He will be followed by an American prelate speaking for the U.S. church. Discussion is to follow, with the Pope in attendance.
The theme-setting opening session is entitled “The Bishop as Teacher of the Faith.” Cardinal Joseph A. Ratzinger, the conservative West German who heads the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is paired with Cardinal John J. O’Connor, the archbishop of New York. Vatican and American sources agree that John Paul is eager to re-emphasize his conviction that a bishop’s first priority must be as a teacher of the faith directly responsive to the Vatican.
The Pope reportedly mistrusts the emergence of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference as a teaching body and has no time for American theologians who, he feels, have too freely interpreted church dogma.
The Pope also dislikes the permissiveness that allows some American Catholics to follow some church teachings but to ignore others. The bishops will likely be lectured on the need to teach adherence to the Vatican rejection of artificial birth control.
When he met American bishops in Los Angeles in September, 1987, the Pope told them to combat “dissent from church doctrine.” Since then, he has also warned against allowing individual priests and parishes to set their own rules on such practices as how the sacraments are administered.
While in general approving the vigor of the American church, the Pope has been critical of what he considers the too-temporal attitude of American Catholics and their undue laxity where moral issues are concerned. The bishops may, for example, hear fresh papal complaint against too many annulments of marriages gone bad.