U.S. Bishops Ask Pontiff for Vatican Understanding

Times Staff Writer

In an outspoken appeal for Vatican understanding, American bishops warned Pope John Paul II on Wednesday that an authoritarian church alienates U.S. Roman Catholics who “consider that the divine right of bishops is as outmoded as the divine right of kings.”

An extraordinary four-day meeting between 36 American prelates and the Pope to discuss the changing role of bishops in the United States opened with powerful statements from two U.S. delegates challenging the Vatican to better comprehend the American church as an integral part of a singular pluralistic society.

“As U.S. bishops, we value highly the founding principles of our country and its democratic traditions,” Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, co-moderator of the meeting, told a press conference. “I do not see these freedoms or their exercise as being in conflict with our faithfulness to the universal, Catholic tradition that is ours.”

Bernardin’s remarks and a subsequent address by Archbishop John L. May, president of the National Conference of Bishops, signaled the reluctance of American prelates to quietly accept dictates from the Vatican. The meeting is advertised by both sides as non-confrontational, but there were clear differences of opinion Wednesday as the Americans made plain they would be heard.


“Today I think the Vatican understands how the Polish government must feel when Lech Walesa preaches solidarity,” observed a theologian close to the Vatican.

Behind the scenes, there was scuffling over how much of the proceedings should be made public.

The Americans argued for public release of remarks that individual U.S. bishops have prepared for 10 give-and-take sessions with the Pope. A cardinal from the Curia, the Vatican’s administrative arm, will also address each session, but the Vatican had planned for its spokesman to summarize the sessions for reporters without publicizing either American or Vatican texts. Whether the remarks will be officially forthcoming as the meeting progresses was unresolved Wednesday night.

‘Clash of Cultures’


“The question of how much to say publicly is a good example of the clash of cultures that is the context for the meeting: American openness versus Vatican reticence,” said an American priest who has lived in Rome for a long time.

On a rainy afternoon, the Pope welcomed the Americans in a brief address calling for “a truly open exchange which aims to strengthen our partnership in the Gospel.” Speaking in English, John Paul praised the bishops’ “pastoral zeal” and urged them to be steadfast in “bringing the Gospel message to a world that does not often readily accept it.”

Then, with the Pope listening, came a bellwether opening session entitled “The Bishop as Teacher of the Faith,” with prepared remarks by Curia Cardinal Joseph A. Ratzinger and New York’s Cardinal John J. O’Connor. No Vatican account of the session will appear before this afternoon.

“The atmosphere was very good. There were no criticisms; it was not an ‘us and them’ kind of thing,” an American participant told The Times on Wednesday night after the first session ended. He asked not to be identified directly.

In his remarks, delivered in Italian, Ratzinger--who is known around the Vatican as the “deputy Pope"--stressed a bishop’s responsibility to evangelize even when his message is not popular or his audience anxious to listen, the American said.

O’Connor, for his part, spoke of the difficulties of evangelization in a secular culture, particularly one as wed to change and mobility as the United States. The United States, he told the Pope, is a country where people expect to have a voice in the affairs of their institutions, including their churches.

Sixteen American bishops, but none from the Curia, took part in a discussion that followed, the participant said.

“The Pope listened intently. He probably will not speak again himself until the end of the meeting,” the American said.


The conference aims to reduce tensions between an independent-minded American church and a traditionalist Vatican headed by a strong, obedience-demanding Pope. Many American practices, ranging from accepting homosexuals as practicing Catholics to group absolution of sins and a tacit acceptance of artificial birth control, irritate Vatican conservatives.

‘Reality Is Distant’

“There is almost bound to be the frustration of mutual incomprehension. For a Polish Pope and the largely Italian Curial staff, the American reality is distant. We, in turn, have as much difficulty understanding other peoples as they have understanding us,” said Father Terry Tekippe, a New Orleans professor of theology who is spending a year in Rome as a visiting scholar.

The two addresses by American delegates made public Wednesday stressed the open nature of the secular democratic society in which Catholicism has found root in the United States.

“There is total freedom of thought in public educational and cultural media, and any form of censorship is abhorred,” Archbishop May told the Pope in his opening address. He continued: “Authoritarianism is suspect in any area of learning or culture. Individual freedom is prized supremely. Religious doctrine and moral teaching are widely judged by these criteria.

“To assert that there is a church teaching with authority, binding and loosing for eternity, is truly a sign of contradiction to many Americans who consider the divine right of bishops as outmoded as the divine right of kings,” said May. His phrasing is from the Gospel of St. Matthew (16:19) in which Jesus, establishing his church, tells St. Peter: “Whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.”

May stressed the size and vigor of the 53-million member American church and the diversity of the nation in which it labors. American bishops have long sought to persuade the Vatican that Catholic evangelization in the United States must take into account the country’s particular cultural context.

The Vatican, with a more global view, has proved unyielding. Said a Vatican loyalist after reading the opening speeches: “In the context of the universal church, the Americans are a small cultural minority. That kind of talk will not get a sympathetic hearing here.” “


In his address, Bernardin stressed the openness in which the American church operates. “We proclaim the Gospel in a communications-oriented society in a world that has become ever smaller. Because of the freedom of speech and the freedom of press inherent in our society, and because of the importance accorded to the church within the U.S. by our fellow Americans, discussions that at one time might have been considered intramural have significant repercussions throughout the world.”


The Vatican meeting between American bishops and Pope John Paul II is intended to define the proper role of bishops. Among the specific issues likely to arise:

The Vatican’s rejection of artificial birth control. The Pope will likely insist that the bishops demonstrate greater adherence to a policy disregarded by most American Catholics, including many priests.

The role of the increasingly outspoken National Bishop’s Conference. The Pope believes that the bishops should deal individually with Rome.

In some American archdioceses, the use of group absolution and the acceptance of homosexuals as practicing Catholics.

The influence of American theologians who, John Paul believes, have too freely interpreted church dogma.

The fact that some individual priests and parishes are allowed to set their own rules on such practices as how the sacraments are administered.

The annulments of marriages gone bad, on which the Vatican considers the American church’s standards too lenient.

The growing pressure for lay preachers and a greater role for women in the American church.