As Pope John Paul II looked on, senior Vatican cardinals Thursday ordered U.S. bishops to combat the secular influence of American society on religion by being tougher teachers of their faith.
On the second day of an extraordinary conference with the Pope, the three dozen American prelates and members of the Vatican Curia got down to theological brass tacks. American preoccupation with the difficulties of evangelization in a free-thinking democratic society was countered by Vatican insistence that the bishops strengthen their resolve rather than accommodate it to the secularism of modern America.
“The Vatican rejects the pick-and-choose kind of K mart Catholicism so prevalent in the United States,” Father John Navone, a Jesuit theologian at the Pontifical Gregorian University, said. “It is telling the bishops their job is to communicate the real things, not fashionable counterfeits.”
Cardinal Joseph A. Ratzinger, who as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the Vatican’s principal theological disciplinarian, warned the Americans against allowing their teaching authority to be usurped by academic theologians, or their leadership role reduced to that of mere “spiritual administrators.”
He told the bishops they must reimpose their authority over dissent within the church, if necessary risking even greater dissent in the process. A summary of Ratzinger’s theme-setting remarks, made at Wednesday’s opening session, was made public Thursday. Americans had hoped to publicize the full texts of all the speeches at the 10 working sessions, but the Vatican demurred, preferring one-page summaries and press briefings by a spokesman for each side.
“Today’s theologians have an influence not only in the environment of scientific research and university teaching, but through the mass media bring to the public arena a concert dissonant to the point that their voices drown out that of the bishop evangelist,” Ratzinger warned. “In many parts of the world, theologians have taken the place of bishops as teachers, engendering a growing insecurity and disorientation.”
Ratzinger, who is sometimes called the “deputy Pope,” though not to his face, told the bishops: “It is necessary to risk being unpopular because of the truth. . . . It is worth suffering for the truth. In the deepest sense of the word, the evangelist must also be a martyr.”
Archbishop Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, one of the American delegates, said: “To me, the important message of Cardinal Ratzinger’s remarks was stressing the bishop’s key role as messenger of the Gospel. We must recognize the danger in modern times of simply becoming managers. The Vatican is challenging us to make the message relevant and appealing . . . how to get the attention of people reaching for another Bud Light.”
Three sessions Thursday dealt with the role of priests as agents of evangelization, the pastoral role of bishops in religious life and a discussion of liturgy and the sacraments, with emphasis on confession. The Vatican, resolute for one-on-one confessions, makes no secret of its dislike of a growing American tendency toward general or group absolution.
“Thursday was a great day,” Mahony said. “Particularly the discussion on priests gave us a very useful overview.”
After formal presentations, one by an American and one by a member of the Curia, the Vatican’s administrative arm, the prelates discuss the issues in a seminar-like session in the presence of the Pope.
“About 85% of the time, we Americans are talking to each other. They’re listening to us, and we’re listening to each other,” said Mahony.
In Thursday’s session on the priesthood, Curia Cardinal Antonio Innocenti told the American bishops they need to better support their priests, some of whom, he said, endure “personal identity crises.” Some American priests are receiving theological training “inadequate for the needs and challenges of the times,” Innocenti said.
Despite a decline in vocations in the United States, priests must be chosen with “acute discernment,” said Innocenti, adding that American priests must also “deal with loss of prestige and consideration of the priestly mission in American society.”
Mahony said: “He talked about the disorientation of priests before conflicting ecclesiastical models. I think he’s right. Some priests don’t know which way to go. We need to support them better.”
Speaking for the Americans, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston characterized American priests as “an extraordinarily faithful group who have been called to evangelize in uniquely challenging times and have done so effectively, despite significant pressures on their morale.”
Their mission of evangelization, Law said, is complicated in the United States today by exaggerated emphasis on egoism, “which undermines marriage and family life.” He said priests are also challenged by aspects of American culture, including “the isolation of sexual pleasure as an end in itself, a climate of moral and intellectual relativism.”
Law called on bishops to be particularly supportive of American priests to help them meet demanding problems such as celibacy, “which requires ever-greater support for priests,” and the diminishing public role of the priest.
The conference, which was called to ease strains between the American church and its traditionalist central authority at the Vatican, will continue today, with sessions on the laity, the family, the young and the training of priests.
On Saturday, two final sessions will consider ecumenism and the use of the mass media for evangelization. The conference, the first extended session of its kind between the church of 53 million Americans and its obedience-demanding leader, will conclude with a papal address Saturday afternoon.