Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Climate of Fear

Fear is an emotional response to the threat of danger. It often induces flight or excessive caution. Sometimes it paralyzes.

"Do not be afraid" is frequently heaven's advice in encounters between God and human beings.

Fear or inducing fear is a common tool used by those in authority to maintain control over their subjects. Israel's God uses it with people, parents use it with children, court judges use it with those on trial, bishops use it with priests.

The Book of Proverbs teaches that fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge (1:7). The Hebrew word for fear is yare. Depending on context it can also be rendered reverence, but there are psychological and emotional differences between fear and reverence.

Bishops deserve reverence. They take the place of the apostles. We give them the title "Most Reverend."

But are bishops to be feared? They themselves agreed that "in exercising his office of father and pastor the bishop should be with his people as one who serves" (Vatican II, Christus Dominus, 16).

Lumen Gentium, 28, explained that priests should see in their diocesan bishop "a true father and obey him with all respect," while the bishop "should treat the priests, his helpers, as his sons and friends, just as Christ calls his disciples no longer servants but friends."

The relationship between bishop and priest, between bishop and people, between priest and people, then, is to be marked by reverence, not fear.

Should bishops be afraid? The relationship between bishops and the pope is difficult to comprehend. And without doubt we hold that the college of bishops has no authority unless united with the Roman Pontiff as its head. Nevertheless it is also clear that bishops are not to be regarded as vicars of the Roman Pontiff (Christus Dominus, 27). They have authority too.

Bishops owe the pope reverence but should they be afraid of him or fear the Curia (the Holy Office, that is, the Vatican bureaucracy)?

It is well-known that the bishops at Vatican II were eager to reform the Curia. For example, Bishop Maximos IV (more correctly known as His Beatitude Maximos IV Saigh) proposed the establishment of a central government of the Church composed of pope and bishops from around the world rather than pope and Roman-oriented clergy. He urged a rotating membership. He said he wanted the central office to reflect the doctrine of collegiality.

Not much came of his intervention. Historian John O'Malley noted that the proposal to create a body superior to the Curia was well-received by most in the assembly, but Pope Paul VI stepped in and created the less effective Synod of Bishops as an alternative.

How the Church was to be run was a fundamental issue at the Council. Would it continue its highly centralized mode of operation or would it accept management with broader consultation and sharing of responsibility?

Saigh's proposal to reform the Curia or create a superior body for oversight of the Curia's work did not produce much fruit. In many areas it seems as if Vatican II never happened.

The collegiality of conferences of bishops around the world has been stifled; for example, the US Bishops' Conference's translation of the Roman Missal was rejected by the Vatican and the current translation was substituted.

Pope Benedict XVI has permitted use of the Tridentine Liturgy (the reformation of which was the primary focus of the liturgical renewal envisioned by the Council).

The Vatican's handling of the pedophilia crisis, the silencing of Church representatives who discuss ordination of women, the secret disciplinary meetings reprimanding bishops and priests, the refusal to include in catechetical texts the writings of Trappist monk Thomas Merton on the spiritual life --all seem contrary to the direction of Vatican II.

Further, these policies and disciplines create a climate of fear. Priests are afraid of being reprimanded or disciplined by their bishops; bishops fear censure by the Curia.

As a result many if not most bishops are reluctant to accept any innovative ways of evangelizing or overseeing their dioceses lest they offend Roman sensibilities. Bishops routinely require letters of acceptability from other bishops before allowing speakers into their dioceses. An Ohio priest was reprimanded by his bishop for publicly criticizing the new Roman missal translation.

Reverence is never out of style, but there is a great deal of fear in the Church climate of 2012.

As I look at the Church I think things are not as they should be, and I know that reform has always been part of the Church's self-assessment (reformans et reformanda). 

I need to remind myself frequently that Jesus remains the life and spirit of his Church, no matter its confused state. I need to pray for the ongoing reform of the Church. I need to hear, "Do not be afraid."

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