CNS photo/Chris Niedenthal

The Pope and the Bishops: ‘Telling it Like It Is’

This editorial originally appeared in America on October 3, 1987.

ON SEPTEMBER 16 in Los Angeles, Pope John Paul II met with the U. S. Catholic bishops. In keeping with the dialogue format that had been used throughout this second papal pilgrimage in the United States, the bishops first expressed their concerns through four spokesmen—Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago and Archbishops John R. Quinn of San Francisco, Rembert G. Weakland of Milwaukee and Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati—and the Pope responded. What resulted was, in the parlance of diplomats, a “frank exchange of views.” Afterward, Archbishop Pilarezyk commented: “What the Holy Father did was speak to his brother bishops and tell it like it is.” This comment on the apparent rigor of the Holy Father’s response was both loyal and modest—loyal insofar as it expresses the bishops’ fundamental unity with the Pope, and yet modest insofar as it omits mentioning that the U.S. episcopal spokesmen, including Archbishop Pilarczyk, were also outspoken.

This was the climactic moment of the papal tour, an historic exchange that, even if it resolved nothing for the immediate future—as diplomatic exchanges often do not—at least got basic issues onto the table. U.S. Catholics have reason to be satisfied that, in this important encounter, their bishops were honest and direct, and so not overly diplomatic in a way that most Americans dislike. Even a cursory examination of the bishops’ language shows that they were not sugar-coating the pastoral realities: “misunderstanding and tensions,” “tremendous difficulties,” “problems which have qualitatively changed or which did not exist in the past,” “no words to explain so much pain,” “questions [that] continue to be voiced.”

Cardinal Bernardin spoke of Americans’ common cultural experience of wanting to know the reasons for policy decisions and their feeling free to criticize if they do not agree with those reasons. (This was a sentiment repeated two days later in different words by Donna Hanson, a spokesperson for the U S. laity: “In my cultural experience, questioning is generally not rebellion nor dissent. It is rather a desire to participate and is a sign of both love and maturity.”) Archbishop Quinn, speaking of the church’s moral precepts, said that the pastoral task of the church could not be satisfied by the uncritical application of past solutions and insisted that the church must find more effective ways of presenting even its difficult or corrective teachings. Archbishop Weakland echoed this pastoral point when he mentioned that an “authoritarian style” is counterproductive, since an educated laity is more impressed by an argument’s intrinsic worth than by the authority with which it is urged, and went on to speak frankly of the pain and anger of competent women who feel relegated to second-class status in the church. Archbishop Pilarczyk pointed out that questions about women’s ordination and priestly celibacy continue to be raised in the U.S. church. These representations surely outline present-day preoccupations of the U. S. church and will probably provide much of its agenda for the coming decade.

The Pope’s response was straightforward, too. It was a reiteration of well-known positions, but in a more flat-out way that raises old questions more acutely. For example: “Dissent from church doctrine remains what it is, dissent”—whereas the historical problem is that there has been dissent that has not remained just that, but has become the received teaching of the church. Or again: “Women are not called to the priesthood.” This is surely an accurate description of present practice and teaching in the church, but the question whether such teaching and practice are based on a theological imperative will persist, because many women now feel themselves called and the church’s need for priests is so great. The Holy Father’s rejoinder was not limited to points of disputed doctrine, however. He also challenged the bishops as to what discernible effect American Catholics were having, given their high educational level, on the evolution of U.S. culture. Not: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich?” (because U.S. Catholics are relatively well-off), but: “If you’re so smart, why isn’t your society holier?” An interesting point, even granting, as the Holy Father does, the complexity and pluralism of U.S. society.

THIS ENCOUNTER of the U.S. bishops and the Pope was a privileged moment in a continuing dialogue. Because it was extraordinarily frank on both sides, it deserves special attention. Because the dialogue continues, however, reactions within the U. S. church should be carefully modulated so as to avoid what Cardinal Bernardin warned against in his address to the Holy Father—that opposing groups of Catholics get “locked into what seem to be adversarial positions.”

Let us be prepared, then, for pronouncements from the Catholic far right that the bishops, having shown themselves insubordinate, have been slapped down by the Pope and let us recognize such suggestions as altogether lacking in historical perspective. Let us beware, too, of calls for a visible and sacramental disciplining of “dissenters”— as if the Holy Father’s words had removed such delicate matters from the realm of an individual’s private dealings with both pastor and conscience.

On the other end of the ideological spectrum, there will be some who prefer simply to ignore what the Pope has said in the mistaken belief either that what he says makes no difference to U.S. Catholics or that what U.S. Catholics say makes no difference to him. The welcome that the Pope invariably receives in this country shows that most Catholics want to know what he thinks and attend to what he says. The fact that on this trip the mode of communication was one of structured dialogue shows that, for his part, the Pope comes not only to teach but to learn—as he said in New Orleans. There has been a notable softening of the “authoritarian style.”

As an educated and mature church, American Catholics will be able to understand and live with the tensions implied in the Los Angeles dialogue of their bishops and Holy Father. They will also be able to appreciate the importance of John Paul’s question to the U. S. church: What evangelical influence are you having on your society?