USCC Watch: Can the NCCB Stop Razing the Roof?

It’s hard to avoid the impression, when sorting through the documents from the annual bishops’ meeting, that enough trees are sacrificed every year in their manufacture to shingle the entire roof of St. Peter’s — with enough left for the next decade of repairs.

This year, for example, the American bishops received more than 600 pages of Sacramentary revisions alone, and 200 more of amendments. Not to mention all the other stuff — the latest statement opposing violence, the resuscitated “women’s pastoral,” the updated health care directives, plus more pages of amendments, printed booklets and leaflets used for worship, twice daily “minutes” of the sessions, Catholic News Service daily reports, bishops’ speeches, and miscellaneous bulletins.

The bishops obviously feel overwhelmed by all this paper, too. In fact, “overwhelmed” was the word used by Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua when he insisted to the Liturgy Committee (BCL) chairman, Bishop Donald Trautmann (Erie), that bishops need more time to amend a segment of the proposed Sacramentary — the one the Doctrine Committee had already requested be postponed until next June. (The Doctrine Committee said they were overwhelmed by their new revision of Ethical and Moral Directives for Catholic Health Care Facilities and hadn’t had time to review this segment.)

Voting on the proposed revisions of the Roman Missal Sacramentary was the most important work on the bishops’ plate at this meeting, as well as the most complex. Only weeks before, it had been revealed that the “gender neutral” Scripture texts, the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), and the Revised New American Bible (RNAB), had been rejected by the Vatican — last July. The Vatican’s reversal of the American bishops’ approval is unprecedented (how this approval was secured is a story in itself), and will surely affect revision of the Roman Missal despite persistent claims to the contrary.

In the end, the bishops approved ICEL translations of two parts of the Sacramentary (Ordinary Time andPropers) — but only on condition that ICEL agrees to make several dozen changes. An “optional” Eucharistic Prayer was approved. The segment on the Order of Mass was delayed until next June. And in a “surprise” motion at the very end of the meeting the bishops accepted Cardinal Bernard Law’s proposal that, a committee be appointed to discuss in depth the “principles of translation” — obviously the NCCB’s own 1990 Criteria for the use of “inclusive language.” He also announced his appointment as a member of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, replacing Cardinal Joseph Bernardin. Later he said he considers his chief priority to be reevaluation of Comme le prevoit, the controversial 1969 statement advocating “dynamic equivalency” in translation often used to justify “gender neutral” language.

“Inclusive” language provided a strong link between the liturgical issues and the new version of the “undead” women’s pastoral, as Women’s Committee chairman, Bishop John Snyder (St. Augustine) correctly observed. This “pastoral reflection,” Towards Strengthening the Bonds of Peace, was “occasioned by Pope John Paul II’s Letter on Priestly Ordination” (Ordinatio sacerdotalis). It was eventually approved, but only after the bishops made several important alterations which blunted its effect considerably. The 12-page letter still thumps out the usual refrain: more jobs and more power for women who are already Church professionals (the word “mother” never appears); and, of course, it denounces “sexism” as the principal cause of women’s pain.

The original draft also asserted, “In the United States our culture more and more seeks to honor the principles of inclusive language,” and urged “that catechetical and religious materials, as well as our daily language and prayer, do so as well.” This passage was revised, and the bishops actually voted to “urge that catechetical and religious materials and hymnals as well as our daily language and prayer honor the concerns which shape a more inclusive language . . . ” A small change, but a significant one. It is, of course, quite possible to note concerns while vigorously opposing the objective behind them. Being concerned about “inclusive” language is not the same as advocating it.

The struggle to forge statements that most bishops can accept reveals that there are real divisions within the Church and within the bishops’ conference. Most bishops know that these divisions are not merely inconsequential matters of style, but involve the very essence of the Catholic faith.

Even if the media doesn’t “get” it, the most important story of the conference was this: For the first time in history, “progressives” who have controlled the post-Vatican II reform of Catholic worship have encountered very serious roadblocks. It is ironic, though fitting, that such resistance should arise from within the American bishops’ conference, since it is precisely the NCCB and the American liturgical and theological establishment that has instigated most of the “progressive” reforms. The NCCB is the most powerful among the English-speaking conferences. Its recent action will doubtless affect all the others.

This unprecedented action is a major achievement, especially when coupled with the Vatican’s rejection of “gender neutral” translations. Most of the difficult work the bishops did to improve documents — on the floor or in behind-the-scenes negotiation — did not make the media accounts. That these bishops were successful in achieving many of their objectives “off-camera” suggests that their opponents recognize that they can no longer be safely ignored. “Dialogue” alone could not have settled these disputes.

Controversies involving the doctrine of the Catholic faith cannot be resolved by compromise, either, for compromising the faith always damages it. It is as if we have two groups within a church building. One group values the structure and wants to maintain its roof so that rain cannot enter to rot the timbers. The other group dislikes the church and wants the roof removed so massive remodeling can take place. Impasse. So the second group calls in a mediator who says, “Let’s compromise and punch only little holes in only half the roof, what can be more fair than that?” The first group are made to seem unreasonable if they refuse this solution — which will obviously accomplish precisely the destruction the second group demands. It will just take a little longer.


Helen Hull Hitchcock is founding director of Women for Faith & Family and editor of its quarterly journal, Voices. She is also editor of the Adoremus Bulletin, a monthly publication of Adoremus - Society for the Renewal of the Sacred Liturgy, of which she is a co-founder. She is married to James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University. The Hitchcocks have four daughters and six grandchildren, and live in St. Louis.

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