USCC Watch: The Costly Call

Among the interesting side-effects of retired San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn’s lecture, “The Claims of Primacy and the Costly Call to Unity,” given at Campion Hall in Oxford on the Feast of SS. Peter and Paul, is the reinforcement it gives to the opinions of those who have come to mistrust national conferences.

Archbishop Quinn’s lecture, recall, announced his belief that Pope John Paul II’s letter on Christian unity, Ut Unum Sint was meant to be a call for recommendations about the papacy, and how it should be changed in order to achieve greater unity in the Church. The title of the lecture reveals the nub of the archbishop’s argument: the cost of unity entails reducing both the primacy and authority of the papacy.

According to Archbishop Quinn, the Roman Curia is too powerful, driving a kind of wedge between the bishops and the pope, usurping the authority of both the local bishop and the national conferences; the pope is too powerful, in part, because the pope appoints bishops.

As examples of the unbalanced power of the Curia, which he says harms Church unity, the archbishop used the curial involvement in resolving a dispute over the English translation of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. He also mentioned other hot-button issues, such as the ordination of women to the priesthood and general absolution, in order to support his argument that “interference” by Rome diminishes the “pastoral” activities of conferences and bishops. The archbishop also proposed that the method of selecting bishops should be changed.

There is striking irony in the arch-bishop’s choice of examples—virtually identical with the standard laundry-lists of organizations such as Call to Action and the Women’s Ordination Conference. Hardly anyone regards these dissident groups as promoting unity in the Church. Very few bishops have openly supported their agenda for Catholic “reform.”

But Archbishop Quinn has been at the very center of influence within the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In 1977, he succeeded Joseph Cardinal Bernardin as president of the NCCB/USCC. (Cardinal Bernardin was president from 1974-1977 while he was Archbishop of Cincinnati; and had also been instrumental in the NCCB’s formation as General Secretary from 1968-1972.)

Archbishop Quinn also headed the crucial Doctrine Committee until his early retirement—an office for which he had vigorously campaigned as controversy within the conference over revisions of liturgical and scriptural texts was building.

Just before his election, the bishops established a system of internal checks whereby the Doctrine Committee would review and approve all revisions proposed by the Committee on Liturgy and the Ad Hoc Commit-tee for Review of Scripture Translations—before presenting them to the conference for debate and vote. The Liturgy and Scripture committees solidly advocated the revisions, but among the bishops expressing strong criticism of the proposed texts were experienced theologians who were then members of the Doctrine committee. The advance review seemed prudent to a majority of bishops.

Almost immediately after his election, however, Archbishop Quinn appointed to the Doctrine Committee two of the most prominent advocates of the revisions: Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk and Bishop Wilton Gregory. Archbishop Pilarczyk was president of the NCCB from 1989-93, and is president of the Episcopal Board of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). Bishop Gregory, then auxiliary of Chicago, was chairman of the Liturgy Committee when both the ICEL revisions and the revised Scripture texts were introduced.

At the Spring 1996 NCCB meeting, Archbishop Pilarczyk was elected to fill Quinn’s unexpired term, putting him in the odd position of heading the very NCCB committee responsible for reviewing his work as the head of ICEL.

In an unusual and detailed critique of the Campion Hall lecture, John Cardinal O’Connor questioned Quinn’s interpretation of what the pope meant by “fraternal dialogue” in pursuit of Christian unity. Cardinal O’Connor observed that “unity itself can be achieved only in truth, which can never be sacrificed.”

Only weeks later, Cardinal Bernardin announced a call for dialogue—strikingly similar to the Campion Hall lecture. “Common Ground” was instantly hailed by Call to Action. But nearly every other cardinal-archbishop in America found it necessary to warn publicly against Common Ground’s dangerous inherent flaws.

Public criticism from the cardinalate of another cardinal’s actions is not done lightly. But, as the witness of martyrs like Edmund Campion teaches us, the costly call to truth is often great.


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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