ALTHOUGH THE FATHERS of Vatican II, particularly in the Constitution on the Laity, spoke of an enlarged role for lay people in the areas where they have special competence, the post-conciliar scene has involved an odd crisscrossing. Not a few clergy have moved into the world, assuming the tasks (and clothing) usually associated with the laity, while some lay people look with longing at altar and pulpit. Oh to play a starring liturgical role!

Catholicism in Crisis will provide evidence of the special knowledge and authority of lay people in a wide range of areas where the voice of the prelate has been of late too often heard. Lay opinion, it will be clear, is far from homogeneous. Intelligent Catholics differ on the many issues that press upon us now, and in these pages they will do so with civility and charity. There is seldom a single Catholic solution to vexed issues, a fact which should forestall premature adoption by members of the hierarchy, singly or en masse, of one view as the Catholic one.

The observation that there has been a pervasive postconciliar clericalism should not be construed as a kind of anti-clericalism. Neither does it arise from the notion that priests should, in the manner of those in B movies, be found always in their sacristies. It is because the words of our bishops cannot be taken lightly that they should be well weighed before they are issued. The discussions in these pages may be of service to the hierarchy in deciding whether they should speak and if so how.

In recent weeks, several columnists, Father Richard McBrien and Professor James Hitchcock, have referred to what may seem to be a deep inconsistency on the part of those who, like the editors of this magazie. seem to be selective in their welcoming of statements by bishops.

Father McBrien pointed to the oddity of those who, having enthusiastically accepted Humanae Vitae, now quibble at ecclesiastical pronunciamentos on political and social matters. Conversely, those who dissented from a papal encyclical having to do with sexual morality, are now delighted with and champions of official statements on war and disarmament.

Hitchcock counters with the reminder that there are conservative Catholics who enthusiastically accept any and all Church teachings, be they concerned with sex or justice or peace or whatever.

It is because things are not as simple as McBrien and Hitchcock suggest that the present journal has come into being. What is at issue here is not the acceptance or rejection of conciliar documents, papal encyclicals or the considered statements of episcopal conferences. With respect to such documents, I for one will be guided by the letter and spirit of Lumen Gentium, 24-25. The problem resides in the number and quality of documents which assail us.

For example, in the National Catholic Register for September 26, I find a headline on page 3 which reads “U.S. Bishops Blast Nicaragua.” What is meant is that Archbishop John R. Roach of St. Paul-Minneapolis, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, has issued a statement from the Washington headquarters of the conference. The statement refers to matters in another country of which Archbishop Roach’s knowledge must surely be secondhand. Nonetheless, things may be every bit  as bad as he says and he should be applauded for his reaction to tales about them.

But surely it would be disingenuous in the extreme to compare a press release with a papal encyclical or with considered and collegial statements of the Catholic bishops in this country. James Hitchcock says of Michael Novak, “In fact, one of the reasons he now attacks the hierarchy is that he apparently rejects any claim the bishops make to speak with special moral authority.” Novak can, of course, speak for himself. The shared view of the editors of this journal is that the bishops speak too much, too soon, too often, on matters where they can lay claim to no special authority, moral or otherwise, and that in so doing they fail to observe Vatican II’s hopes for an expanded role of the laity in dealing with contingent and worldly matters.

Furthermore, not to put too fine a point upon it, the documents which assail us bear the marks of the bureaucracies from which they emanate. The advisors of the bishops can scarcely be described as representing a wide spectrum of political outlooks. The dominant viewpoint of the NCCB staff is leftish. The press releases from its Washington office too often simply echo the editorial outlook of the Washington Post and the New York Times. In short, one possible opinion on contingent and controversial matters gets dubbed the position of the American Catholic Bishops.

Have the bishops fallen hostage to the staffs of their bureaus? When they must speak out with their undisputed moral authority on vexed social and political questions, are they the beneficiaries of counsel from the widest spectrum of informed opinion within the Church? Many bishops sincerely think they are hearing all sides. Many of us are certain they are not. It is important that they should.

It is even more important that the bishops reconsider the practice of a constant flow of press releases from NCCB. Is it really necessary to speak out on all such matters? Might not the Catholic laity be trusted to apply Catholic doctrine to such things without being prodded by the NCCB staff? If the bishops and their conference showed more confidence in the Catholic laity’s ability to maneuver through this Vale of Tears, other matters, more obviously within the purview of the bishops, might get the attention and direction they need. One thinks of the parlous condition of religious education in this country and the scandal of the seminaries.

So, pace Father McBrien and James Hitchcock, the issue is not one of appropriate docililty to the magisterium of the Church. It is rather a plea that we all be more responsive to Vatican II’s Declaration on the Laity and to its many implications.

Long ago there was the joke about a seminarian who in his weekly confession whispered through the grill that he had been reading Commonweal. There was a stir of surprise on the part of the confessor who assured the young man that reading a journal published by lay people was not a sin. “Ah, but Father, I took pleasure in it.” We hope to provide our readers pleasure in some of its many modes but we will strive not to be an occasion of sin. We would not want the reading of Catholicism in Crisis to be a confessable fault.

From Vol. 1, No. 1 of the original “Catholicism in Crisis”, published November 1982.


  • Ralph McInerny

    Ralph McInerny was a popular writer, philosopher, and teacher, as well as the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He passed away on January 29, 2010.

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