U.S.C.C. Watch: Stormy Weather?

An inexplicably neglected book, The Politics of Sex and Religion by Robert Blair Kaiser, came to my attention recently. It is a riveting account of the circumstances surrounding the promulgation of Humanae Vitae, the encyclical issued 25 summers ago that reaffirmed the Catholic Church’s constant teaching on the transmission of life. Kaiser was Time magazine’s reporter on the Second Vatican Council, and his description of the tempestuous drama surrounding the encyclical is filled with documentation from published and private sources, as well as his own extensive interviews with the dramatis personae. It concludes with a similar account of the 1980 Synod on the family, which resulted in the landmark apostolic exhortation of John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio. Kaiser does not attempt to conceal his own opinions; his sympathies lie entirely with the “reformers” and dissenters,

Thunderous public dissent followed Humanae Vitae’s promulgation; Pope Paul VI’s conclusions were contrary to expectation, as well as to the highly publicized advice of a papal commission. Kaiser’s illuminating book shows that during these consultations, for perhaps the first time in history, the media were deliberately employed to exert maximum pressure on the Pope to accede to demands for “reform.”

The atmospheric turbulence of the summer of ’68 seems eerily familiar.

At the summer meeting of the National Council of Catholic Bishops (NCCS), held June 17-19 in New Orleans, the bishops spent five hours discussing the “Lineamenta” for the Synod on Religious Life to be held in Rome in 1994. The Synod’s “working document” has already been criticized by the ultra-liberal Leadership Conference of Women Religious.

Also at the New Orleans meeting, the NCCB approved a proposal by the Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy (BCL) to request Vatican permission to compose two new Eucharistic Prayers. In addition, they voted overwhelmingly to accept the BCL task force’s suggestion to allow confirmation as early as age seven, at the bishop’s discretion. Some critics are concerned that, despite rhetoric about “rededication of baptism,” reducing the age of confirmation is aimed at conflating the sacrament of confirmation with baptism, with the ultimate goal of reducing the sacraments to two: baptism (which “empowers” all ministry) and the Eucharist (which can be altered by “interim” improvisation—see below).

By the time this column appears, the bishops will also have released a statement on Clinton’s proposed health care plan, presumably criticizing abortion funding and related matters. A special meeting of archbishops was held on this subject in Chicago in March. (Ironically, Paul VI’s papal commission had argued that access to birth control would reduce abortions—which were not to become legal in the U.S. for nearly five more years.)

The NCCB scheduled one session which was closed to the press, reportedly to discuss, again, sexual scandals involving clergy—even an archbishop (Sanchez of Santa Fe, who resigned in March). Did they, one wonders, also confer on the intensified media assault on priestly celibacy? Did the bishops discuss homosexuality among priests and seminarians, or the participation of avowed Catholics in the flagrant “Gay Rights” march in Washington in April? (The argument that “repressed sexuality”—i.e., abstinence—is psycho-logically damaging was used by opponents of Humanae Vitae? 25 years ago. Kaiser tells of one expert, German psychologist Albert Gorres, who said the Church’s teachings on sexual morality were the result of “celibate psychosis.”)

Did the bishops talk about realistic means of resolving the priest shortage? In Cleveland, the diocese of the newly elected vice-president of the NCCB, Bishop Anthony Pilla, only one man was ordained this year. Yet to date the excellent document on priestly formation adopted overwhelmingly by the bishops last November has been neither published nor promoted by the NCCS/USCC. Why not?

On June 20, after the meeting, the bishops held a symposium on the long-delayed Catechism of the Catholic Church. Representatives of the Vatican were present, but a hoped-for announcement of an authorized English translation did not occur. For many American Catholics, eager anticipation has turned into apprehension as they observe gathering clouds of confusion and controversy around the Catechism’s translation and several allied liturgical renovations (inter alia, “altar girls”)—renovations which would, if approved, profoundly affect the worship of the Church. As of this writing, optimists are still hoping that the Catechism will be rescued from the feminist language and other ideological “improvements” found in the English translation drafted by Father Douglas Clark, a former Methodist, ordained a Catholic priest in 1976 and now pastor of Saint Anne’s Church in Richmond Hill, Georgia. Father Clark, who had earlier announced that his translation “could not be in exclusive language,” has now told reporters, in obfuscated bureaucratese, that the Vatican accepts the use of “inclusive” language “not as a principle of translation, but as a pastoral approach.”

Even though Pope John Paul II had said during ad limina visits with American bishops in April that the Catechism “is one of the most significant events of my pontificate,” and is “designed for all the faithful who have the ability to read it, understand it, and assimilate it,” a steady acid rain has been pelting the project for several years. A few years ago, an early, embargoed draft—evidently “leaked” for the purpose—was attacked by Jesuit Thomas Reese and several dissident theologians (including feminist Elizabeth Johnson, who has just won a $100,000 prize for her new book, She Who Is).

As with Humanae Vitae’s reception, criticisms of the Catechism have been appearing frequently in the press. Catholic University catechetical expert Berard Marthaler recently insisted in print that the Catechism is meant only as a resource for professional catechists, not for “volunteers” or the laity. (Father Marthaler was among Humanae Vitae’s most influential public dissenters.) The chairman of the Administrative Committee of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL), Father John Fitzsimmons, ridiculed the Catechism in an address to Presbyterians in Scotland. Another ICEL member, Sister Kathleen Hughes, RSCJ, has vented similar criticisms, while pro-feminist Bishop Raymond Lucker of New Ulm says he is “delighted” with the draft English translation because it uses “inclusive language.”

The Bishops’ Committee on Liturgy also met June 20 and 21 to consider other liturgical changes to be presented to the bishops at a future NCCB meeting. A most troublesome proposal from this committee is “Action Item No. 2,” a six-page document called “Interim Guidelines for Inclusive Language.” The introduction notes that this proposal was undertaken (1) in response to Bishop Imesch’s objection at last November’s NCCB meeting to the non-feminist language of the current book of prayers for the Divine Office, as well as (2) in anticipation of ICEL’S “inclusivist” revision of the Roman Missal, due in 1994. (Father Ronald Krisman, new executive director of the Committee on Liturgy, is also on the ICEL board.)

These Interim Guidelines propose giving virtual carte blanche to “priest celebrants and other presiding ministers” (e.g., women pastoral administrators) to make changes in liturgical texts to reflect “gender inclusivity.” According to the Guidelines, permission to improvise would not apply to the Eucharistic prayers.

The Interim Guidelines argue that this issue of language in liturgical texts is minor (like the change to “The Word of the Lord” after Scripture readings), and thus should not require Vatican approval. They point out that inclusivist translations of Scripture have already been approved, and refer to the “Criteria for the Evaluation of Inclusive Language Translations of Scriptural Texts Proposed for Liturgical Use” approved by the NCCB in 1990. Of course, while authorizing liturgical deviations in the feminist direction, the Interim Guidelines are written so as to forbid changes in any other direction.

The result of authorizing improvisations “at will” by any “presider” would provide ICEL and others with additional momentum for inclusivist revisions and related liturgical changes. It would also sow the tares of confusion so thickly that hardly a grain of wheat could survive.

All these uncertainties and changes, along with episcopal vacancies in several large U.S. sees, suggest that there is a whole lot of negotiatin’ goin’ on in the Vatican and in the bishops’ conference. If Kaiser’s account of the labyrinthine behind the scenes machinations over Humanae Vitae: is being repeated, one needs neither almanac nor oracle to see that the Church in the U.S. is in for some rough weather this summer. We know, of course, that the Church has been storm-tossed before, and have been assured that she will survive. But barring a miracle, there are certain to be heavy casualties.


  • Helen Hull Hitchcock

    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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