USCC Watch: Bedbugs in the Grassroots

It’s called the Bedbug Letter. As the story goes, it is the letter sent routinely to hotel guests who complain about vermin in their beds. If you have registered any criticism with any bureaucrat over any matter, you have probably received a Bedbug Letter — the typical “damage control” response which combines denial that a problem exists with assurances that if the situation you complain of ever did exist (which it did not), Management was not aware of it, for if they were aware (which they were not) they would have already remedied the problem — even though there is no reason to have done so because objections are raised only by persons who are (a) dolts, (b) malicious, or (c) both.

Getting a Bedbug Letter is almost enough to make one quit criticizing! Which is undoubtedly the point. There are, we’ve observed, two sets of rules governing responses to problems raised by Catholics; one for “progressive” Insiders (often Church professionals) and an entirely different set for the rest of us. If Insiders voice a complaint (e.g., that the Catholic Church is “homophobic,” “oppressive,” “sexist,” etc.) or a suggestion (e.g., that the Church’s “credibility-gap” can only be closed by promoting condom use or allowing girls and women to be altar boys), there is a lot of brow-furrowing talk about listening to the People of God, being sensitive to the grassroots, and being open to change and renewal and “conversion.” Only Outsiders — those who voice concern about liturgical abuses, defective religious instruction, etc. — are scolded, when they can no longer be ignored.

Many Church leaders, like our President, “hear” only one kind of “pain,” and their auditory nerves seem functional only in their left ears. The ubiquitous “listening session,” designed to solicit maximum dissent and exert pressure for “progressive” reform, has been developed into a fine art (in particular, at the NCCB/USCC, by staff of the Committees on Laity, Women in Church and Society, Marriage and Family, and Youth). Many bishops have learned the technique of selective “listening.”

The “two sets of rules” syndrome is exemplified in the contrasting responses to women who attack essential teachings of the Church and to those who attempt to defend them. For instance, no public objections were lodged by NCCB officials to a scolding from Sister Margaret Brennan, IHM, of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, at the NCCB meeting last June. Sister Margaret accused the Church of “dogmatic certitude” about ordination to the priesthood which “denies [women’s] birthright as baptized Christians to be the church as women and denies women any role in decision-making bodies,” etc., etc. Her lecture was printed in the bishops’ publication, Origins July 15. But barely one month later, another nun’s critical remarks about the harmful influence of “liberals” within the Church occasioned a stern rebuke from the President of the NCCB.

Pope John Paul II’s July 2 ad limina address to the bishops of Baltimore, Washington, Miami, and Atlanta appeared in the same issue of Origins. The Pope stated that the issue of ordination of women proceeds from a “faulty ecclesiology” and “cannot be resolved through a compromise with a feminism which polarizes along bitter ideological lines.” The “paradigm shift” in the structure of the Church which feminism demands, said the Pope, endangers “the Christian faith itself…. Unfortunately this kind of feminism is being encouraged by some people in the Church, including some women religious, whose beliefs, attitudes and behavior no longer correspond to what the Gospel and the Church teach. As pastors we are to challenge individuals and groups having such beliefs” (emphasis added).

Perhaps Papal exhortations will eventually help more bishops to overcome their timidity about “challenging” feminists and other dissenters and will lead them to reprimand those who attack Church teachings with a vigor at least approximating that which has been, so far, reserved for those who defend the Catholic faith — along with the authority of bishops.

But let us return to the subject of letters. This past summer many Catholics in America became aware that the bishops were scheduled to vote at their November meeting on the proposed revision and re-translation of the Sacramentary, a book containing the prayers of the Mass. Already apprehensive because of the conflict over feminist language which has delayed the English translation of the new Catechism of the Catholic Church, further alarmed by reading samples of the proposed revision, and deeply frustrated by the increasingly bold ad lib feminist improvisations at their parish Masses, many people were moved to write letters — hundreds, thousands of letters — to their bishops, imploring them to reject these new texts.

The liturgical controversy over the Sacramentary and the radical revision of the Grail Psalter, the outcome of which will affect the worship of the entire English-speaking Church for generations, barely merited mention in most press accounts. The bishops’ discussion of these revisions was by far the most important event at the meeting (and the most intensely interesting, if you had a scorecard). But most reporters seemed preoccupied with the sexual misconduct of priests, understandable considering one of America’s most powerful prelates, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, had been charged with pederasty only a few days before the NCCB meeting began.

The media gave an occasional approving nod to the Pastoral Statement on the family, Follow the Way of Love, proposed by the same prelate’s Committee on Marriage and Family (and approved unanimously), and the revamped edition of the 1983 “Peace Pastoral” (also approved unanimously).

The bishops’ discussion of liturgical matters revealed the deepening cleavage within the NCCB between those who do or do not openly advocate militant “progressive” reform of the Catholic Church and/or the feminization of the language of worship by translators from the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL). But there is good news to report. Thoughtful, eloquent and (in today’s climate) heroically bold interventions sharply critical of ICEL’s proposed texts and the revised Grail Psalter were made from the floor by an unexpectedly large number of bishops. Bishops Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Sheets of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Chaput of Rapid City, George of Yakima, Archbishop Levada of Portland, among others, deserve our gratitude for their forthright defense of the faith in the floor debate.

Furthermore, at least 25 bishops proposed 440 amendments to the Sacramentary text, an unprecedented development which, although all were rejected by the Liturgy Committee, would have assured a delay in approving the ICEL revision. The number and depth of the bishops’ suggested revisions undoubtedly also influenced the affirmative vote on proposals by Cardinals James Hickey of Washington and Roger Mahony of Los Angeles to require that the Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine (BCD) review all ICEL texts before they are returned again to the full body of bishops for further vote. (Archbishop John Quinn of San Francisco was elected to succeed Bishop Alfred Hughes of Boston as chairman of the BCD.)

The vote taken on the feminist-language revision of the 1963 Grail Psalter (so-called because it is a production of the now-radical Ladies of the Grail) — which would have required approval by two-thirds (173) of the voting members of the NCCB and confirmation by the Holy See — was inconclusive, leaving the determining vote to absent bishops. Concern expressed by bishops about the counting of absentee ballots was serious enough that President Archbishop William Keeler (Baltimore) announced that he and Cardinal Hickey would “personally open and count” them. The result, announced December 16, was another unexpected and unprecedented development. The new Grail Psalter was rejected (final tally: 150 for, 98 against).

Even though a majority approved it, the eventual rejection (for the second time) of this thoroughly ideologized translation is a significant development in the intensified conflict over liturgical texts for several reasons. First, the “Grail Psalter (Inclusive Language Version)” was granted an official imprimatur by the NCCB, via their Committee for the Review of Scripture Translations set up three years ago to eliminate delays in granting imprimaturs to Scripture texts. So the bishops were being asked to vote whether or not to approve a text which Archbishop Keeler, acting on the Review committee’s advice, had already given official corporate clearance. Second, the new version of the Grail Psalter was actually used for all prayer services at the November NCCB meeting, and appeared in the Liturgy of the Hours booklet produced especially for the meeting by the Secretariat of the BCL. “They are used here so that they might be experienced in the context of a liturgical celebration,” according to a note on the last page. So a vote against the Psalter could be construed as a vote of “no confidence” in the procedures of the bishops’ own committees — something which, until now, they have been very reluctant to do. (Two members of the BCL’s Secretariat who were responsible for the prayer booklet, as well as for the day-to-day operations of the Committee, are also members of ICEL, by the way.) Third, it is highly unusual for absentee votes to fail to reinforce the position of the committees. For these reasons, in the opinion of this author, the 98 votes against the Psalter should be given a weight at least double the actual number.

Were these surprising and very promising new developments, unquestionably the result of many bishops’ newly energized action, influenced in any way by the outpouring of letters? Not according to Cardinal Mahony, who emphasized that the mail was “unhelpful, even hysterical,” although he did observe that there “is no great demand for changes” from the laity. Archbishop Lipscomb (Mobile) said that bishops “listen very carefully to the grassroots around us, until it becomes clear that the grassroots is being manipulated.”

It would be comforting to believe that all our bishops are above being moved by public opinion — especially in matters which profoundly affect the faith and the immortal souls of countless millions of Catholics, both now and for the foreseeable future.

Yet for 30 years, a small group of “progressive” experts committed to sweeping liturgical reform has successfully manipulated the bishops from within their own bureaucracy — relentlessly trampling the grassroots in the process. Until now, the “party of change” within the Church in America has encountered no effective resistance whatsoever to making the bishops (hence, all the rest of us) dance to their tune. The letters were saying that this must stop.

Even if we get only Bedbug Letters (or no response at all) for our efforts, the bishops need to know we’re here. How about the “grassroots” sending them a few Spiritual Bouquets? What can it hurt?

  • 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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