Friday, February 1, 2013

Voices For Dialogue

Bishop John England
1786-1842--a bishop
ahead of his times
In my last posting I mentioned that Abbot Peter von Sury of Mariastein Abbey in Switzerland spoke out in favor not only of expanding the role of the laity in the Church today but of creating structures of accountability that guarantee an honest and sincere two-way communication between the bishops (including, ultimately, the Holy See) and the Christian faithful (faithful being inclusive of laity and lower clergy).  Abbot Peter was clear in his claims that this is no innovation but rather a restoration of the life of the early Church in which not only the election of bishops but the formulation of doctrine was built on the premise of the involvement of the laity and clergy with the hierarchy and not a unilateral exercise of authority on the part of bishops.    Some years ago a prominent Catholic layman, Frank Butler—at the time President of FADICA—Foundations And Donors Interested in Catholic Activities—proposed to the American Bishops that he would gather a small group of Catholic executives to advise the bishops on how they might best approach business and public relations issues.  Butler is no “mere layman” even if any member of Christ’s Mystical Body can be considered to be “mere.”  He was the first non-ordained to earn the Pontifical Degree S.T.D. (Doctor of Sacred Theology, but in Latin which is why the letters are reversed) from the Catholic University of America.  He worked for years at the Bishops’ Conference and he served on a Vatican Congregation or two.  And—and this might be most significant—he wasn’t proposing lay “interference” in doctrinal matters but lay involvement in matters of lay expertise.  Nevertheless, his offer was declined.  When are their mitered heads going to “get it?”  The Church is administratively in a shambles and the bishops aren’t interested in help from the quarter that is best qualified to help.  Infallibility—even if it exists at the top certainly doesn’t “trickle down.” 
Swiss Catholics organized the Swiss Parish Initiative a year ago to push for greater lay involvement in charting the course for the Church to take as it moves into a new millennium.  Based somewhat on the Austrian Preachers Initiative—a movement which Pope Benedict criticized in his Maundy Thursday homily last year—the Swiss Parish Initiative has organized laity and clergy into a voice for dialogue with the hierarchy.  To date all the Swiss bishops but one—the controversial bishop of Chur, Monsignor Vitus Huonder—have expressed themselves to be open to such dialogue.   What do we need to get such dialogue going in the American Church?
It may surprise you but in the nineteenth century there was one bishop who was way ahead of the times on this very question.  When John England, an Irish born prelate, was made the first bishop of Charleston (at that time comprising the states of North and South Carolina and Georgia), he had a constitution written for the Diocese spelling out the active roles he expected the laity to take in Church matters.  He also convoked an annual convention of the diocese to give voice to the clergy and laity.  We could use prelates like Abbots Martin Werlen and Peter von Sury and Bishop John England.  The Church of the Future will be all the stronger if the laity are brought into the conversations that to date are dominated by the hierarchy. 
note of Appreciation to Ann: thanks for pointing out the fact that I had originally entered John Ireland rather than John England--two quite different temperments. 

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