Bishops with opinions

You probably saw that three Roman Catholic Bishops in Belgium are questioning mandatory celibacy. They’re not the only ones. Bishop Paul Iby of Eisenstadt, Austria said last May that he favors the ordination of married men, and that women’s ordination was not on the table now but would have to be considered in the future. Bishop Iby had just reached his 75th year and accordingly submitted his resignation, but it was expected that he would remain in office through this November for the diocese’s 50-year jubilee. Rome accepted his resignation immediately. His rather unpopular successor will be ordained this Saturday.

Dietmar Neuwirth wryly commented on Iby’s controversial statement, “Bishops tend to become particularly courageous just before or sometime after their retirement.”

This raises a question. How many ministers in the Catholic Church, bishops or priests or deacons or lay ministers, feel they must say things they don’t believe, or not say things they do believe, out of obedience? I mean it as a serious question and I honestly don’t know the answer. Does our hierarchical system ever oblige ministers to ignore their conscience, say, on issues of discipline or pastoral practice which don’t touch defined dogma?? If so, what does this do to their personal sense of integrity and vocation? These strike me as terrifically important questions.



  1. Looks like Bishop Vasa is on board with the revisionist understanding of bishops’ conferences promoted by JP2 and Ratzinger. The argument is that ‘bishop’ is a teaching unit but ‘conference of bishops’ is not. But in the early middle ages, bishops of a region met quite often to teach and legislate for their region. Some have pointed out the irony, Ratzinger was in an office of much more recent origin (SCDF) claiming that national synods and conferences didn’t have standing in church tradition!

    After reading Gibson, “Rule of Benedict,” I’ve learned to be at least a bit skeptical of anything Ratzinger ‘remembers’ about Nazi history in his homeland, for he has made some of the facts fit his overarching theories. Bp. Faulhaber is Ratzinger’s hero for having prohibiting Catholics to vote for the Nazi party – but he doesn’t seem to remember that Faulhaber revoked the decree a few days later and then welcomed the Nazis into power.


    1. Hi Anthony. I’ve been reading your comments with interest over the past few days, having only just discovered Pray Tell, and am interested to know where you, personally, stand in relation to Roman Catholic teaching. The impression I am receiving is that you would side more with the Bishops’ opinions referred to above than with the magisterium: your questions and comments seem more nuanced in support of those who differ from the magisterium, even allowing for the fact that you are trying to stimulate debate. But I could be misreading you. Pray tell…!

      1. Tom – I’ve said many times that we want PT to be a forum where things are discussed, and that we want it to be a news source where people can find out about interesting, controversial things. So we report on things like these 4 bishops. Please don’t assume that I or anyone in the sponsoring university or Liturgical Press necessarily holds the opinions in news stories we cite. To take one example, I’ve never advocated in my life for women’s ordination – but as a sacramental theologian I find the issue terrifically interesting. I know enough about history to know that theologians are sometimes out in front of the magisterium. I don’t predict that will happen on this issue, but I think it could. As for my own views, on liturgy and other things, I think most PT readers would probably be surprised how traditional I am in light of all the opinions we consider at PT.

        Note also the distinction (though it’s not hard and fast) between teaching and legislating, between doctrine and discipline. Mandatory celibacy is a discipline not required by our doctrine. To favor ending mandatory celibacy (which I never did, but many do) is not to disagree with the ‘teaching office,’ the magisterium. It is to disagree with the current policy of the hierarchy.

        So: lots of good discussion at Pray Tell, no assumptions about moderator’s views.


  2. Very important post, Fr. Anthony, and one that is extremely painful for many of my friends who are still in the priesthood; leadership roles, etc.

    Know Vasa and his family from years ago. Unlike the rest of his family, he bought into this ultra-conservative seminary experience (Holy Trinity in Dallas; St. Thomas in Denver) and seemed to enjoy living/making what seemed to be fairly outrageous statements during his career. By positioning himself with certain high ranking prelates, he eventually got his episcopal robes.

    My second cousin earned the Pax Christi Award last year as a retired bishop. Can remember frequent conversations were he was so relieved to be retired and not have to worry about someone skewering him because he did not toe someone’s politically correct ideology.

  3. I’m inclined to think that no-one should ever directly state what they do not believe, and that it’s an evil perversion of fidelity to suppose that church loyalty demands this of us. Respect for the official position, yes; refraining from criticising it in inappropriate fora, certainly–but actually saying or doing what you think to be wrong, no. What’s so difficult about the new translations is that the scope for drawing this kind of distinction is not there.

  4. In some ways, the words of an emeritus bishop seem to me to have a certain gravitas coming both from experience and not having to satisfy parties on either side. Archbishop Quinn’s book on decentralizaing the church strikes me as an example of a contribution that could not have been made by an ordinary still in office, a book about which I remember only a positive comment from Card. Ratzinger.

  5. But why could not Archbishop Quinn have said what he said while still in office? What dysfunctional world is it in which we can’t be honest with each other about what we think?

    1. By “contribution” I was trying to imply the overal effectiveness of his work. He could have published something on the topic earlier, but I don’t think that it would have had the same heft.

      On a practical level, the book was a response to Ut Unum Sint, which was published less than a year before Abp. Quinn resigned.

      I wonder whether this increased outspokenness is sommething that was envisioned by those who put the episcopal retirement age in place.

  6. It’s worth pointing out that, historically at least, the Catholic Church has taken a position of endorsing doxastic voluntarism, that we choose what we believe via an act of the will. On theological questions with a definitive teaching to which assent is required (like the possibility of the ordination of women), this would tend to make moot the question of whether Bishops or others should say things contrary to what they believe, collapsing it into a question of whether they should choose to believe what the Church teaches.

  7. In discussions with friends, raise the whole issue of integrity, called to be honest, and complicity. Talk a lot about complicity – both by omission and by commission.

    We don’t hear much about that. Agree with Fr. Endean – this leaves many in a dysfunctional world. To complicate further, what about good priests who are gay? How do you function – by compartmentalizing? Hiding?

    Too many current examples – sex abuse scandal…..complicity by both omission and commission; in fact, we have long articles about “mental reservation” – not exactly direct and honest but very Jesuitical to borrow a much used phrase. What about this translation; conferences of bishops and their approval? What about the recent US healthcare reform act? What about immigration, nuclear weapons, education, etc.

    What happened to the 1970’s and the NCCB’s valuable pastorals on peace and poverty?

    What damage is done to priests who live in constant fear that someone will question their liturgical style; what they make preach about; parish decisions, etc.

  8. Because if he spoke his mind whilst in office, odds are very good that someone would tattle on him to Rome, and he might have to face all sorts of hassle and inquiry, etc., and he probably just didn’t want to deal with all of that, not to mention the disruption it might cause in his diocese. He might also have felt bound by that promise of obedience, which is sometimes misused to silence folks who disagree with officialdom.

    Now that he’s retired, there’s precious little that can be done to him if he says things that the higher-ups don’t like. Can’t kick him out of office – he has none. Cutting off his pension would probably be tough, if not impossible. Etc.

    It’s a rather warped world, is what it is. Too many folks in all sorts of places cling to the notion that they have it all figured out and to think any other way than theirs is a clear sign of significant moral failure, if not outright evil.

  9. “How many ministers in the Catholic Church, bishops or priests or deacons or lay ministers, feel they must say things they don’t believe, or not say things they do believe, out of obedience?”

    Gut reaction: “I adhere with religious submission of intellect and will. . . “

    1. But was the question not aimed at the folk who cannot honestly do that? One can intend, and desire, to submit the intellect, but the problem arises when a person simply does not think the prescribed thought, or in the prescribed way. To say that one does is simply to lie. I’m pretty sure lying is generally frowned upon, and lying to oneself is really a poor idea for a host of reasons I haven’t space to enumerate here.

      How does the minister proceed when s/he simply can not force the intellect or will to submit, and retain any sense of intellectual integrity? One does have to live with oneself, after all.

  10. Wasn’t Archbishop Marcel Lefebre honest about his feelings and willing to be exposed to excommunication? Was this wise or should he have kept his reservations about Vatican II to himself? He is a hero to many for standing up for what he believed and publicly so. I guess we could say the same about Father Martin Luther, the good Augustinian Monk, should he have kept quiet or modified his reform so that it didn’t lead to a schism? Archbishop Milingo has been rather courageous in his public defiance and ecumenical embrace of the Rev. Moon’s mass weddings. I guess the good Archbishop is a hero to those who think rebellion and speaking one’s mind is a good thing. It is odd though, that a person of integrity would make promises of obedience to the “deposit of faith” and the person of the successor of Saint Peter at his ordination as a bishop and not really mean it. So perhaps the scandal is accepting the call when one has great reservations in the first place and then making promises one doesn’t intend to keep.

  11. Father Allen,

    You assume that the case is one where a person has great reservations at the time of acceptance. What if they arise later? People’s thinking does grow and mature over time. At least, it should. And the direction of that growth is not necessarily subject to deliberate control.

    1. Lynn, I agree that people change and not always for the better. Do we presume there is always growth in a positive way rather than regression? My advise to a bishop who can no longer stomach what he promised is to retire or resign rather than do what Archbishop Milingo and Levebre did. It really is the height of arrogance which in no way could be viewed as a virtue.

      1. I don’t presume that the growth is always in a positive direction, no. But I also don’t presume that I necessarily know for certain which directions are positive. I believe there’s some thought floating about that the Spirit moves as it wills – and I’m inclined to be VERY circumspect about suggesting that I, or anyone else, knows what’s going on there, or in another person’s head and heart.

        Martin Luther was not entirely wrong in the points he made, after all.

        And retirement or resignation should always be an option, but sometimes it’s not.

  12. Sometimes the phrase, “religious submission of mind and will,” make it sound as if all I have to do is decide to agree w/ the magisterium, and lo! it will happen. Disagreeing w/ the magisterium is not an absolutely right, but it is a matter of conscience; we may try all we want to (say) understand and support the prohibition against married priests, or ordaining women; but (a la Lonergan’s dynamic of integration all the aspects of our being) a great number of people claim that their experience of Church and its pastoral needs, their experience of the Holy Spirit, their experience of their own sense of vocation simply refuse to be integrated w/ magisterial teaching.
    Or, a matter of relative gravity: which is more important to the well-being of the Church: regular celebrations of the eucharist, in unity with a presider whose leadership within the community is evident in many ways? or the idea that the only celibate males are the most suitable for public ministry? If we truly believed the “the Church makes the eucharist, and the eucharist makes the Church,” then the ordination question would become, how do we find candidates with the natural gifts that can receive the charism for sacramental leadership? how do we make regular eucharistic celebrations available to the people?

  13. Lots of stimulating comments. We can continue talking about ministers (bishops, priests, lay people) disagreeing about doctrines or disagreeing about changeable disciplines. I had more of the latter in mind. What about ministers who favor married priesthood, or don’t favor the new translation, who feel they can’t speak out though it’s not a matter of dogma or doctrine? Here it’s not dissent, it’s prudential judgment.

    1. When I was in the seminary in the 70’s dissent was taught as a virtue and the seminary theologians felt they had an “intellectual inside track” that the bishops, especially the pope at the time, did not have. I favor a married priesthood and had a married priest as parochial vicar for almost 14 years. He was not in favor of a married priesthood in the Church as he felt being married “domesticated” the clergy and in not a beneficial way. By the way, I’m not in favor of priests marrying. But what good does it to stir the pot on something that is inevitable such as the new translation? Do we really think this will be good? Or will it be divisive or create more division. My bishop promised obedience to the pope and I promised obedience as well as respect to my bishop when I was ordained. How many husbands would like to cheat on their wives because a better looking woman entered his life? Should he tell her how enthralled he is with the new woman? Or should he cease and desist? I guess we all can grow weary of our ordination and wedding promises can’t we?

      1. You’ve said all this before – the things about being taught to dissent – and it’s still nonsense.

        To equate cheating on one’s wife with not using the new translation is clearly not an intelligent thing to do. The problem with the new translation is not that a better-looking woman has entered one’s life, but that a distinctly ancient and frowsy woman has entered one’s life, and one can’t wait to get rid of her!

        If you continue to denigrate your seminary formation, however uneven it may have been, we will all start to wonder if you are actually qualified to be a priest at all. I’m sure this is not your intention.

      2. Sebastian, The facts are the facts about the 70’s but the correlation in cheating was on ordination promises and wedding promises. Bishops promise obedience to the pope, priests promise obedience and respect to the bishop. Yes, the promise of love and respect for one’s spouse and exclusivity in terms of fidelity, correlate very well with ordination promises of obedience and celibacy. Where do you draw the line in either of these promises in terms of “obedience, respect and fidelity?” Our ordination promise is more than obedience to defined dogma.

    2. I’m aware of about 15 Roman Catholic priests who last year were received into the Episcopal Church — and by no means does that represent the total number, but only those that I’m aware of. Most of these men left because they disagreed with what they believe (and TEC believes, for that matter) are “changeable disciplines.”

      The problem they faced was that Rome disagrees: the question of whether or not all the sacraments are for all the baptized does not involve mutable practice, but immutable doctrine — at least in the perspective of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. To stay and dissent loyally would have resulted in any number of possible censures that, in a few of the cases at least, would have meant the termination of very promising careers. To stay would have meant silence, and silence would have been intellectual and spiritual death.

      In every case that I’m aware of, these men’s hearts were broken by leaving. And in every case that I’m aware of, the decision was made in good conscience, after a long period of discernment. The ones I know personally will tell you that, at the end of the day they feel compromised, but significantly less than if they would have stayed.

      My point is that one person’s changeable discipline is another’s divine revelation or magisterial definition… tough call sometimes.

  14. Interesting discussion – okay, hold on Fr. MacDonald – actually agree with your #14 posting. One of my most respected mentors was the bishop of Minn/St.Paul who resigned because of Humanae Vita and on his principles. I also know more than a handful of priests who resigned because of various principles.

    Good book, Stages of Faith, by James Fowler. This is a description of stage 5:

    “Unusual before mid-life, Stage 5 knows the sacrament of defeat and the reality of irrevocable commitments and acts. What the previous stage struggled to clarify, in terms of the boundaries of self and outlook, this stage now makes porous and permeable. Alive to paradox and the truth in apparent contradictions, this stage strives to unify opposites in mind and experience. It maintains vulnerability to the strange truths of those who are “other.” Ready for closeness to that which is different and threatening to self (including new depths of experience in spirituality and religious revelation), this stage’s commitment to justice is freed from the confines of tribe, class, religious community or nation. And with the seriousness that can arise when life is more than half over, this stage is ready to spendfor the cause of cultivating others’ identity and meaning.

    The strength of this stage comes in the rise of the ironic imagination. Its danger lies in the direction of a paralyzing passivity or inaction, giving rise to complacency or cynical withdrawal, due to its paradoxical truth.”

  15. “How many husbands would like to cheat on their wives because a better looking woman entered his life?”

    Not quite the same. A husband in such a state would be looking not for sacrificial love, but loving another woman for what she could give him.

    Most people who muse about optional celibacy or a “loosing” of discipline on women priests are not forwarding the idea necessarily out of self-interest. There is a genuine search for God’s will involved in these theological questions.

  16. cont……how often do we make peace with a self-inflicted compromise. Our dreams are unfulfilled; resentment can sink in expressed via preoccupation with hobbies, time off, travel, substance abuse, etc. But it is permitted because of the imposed conflict between ideals and obedience. We are entitled because we have sacrificed.

    This theme is much written about by Donald Cozzens in the Changing Face of the Priesthood.

  17. “How many husbands would like to cheat on their wives because a better looking woman entered his life?”

    Not quite the same. How many husbands do not love their wife any more, no matter how much they try, and feel bad about continuing to have sex with her even though they don’t really want to?

    1. Claire, That’s a very good example–should he come clean and tell her or in charity persevere? Counseling sounds good–could divorce her. Is brutal honesty about one’s feelings the best for spouse and family? I know of many altruistic couples who survive these sorts of marriages and in a very noble way. We all know of those that don’t survive. Although I have to say that the last part usually comes from the woman and not the man!

  18. It is ridiculous to equate with dicy dissent, adultery or whatever the sensible reactions of vast numbers of Catholics to the version we have seen of the proposed new translations. The dismay expressed by a very wide variety of Catholics, most of them not dissenters (to use Stalinspeak) by any means, is based very simply on the perception that the language of the new translations is dreck. No amount of ideological posturing is going to change this sow’s ear into a silken purse.

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