Few people seem to remember what the early Church was like. I mean the EARLY Church. Go back and look at the Acts of the Apostles, the Letters of Paul, the evangelists’ accounts of the Good News of Jesus, the non-canonical sources and so on. Discussion and debate permeated the style of leadership of the early Church communities because everything was so new and uncertain. The first generations of the “followers of The Way,” as Christianity in its inchoate state was known, were trying to grapple with questions about who Jesus of Nazareth was and is, what it means to talk about resurrection, what it means to talk about humanity and divinity together. There were questions about who was and was not part or could be part of the community. Was it only Jews? Could Gentiles convert? Did they have to be Jews first?
You have two of the most significant followers of Jesus of Nazareth, Peter and Paul, on two very different sides of the proverbial aisle on the question of who could and couldn’t be admitted to the nascent Christian community. It was a very public and well-known debate.
You have, just a few centuries later, the famous Christological Ecumenical Councils, at which some of the most foundational creedal statements of the Christian faith were concretized. By the standards of the outcomes of those Councils, many of the bishops who entered the Council did so as technical heretics, at one time convinced of an opposing or all-together different theological view.
Even at our most recent ecumenical council, the Second Vatican Council, we have the best documented historical record of any over the course of some two thousand years and in the record reveals a very lively and at-times contentious discussion and debate about procedure, theology, canon law, engagement of the Church with the world, interreligious dialogue, the meaning of the Church and so on!
Had there been no discussion and debate among Church leaders at any point in history, we simply wouldn’t be the Church and the Spirit wouldn’t be able to work through the gifts, minds and hearts of a diverse body of leaders.
So why do so many Church leaders today, particularly in the in the United States, believe that discussion and debate are bad for the Church? Why are certain partisan voices permitted to reign hegemonically, while critical voices or alternative views are silenced, ignored or pushed away?
Several news stories and opinion columns (most notably E.J Dionne of the Washington Post and Kevin Clarke of America) have recently highlighted the much-forgotten reality that not all bishops think alike. Granted, it has been the widespread opinion that recent pontiffs, Blessed John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI particularly, have sought through episcopal appointments to create a more like-minded body of leaders, but the truth is the Spirit continues to work despite human efforts to control.
The diversity in view on matters such as the recent lawsuit against the government brought about by 43 Catholic institutions and dioceses, the role of some Church leaders’ roles in conservative politics, and other important issues, suggests that there exists the condition for the possibility of real discussion and debate among Church leaders.
But the question is why isn’t there any legitimate discussion or debate?
My intuition is that there is a collective experience of the specter of fear, which haunts the bishops as much as it haunts individual men and women who cowered at Cold-War rhetoric, Iraqi ‘WMDs,’ and the omnipresent threat of terrorism in the public square. For the Church, this specter might cast a shadow on certain bishops — perhaps even the majority (note well that only 13 dioceses out of nearly 200 US dioceses are involved in this recent lawsuit) — in the form of Vatican reprimand, removal from office or some other curbing of a bishop’s individual authority by virtue of office.
The truth is, canonically and ecclesiologically, individual bishops who are Ordinaries of a given See (diocese), have very exclusive power. National bishops conferences, thanks to John Paul II, now have very little actual power. Likewise, the Vatican dicasteries and the Pope himself have little canonical power to intervene in the affairs of a given diocese or bishop. Generally, when such things happen, it’s in the form of behind-the-scenes pressuring or “promotion” to Rome or something of the like.
Yet, such iterations of the specter of fear make their appearances in the events such as those that occurred in the Diocese of Seattle with Archbishop Hunthausen in the 1980s when John Paul II did not like the complaints he and other officials were receiving about the Seattle bishop’s outspoken opposition to nuclear weapons and the policies of conservative politicians to limit care for the poor. Hunthausen, curiously enough, was in attendance for all four sessions of Vatican II, then the youngest US bishop. Ostensibly, his efforts simply to live out the Council’s decrees got him in trouble. And the other bishops of the United States took note.
Bishop Stephen Blaire of the Diocese of Stockton, CA, deserves accolades and support for his honest and intelligent assessment of the situation concerning the latest hype surrounding the government’s HHS mandate. Clarke quotes Bishop Blaire and explains:
Bishop Blaire explained he was worried that some national groups appear to be seizing on the issue and transforming the dispute over religious liberty into a political fight.
“I am concerned that in addressing the H.H.S. mandate,” he said, “that it be clear that what we are dealing with is a matter of religious liberty and the intrusion of government into the church and that it not be perceived as a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue.
“I think there are different groups that are trying to co-opt this and make it into political issue, and that’s why we need to have a deeper discussion as bishops.”
Bishop Blaire believes discussions with the Obama administration toward a resolution of the dispute could be fruitful even as alternative remedies are explored. He worried that some groups “very far to the right” are trying to use the conflict as “an anti-Obama campaign.”
What we need is more discussion and debate among Church leaders. In an age of sexual-abuse and financial scandals, leadership in our faith community should strive to be transparent in every way. Church leaders need to remember that they are indeed successors to the Apostles, such as Peter and Paul, who themselves debated far more foundational issues in the public square. Church leaders need to recall that it is ok to have differing opinions, even on theological issues, as long as their openness to the Spirit and their willingness to discuss such issues with charity, such as the events of the Church’s ecumenical councils, pervades the discourse. And Church leaders must recall that they are servants of the people of God and of the Truth and that requires a humility that does not seek a hegemonic voice, but instead reflects the unity amid diversity so representative in the Catholic tradition.
What we need is to return to our historical and theological roots to recall that honest discussion and debate among church leader is a sign of the working of the Holy Spirit, not a reflection of disunity.