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The bishop: local leader or middle man?

With the obvious signs of the pope's failing health, there is much speculation about what issues will be in the minds of the cardinals when they go into a conclave to elect the next pontiff -- whenever that will be.

Media experts speculate on such matters as women priests, married priests, birth control, abortion. These are surely the issues that sell newspapers and TV advertising, but they will not be among the major preoccupations of the cardinals. None of them impinges directly on the life of a bishop -- and most cardinals are bishops in the sense that most of them administer their own dioceses.

For cardinals, even the most conservative ones, the most important question is whether as bishops they have authority and power in their own right as heads of the local church. Or are they merely bureaucratic functionaries, middle management if you will, in service of the Roman curia, subject to the constant monitoring of reactionary Catholic organizations such as Opus Dei?

This issue was settled on the theoretical level by the Second Vatican Council.

Bishops are collegial with the pope and govern together with him. They are his brothers, not his servants. They speak for the whole church to the local church and for the local church to the whole church. They are not middle management, but together with the pope (and of course subject to him) they should function as top management of the whole church.

In practice, however, during the reign of John Paul II, bishops often have been treated like subordinates and menials by the bureaucrats of the curia who presume to know more about the local diocese, its people, its problems and its possibilities than does the local bishop.

Moreover, among radical, right-wing Catholics, the curia has spies eager to report how even the most harmless of bishops is tolerating attitudes and behaviors that are "troubling" the simple faithful. In Rome today, only letters of protest from the right wing count. And only the "simple faithful" (who are usually pretty hard to find) are a matter of concern. The more sophisticated faithful, who often are shocked by the insensitivity of the curia, don't matter.

Even worse, local bishops, subject as they are to sometimes daily harassment by phone calls from Rome, find that they are rarely if ever consulted about matters that might seriously affect their people and their work. Thus, there was no worldwide consultation about the letter denying the possibility of women's ordination -- only a hasty last-minute meeting in Rome in which the leaders of some national hierarchies managed to tone down the language of the letter somewhat.

And so local bishops find themselves treated like children, like men who are incapable of running their own dioceses without interference and who are incapable of making important contributions to the decisions that will affect the whole church.

The Synod of Bishops that met recently in Rome was once considered a forum in which representatives of bishops could speak freely and forcefully to the pope about their concerns. In fact, it has become a forum in which the elected bishops are permitted to discuss only what the curia wants them to discuss and to arrive only at conclusions that the curia has determined before the conference begins.

It seems to some bishops, including the conservatives, that they are treated with less respect and more suspicion and contempt than were their predecessors before Vatican II.

Even men who are doctrinally conservative are offended when they are treated like wayward and unintelligent children. They are also offended when it seems that almost the only colleagues who get a hearing are those who are the worst sycophants.

It is frequently said by media experts on the Vatican that the College of Cardinals is made up of men appointed by the present pope. But the experts do not seem to realize how many of them are frustrated by the ways the curia dominates their lives. That frustration may be the most important dynamic affecting a conclave.

The key word to watch for will be pluralism. If that word is heard often during the time before a conclave, get ready for a major shift in the Vatican power structure.
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Title Annotation:Catholic polity
Author:Greeley, Andrew M.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 11, 1994
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