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Venerable but rocky history of U.S. collegiality.

Vatican II made its first reference to episcopal conferences in its constitution on the liturgy where it assigned to them competence in certain liturgical norms. ... Though many American bishops were probably unaware of it, they had had a long-standing tradition of a collegial exercise of ecclesiastical authority both in national councils and in founding a national conference.

The nation's first bishop, John Carroll, had distinctive notions on episcopal authority and its relationship to the Holy See. In 1786, as it became apparent that a bishop would be necessary for the new American republic -- there had been none in the original 13 colonies -- Carroll declared that if there was to be a bishop, he should be an "ordinary national bishop in whose choice Rome shall have no say."

Carroll was not a rebel, except against what he perceived to be accidental ecclesiastical developments. But he was a radical, in the sense that he knew the roots of church tradition. Under his tutelage, the American clergy, all of whom had been Jesuits before the suppression of their order, petitioned Rome for permission to elect their bishop.

This was not newfound American republicanism, but the way things had been in the church before the surrender of the Holy See to the demands of civil powers. Cathedral chapters had elected bishops for final approval and appointment by the Holy See, but the major powers, especially France and Spain, had gradually won this right for themselves.

The United States had already told the Holy See it had no interest in such a religious matter as the appointment of a bishop, and John Carroll wanted to place the American church on the firm foundation of legitimate tradition. Carroll was elected by his fellow priests at a meeting at the White Marsh estate in the suburbs of the present city of Washington. Pius VI confirmed the nomination and appointed him first bishop of Baltimore in 1789.

Carroll's diocese was vast -- all 13 original states and their adjacent territories -- and his administrative obligations did not allow him to develop his thoughts. But he kept a strong sense of the bishop's role in shaping the church's teaching. As he put it in 1811 to one of the French bishops who had accepted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, the "center of Catholic unity must be found in the steadfast, public, avowed doctrine, confession and authority of the successor of St. Peter, united in language and belief with all (I mean morally all) the bishops of the Catholic world."

Carroll in fact was not so much innovative as representative of the theology he had learned. In 1808, his vast diocese was divided. Baltimore became an archdiocese and four new sees were established. In 1810, Carroll met with his suffragans and planned to hold a provincial council, a legislative meeting of a metropolitan archbishop with his suffragans, in 1812.

The war with the British, however, forced a postponement past Carroll's death to a period when the theology he represented was being challenged. His second successor as archbishop, Ambrose Marechal, did not share his theological views. Originally an emigre from the French Revolution, he did not quite adapt to the American republican ways, even when they were in fact compatible with the tradition of the church.

Further to the south in Charleston, however, he received a suffragan bishop who reflected the theology of Carroll. John England, only 34 years old when he became the first bishop of Charleston, knew theology and canon law. He was also a student of church history. Most of all, he was well-aware that a bishop was the delegate of neither the archbishop of Baltimore nor a Roman congregation. He began badgering Marechal to hold a provincial council in order to provide uniform legislation for the American church.

Failing to persuade Marechal, he took his case to Rome and added the argument that a council would keep the Holy See informed of American affairs. When he received a curt rebuke from Cardinal della Somaglia that Rome already knew the American situation, England curtly replied: "Omnia Romae nota non esse, ut ex litteris Eminentiae Vestrae patet!" ("Rome doesn't know everything, as your letter clearly shows!") ...

Only a provincial council, he argued, could bring uniform and proper discipline to the American church. Such a procedure was not only in accord with the ancient canons of the church and "the spirit of our national institutions," but had been prescribed by the Council of Trent, which legislated that every archbishop should hold a council with his suffragans every three years.

In Europe, the governments had prevented this legislation from being carried out, but in the United States, the church was free. For Rome or Marechal to act individually appeared to England to be "an encroachment upon the rights of diocesan bishops and an attempt to reduce them to the level of vicars apostolic."

Still England was unsuccessful. He had to wait for the death of Marechal and the appointment of his successor, James Whitfield, before the First Provincial Council of Baltimore met in 1829.

The council did provide for uniform discipline for the American church, especially in condemning the extremes of lay trusteeism, a movement that sought to give to trustees the right to hire and fire pastors. It exempted the system England had worked out for Charleston, where he adopted a constitution for his diocese and promoted lay involvement. Finally, the council's last decree set a date in 1832 for the next council, "unless for grave reason it seemed good to the archbishop to defer it."

Whitfield found a "grave reason." ... It was the danger of the Irish domination of the church. In Whitfield's mind, England and Francis P. Kenrick, then coadjutor bishop of Philadelphia, "are both warm-headed Irishmen." ... Whitfield, who was English-born, had strong views on the Irish and hoped no more would be named bishops as he feared "their increase in number will have power to have others of their countrymen nominated hereafter and bring over to this country a great number of Irish priests whilst," he wished, "with a few exceptions, they would all stay at home."

But Whitfield's fulminations were more than antipathy for the Irish; they were also reflective of a different ecclesiology.

Ultimately, England won this round. In 1833, under orders of the Holy See, Whitfield convoked the Second Provincial Council. ... The Second Provincial Council also provided for the bishops to have a corporate voice in nominating bishops. They were now to submit a list of three names, a terna, for vacant sees or for coadjutors. The American bishops were developing a strong sense of collegiality.

Behind this conciliar practice was a strong theological sense of collegiality -- a sense lost in the 20th century before Vatican II. ...

Somehow Kenrick still managed to study theology. In 1938, he published the first edition of a four-volume work on dogmatic theology. The church's teaching authority, he stated, had been under divine guidance from the time of the apostles so that one or even many bishops could fall into error, but "infallibility" or the "privilege of inerrancy" resided "in the body of the bishops, under the presidency of the Roman pontiff."

The ecclesiology of Carroll, England and Kenrick, however, was beginning to become a minority position. Paradoxically, the Americans found themselves in trouble because they were obedient to the canon law of Trent in holding their councils. In the Seventh Provincial Council in 1849, the bishops petitioned Rome to establish new metropolitan provinces -- St. Louis and Oregon City (later transferred to Portland) had already been established. They also asked that the archbishop of Baltimore be named primate of the American church.

The title was more than an honor, for it would mean that the archbishop would preside by right over any plenary council. The Holy See feared this, however, and denied the request -- in 1859 it declared that the nation's oldest see enjoyed "prerogative of place." Its reasoning soon became apparent.

In June 1853, Archbishop Gaetano Bedini, on his way to become nuncio to Brazil, began an official visitation of the church in the United States. While the American bishops were loyal to Rome, he reported, the "ocean that divides them" and the "unbridled liberty of their civil institutions" could "later form some pretext for independent action." He therefore concluded that "the Holy See has very wisely refused to grant them their request for a primatial see." ...

Quite clearly, Bedini and the American hierarchy had different views of how to preserve episcopal unity. Despite increased Roman suspicion of their freedom, the Americans still held to their tradition of collegiality. In 1866, the bishops gathered for the Second Plenary Council. In a decree that received formal Roman approbation, they stated that "bishops ... who are the successors of the apostles and whom the Holy Spirit has placed to rule the church of God ... agreeing and judging together with its head on earth, the Roman pontiff, whether they are gathered in general councils or dispersed throughout the world, are inspired from on high with a gift of inerrancy so that their body or college can never fail in faith nor define anything against doctrine revealed by God."

This theology of collegiality, expressed in words so familiar to students of Vatican II, however, would gradually die out in the American mind. At Vatican I, many American bishops, relying on their own national council only three years before, argued against any definition of papal infallibility that would be independent of the infallibility of the church, that is, the bishops.

This independence of thought increased Roman suspicion. In 1878, the Holy See dispatched another visitor to the American church, Bishop George Conroy of Ardagh in Ireland. Conroy reported that some American bishops and priests were in danger of so reshaping the church in the United States as to threaten the unity of the church. He made a devastating critique of the quality of American bishops -- most had the qualities of bankers rather than pastors -- and particularly pointed out the strained relations between priests and their bishops.

Conroy's concerns fed the Holy See's desire to learn more about the American church. In 1883, it convoked the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, the first American council summoned at Roman and not American initiative. Originally, Pope Leo XIII had planned on appointing an Italian archbishop as apostolic delegate to preside over the council, but withdrew that appointment in face of American pressure to appoint the archbishop of Baltimore, James Gibbons.

Though the decrees of the council, held in 1884, were to bind the American church, they were distinctly Roman in origin. ... Most of all, Roman officials seemed intent on testing the loyalty of the American bishops, so many of whom had opposed the definition of papal infallibility in 1870. In other words, the last national council of the American hierarchy was an expression not so much of collegiality as of increasing Roman centralization.

A new generation of bishops was emerging who would not remember the theology of collegiality that had shaped their tradition. There were remnants of that tradition, however, that would give rise to the establishment of an episcopal conference in the 20th century. Beginning in 1890, the archbishops of the United States met annually -- theoretically after consulting their suffragans. But by that time, the hierarchy was publicly divided on issues ranging from the role of parochial schools and tension between immigrant groups to the meaning of Americanization of the church.

Despite the almost united opposition of the American hierarchy, the Holy See appointed the first permanent apostolic delegate to the bishops of the United States in 1893. The delegate gained an increasing role in American ecclesiastical affairs, notably in the appointment of bishops. ...

Pragmatism rather than a conscious awareness of episcopal collegiality led the American bishops in 1919 to organize the National Catholic Welfare Council. ... At Gibbons' death in 1921, power shifted to William Henry O'Connell, archbishop of Boston and the senior cardinal in the American church. In 1922, he succeeded in having the Holy See condemn the NCWC and order it disbanded. But the American bishops had the condemnation reversed. The name "council" was changed to "conference" to distinguish it from a legislative assembly of bishops. ...

Since the decisions of the NCWC were not to bind a local bishop in his own diocese, however, it did not really represent a recovery of the collegial tradition. That would have to wait until Vatican II, when most American bishops learned of collegiality from their European colleagues.

Although to many observers the relationship between the Vatican and the American bishops seemed placid, there were still tensions with individuals and even apostolic visitations of dioceses.

In the 1920s, for example, there were at least two visitations of the Boston archdiocese, where O'Connell sought to keep secret that his nephew, the chancellor of the archdiocese, had been married. There were even auxiliary bishops appointed who, if they did not have "special faculties," certainly had special prerogatives.

The most famous of them was Francis J. Spellman, who was appointed auxiliary of Boston in 1932, though O'Connell had not asked for one and certainly would not have requested Spellman.

As the American bishops approached Vatican II, they had a national episcopal conference but little knowledge of the ecclesiology that underlay it. "Kingmakers" like Spellman or Edward Hoban of Cleveland seemed to be the shapers of the hierarchy. The council brought forth the theology of collegiality, not only in the practice of the council itself but also in the demand that every national hierarchy form an episcopal conference.

In the United States, this meant the replacement of the NCWC with the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference.

The new organizations more accurately reflected the separate purposes and did away with some of the confusion arising from the ambiguity of the NCWC. Yet it would take some time for the American bishops to digest the meaning of collegiality, which seemed so different from the theology they had learned in the seminary. ...

Different theological methods and schools of thought give rise to different approaches to issues like authority and the interpretation of the magisterium. ...

In 1864, for example, Pius IX issued his Syllabus of Errors. Among the condemned propositions was that "the church should be separated from the state and the state from the church." Here seemed to be a clear condemnation of the American situation, but that is not the way Martin John Spalding, archbishop of Baltimore, and others viewed it at the time.

In a pastoral letter to his people, he said "it can hardly be doubted" that the syllabus "places us in a state of apparent antagonism, as far at least as our principles are concerned, to the institutions under which we live -- and affords a grand pretext to the fanatics who are eager to get up a crusade against us. God knows best what is for the good of his church." ...

The theology then dominant in the American church shaped a different approach to church authority. With a strong sense of collegiality, based on patristic theology, the leading American bishops of the first half of the 19th century were quite conscious of deriving doctrine from "consensus." ... A different theological method, however, led to a different interpretation of authority and the magisterium. The shift began with Vatican I. The constitution on revelation implied that scripture and tradition were separate sources of revelation. Then there developed the notion that tradition was static and was closely identified with magisterial pronouncements, especially papal ones.

None represented this development at the end of the century more than Louis Billot, SJ, who spoke of the "immutability of tradition." Papal statements that had previously been adapted by the bishops for their local concerns now became timeless pronouncements of irreformable doctrine. ...

Whereas earlier American bishops had felt free to ignore encyclicals that they did not think were applicable to the American situation, now two archbishops, Frederick J. Katzer of Milwaukee and Michael A. Corrigan of New York, considered the papal letter Testem Benevolentiae of 1899 to be an exercise of papal infallibility; they made no distinction in regard to the level of the authority of various papal pronouncements. ...

Only in the 1940s did a different form of theology emerge. In France, the "new theology" returned in part to the fathers of the church. In the United States, John Courtney Murray, SJ, renewed the discussion of religious liberty and the compatibility of the American separation of church and state with authentic Catholic doctrine. ...

The theological position on the necessity of a union of church and state that Gibbons had so freely challenged in 1887 now seemed to be the official teaching of the church. At least that is the way it appeared in a speech given in Rome by Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani, secretary of the Holy Office, in 1953. Public pluralism of theology had been unheard of in the American church.

By 1955, Murray had to cease writing and thus joined a number of other theologians in Europe who were regarded as suspect. In the United States, other scholars soon became targets. Biblical scholarship, only in its infancy at the beginning of the century, had virtually disappeared in the wake of anti-modernism. Gradually it re-emerged under Pius XII's encyclical in 1943 encouraging the use of the critical method deemed suspect by his predecessors. By the late 1950s, American biblical scholars came under increasing attack in a war that was being waged in Rome as well. ... Again, the issue was whether every statement that had emanated from Rome was in fact irreformable doctrine. ...

The story of Vatican II has been told elsewhere. Here the point is that many of the council's theological emphases were not so much the development of doctrine as a return to an older theological method. Collegiality, so new to the American bishops in 1962, was an essential aspect of the theology of their predecessors. The position that Murray helped draft on religious liberty had, in fact, been the theology that American Catholics had publicly proclaimed in the 19th century, without any interference from Rome. ...

In their pastoral letter of 1968, the bishops addressed the question of theological "dissent." ... In popular parlance, dissent has come to mean not only disagreement but also rejection. Dissent, in this sense, contributes to the tension between the Vatican and theologians. But tension in itself is not bad; it can contribute to the development of doctrine. ...

The influence of American customs on the thought and actions of American Catholics is not new. What is new is the changing role the church has in the lives of many Catholics. From the 1830s to the 1950s, the church in the United States was a defender of immigrants against nativist anti-Catholicism. ... But there were gradual inroads being made into this Catholic subculture. The election of John F. Kennedy to the presidency symbolized the assimilation of Catholics into American society, but it was a society that had become increasingly secularized. ...

Adding to this tension is that the assimilation of Catholics into American society occurred simultaneously with Vatican II. The council was largely unexpected by most American Catholics, lay or clerical, who tend to make the immediate past the norm for all the past. ...

Another new phenomenon in the American church is the public division among the laity. To my knowledge, never in American Catholic history have the laity and clergy been so divided. Both liberals and conservatives publish newspapers and books, engage in organized letterwriting campaigns to Roman and other ecclesiastical leaders and publicly chastise bishops.

A generation ago, most American Catholics would not have known the names of Vatican officials. Now Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger is almost a household name. Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago has remarked that "many Catholics see bishops as mere branch managers with the significant authority and leadership in Rome. That is why some bypass the local bishop or even the episcopal conference in sending letters to the pro-nuncio or directly to the Holy See."

While acknowledging the right of Catholics to do this, Bernardin noted that "this practice often belies a faulty ecclesiology." ...

The purpose of this essay was to point out that tension has more often than not been part of Americna Catholic history -- tension between the bishops and the Holy See, between theologians and church authority and, to a lesser extent, between the church and the laity. Tensions between Rome and the hierarchy and between theological schools of thought need not be divisive but can be creative and lead to the development of doctrine, so essential if the church is to adhere to tradition as its lived and living experience of Christ. ...
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Title Annotation:American Catholicism - history
Author:Fogarty, Gerald P.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 11, 1994
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