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Will it breathe with two lungs? East-West European church clash set for Prague symposium.

East-West European church clash set for Prague symposium

OXFORD, England -- In "The Vatican takes over European bishops" (NCR, March 5), I described how the Vatican brought CCEE -- Latin acronym for the Council of European Bishops' Conferences -- to heel. A simple statutory change was enough: Instead of the delegates being elected by their peers, it was decreed that each episcopal conference should be represented by its president. This would lend the CCEE "greater authority," claimed Pope John Paul II. But its most immediate effect was to oust Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini, archbishop of Milan, from the overall presidency of the CCEE. His international ecumenical reputation -- he is a friend of the Russian Orthodox patriarch, Alexis -- was thus thrown away just at the time when it was most needed.

Although Martini, widely tipped in the Italian press to succeed the pope, ought to have been president of CE, the Italian episcopal conference, Italy is a special case: The president of the conference is not elected but appointed by the pope. So out went Martini.

He was replaced as CCEE president by Cardinal Miroslav Vlk, archbishop of Prague, who under the communists worked as a window cleaner. September 7-12 Vlk, (pronounced vilk and meaning "wolf") will host the first symposium under the new regime. But this symposium will be different. It will be "enlarged" to include 100 European bishops, 50 priests, 50 religious and 70 laypeople representing lay associations and movements. Much depends on how they have been selected. The symposium theme, based on a suggestion of Cardinal Basil Hume, archbishop of Westminster, England, and Martini's predecessor as president, will be "Living the Gospel in Freedom and Solidarity."

Hume, a speaker at the conference, has always insisted that East and West have much to learn from each other and that "no one side has a monopoly on courage, charism or wisdom."

But the draft document, prepared under Vlk's direction, reflects a more pessimistic view of the West. "Some fear," it declares, "that the way liberty is lived in the free societies of Europe leaves little room for solidarity. In such societies do we not see that the love which inspires solidarity has been sacrificed at the expense of liberty?"

Nobody wants to see communism back. But the "liberalism" and "pluralism" that are inseparable from democracy bring with them what John Paul called on his 1991 visit to Prague the virus of pornography, everyone-for-himself individualism and a confusion between liberty and anything-goes license.

On a recent visit to Belgium, Vlk explained that "it is more difficult to live out freedom in the present conditions than under communism" because then it was clearly known "what was permitted and what was forbidden."

Now the newly liberated Central Europeans have to learn "liberty in responsibility," a liberty that cannot be enjoyed without fidelity to "communion and thus to a certain hierarchy." Vlk frankly admitted that in the past CCEE had been "too Western." It appeared to cave in too easily to the forces of "secularization." The major fear of Western churches, he said, was that of being "deprived of their liberty and their autonomy." That imbalance would now be corrected.

"We in the East," he went on, "have a different experience of church compared with you in the West. Deprived of bishops for 40 years, the Czechs and Slovaks learned to see the pope as the best guarantee of their freedom."

Some complicated emotions lurk among such statements. There is a sense of superiority in suffering. Jozef Tischner, a Polish philosophical friend of John Paul, holds that in the East the true witnesses to the faith are martyrs, not theologians. According to Tischner, Western theologians, preoccupied with such questions as contraception and women priests, are intolerably superficial compared with those who suffered the real evil of the Gulag Archipelago. Those who do not know evil know nothing. With this goes a phenomenon of overcompensation: Excluded for years from the church's central administration, these churches -- or rather their bishops -- feel that it is their turn now. For years, they believe, they have been patronized and patted on the head. A Slav pope gives them a rare, perhaps unrepeatable opportunity. They are determined to make the most of it, confident that the Slav pope agrees with them.

So the Prague symposium of the CCEE looks like another exercise in West-bashing or what John Paul more elegantly calls "enabling Europe to breathe with two lungs."

The idea is to balance the West by the East. This lay behind making Sts. Cyril and Methodius, two Greek brothers who evangelized the Balkans in the ninth century, coequal patrons of Europe alongside St. Benedict. Benedict was too exclusively Western.

Yet there are some Central Europeans, especially Czechs, who are less extreme than the Poles and think the pendulum should not swing too far. Fr. Tomas Halik, secretary of the Czech bishops conference, warned the 1991 Eurosynod against the right-wing habit of treating Christians who lived under communism "as heroes and models for the universal church."

Halik's words are worth recalling: "Some were heroes, of course; but there were cowards, too, who ran away. You should either idealize us, nor underestimate yourselves. So, for example, we are a poor church -- but that does not mean that we have the true spirit of poverty. Once we get our hands on wealth, we may be just as greedy and grasping as anyone in the West." Halik went on: "The attempt by the right wing to build up the suffering church as the one true church is dangerous. The left wing caricatures us in another way, as the place where married men and even women were clandestinely ordained to the priestly ministry."

But the main distortion, Halik concluded, comes from the right: "The fact that we have no theology, for example, does not mean that we have the true faith or are paragons of orthodoxy: It just means that we have no theology. Period. But we cannot do without theology -- reflection on faith."

That sets the scene for a debate that -- if it is fairly conducted, admittedly a big if -- should make possible "the mutual exchange of gifts" of which the Eurosynod spoke.
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Title Annotation:Council of European Bishops' Conferences
Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 3, 1993
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