Politics & Policy

All Church Politics Is Local

U.S. Catholic bishops nudge toward decentralization.

In a rare exercise of collective muscle, the U.S. Bishops Committee on Doctrine issued a statement last Friday declaring that two pamphlets published by Professor Daniel Maguire of Marquette University “do not present authentic Catholic teaching.”

In so doing, the U.S. bishops may have also advanced the cause of decentralization in the Catholic Church.

Though the bishops’ committee stopped short of any disciplinary measures against Maguire himself, the statement makes amply clear that Maguire’s views “cross the legitimate lines of theological reflection and simply enter into the area of false teaching.”

One might wonder: Why censure a has-been like Maguire? The 75-year-old divorced ex-Jesuit, who currently teaches religious ethics at Marquette University, was a darling of the ecclesiastical Left in the 1970s but has since fallen into relative obscurity.

Indeed many have seen Maguire’s pamphlets as a last-ditch effort to recover a little notoriety. On June 19, 2006, Maguire sent his two pamphlets, entitled “The Moderate Roman Catholic Position on Contraception and Abortion” and “A Catholic Defense of Same-Sex Marriage” to all 270 Catholic bishops of the United States. To tease out a response from the bishops, Maguire had to resort to a tactic equivalent to slapping a sleeping lion on the nose.

For many years Maguire has been largely ignored by both Rome and local ecclesiastical authorities. Though his opinions collide head-on with Catholic teaching, they don’t have enough influence to be considered a high-level danger to the faithful. Would-be doctrinal dissidents abound, and the Holy See in particular is extremely selective about whose teachings they eventually censure.

Maguire’s full-bore support for abortion, euthanasia, contraception, gay rights, assisted suicide, and embryonic-stem-cell research could not be further removed from Catholic moral teaching. Yet though works like his Sacred Choices: The Right to Contraception and Abortion in Ten World Religions are an in-your-face assault on Catholic moral teachings, they have received little public attention from the bishops.

Nothing was said publicly, moreover, when in March 2006 Maguire wrote an open letter to Catholic legislators in California assuring them that they could support an assisted-suicide bill (AB 651), and still remain Catholics in good standing. “As a Catholic theologian I have long considered such a choice to be morally and ethically acceptable in extreme and strictly safeguarded circumstances and there is nothing in AB 651 that cannot be supported by a Catholic,” he wrote, explaining further that Catholic theology is broader and more nuanced than “Vatican theology.”

Many, in fact, consider Maguire to be something of a harmless theological crackpot. In a 2004 article he advocated adoption of the Chinese practice of putting free condoms — rather than Bibles — in hotel-room drawers, but lamented that this would never happen in the United States because “it would offend our theocratic and Puritan sensibilities.”

So why is the declaration by the bishops’ committee significant? More than simply restating traditional Catholic teaching in rebuke of a minor dissident, it represents a reanimation of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity as applied to Church governance. By offering a local solution to a local problem, the statement takes a step toward restoring a healthy balance between local and central authority.

For years, Church officials from across the political spectrum have lamented a creeping centralization within the Catholic Church. The Roman Curia has been accused of being overly interventionist and power-hungry, dipping into local problems that could be better handled at a lower level. At the same time, Curial officials have insisted that they don’t want to have to rein in every maverick theologian and doctrinal dissident, and only do so when the local church authorities either ask them to intervene or simply fail to do their job.

As Cardinal Walter Kasper wrote in the April 23, 2001 issue of Jesuit-run America magazine, over-centralization in the Catholic Church cannot be blamed exclusively on the Roman Curia. The local churches themselves promote centralization, he wrote, “whenever they abdicate their responsibility and turn to Rome for a decision — a ruse to evade their duty and find cover behind a superior order.”

Another vocal critic of centralization has been John Quinn, the retired, progressive archbishop of San Francisco. In a 2003 lecture at Boston College, Quinn pointed out that in earlier centuries, papal intervention in the wider Church was largely confined to “responses to appeals in notable, unusual cases where there were unresolvable differences,” or “when issues of heretical doctrines could not be resolved at the local levels of authority.”

Prior to his election as pope, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger himself spoke out on several occasions regarding the need for local Church authorities to take responsibility for church teaching within their dioceses. In the fall 2001 meeting of the synod of bishops, for example, Ratzinger asked bishops to crack down on doctrinal error. “If at times it may be just to tolerate a lesser evil for the sake of peace in the church, let us not forget that a peace paid for with the loss of the truth would be a false peace, an empty peace,” he said, drawing the most sustained applause of the synod.

Though the recent statement from the U. S. bishops’ committee may be unremarkable in its content, it may well represent an important step in this process.


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