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Spotlight Report

  Eileen McNamara  

Bishops are behind curve


The Voice of the Faithful might want to stock up on throat lozenges.

The organization of reform-minded Catholics will need to stage regular public readings of documents from the Second Vatican Council that make the case for a broader role for the laity in the church. It can no longer assume that US bishops have read them, and it might well presume that it could take decades for the bishops to read and digest their meaning.

This week, in an extraordinarily delayed reaction, the US Conference of Bishops declared that it is theologically unsound for Catholics to try to convert Jews to Christianity. The principle that Judaism has not been supplanted by, but coexists with, Christianity was first expressed almost 40 years ago in Nostra Aetate (In Our Time), a Vatican II document that explored the relationship of Catholicism to other religions.

Noting ''the spiritual patrimony common to Christians and Jews,'' the synod urged ''mutual understanding and respect which is the fruit above all of biblical and theological studies and brotherly dialogues.'' The council instructed further that '' Jews should not be presented as repudiated or cursed by God, as if such views followed from Holy Scripture.''

That a restatement of a 1965 pronouncement was deemed newsworthy and even hailed as cause for celebration by Jew and gentile alike hints at just how low are expectations for change in the Catholic Church.

To be sure, the statement was issued jointly by the Bishops' Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs and the National Council of Synagogues. But when was the last time that Jews targeted Catholics for conversion? The very need for such a statement is an acknowledgement of the failure to build on the challenge of Nostra Aetate to advance ''the day, known to God alone, when all peoples will call on God with one voice and serve him shoulder to shoulder.''

From the Crusades through the Inquisition to the Holocaust, Catholicism has been complicit in or indifferent to the persecution of the Jews. Pope John Paul II has built impressive bridges to the Jewish people across that historic divide. But, for the US bishops to announce in 2002 that the church finds no theological basis for trying to baptize Jews hardly seems a major step toward the ecumenism that Pope John XXIII envisioned.

If such is the pace of reform in the Catholic Church, the Voice of the Faithful should steel itself for years of incremental gains on behalf of a disenfranchised laity. Never mind that Vatican II specifically authorized the laity to claim the leadership role it is being denied by the more conservative hierarchy that followed Pope John XXIII to power. ''By reason of their knowledge, competence, or preeminence which they have, the laity are empowered - indeed, sometimes obliged - to manifest their opinion on those things which pertain to the good of the church,'' the council held.

Clear enough, but such was the trepidation of the Voice leadership that it tried to stave off official rebuke of its national convention in Boston last month by soliciting in advance the signatures of theologians who endorsed their right, under canon law, to meet. More than 60 signed.

It is unlikely that any number of theologians would quiet the opposition of Bishop William Murphy of the Diocese of Rockville Centre on Long Island to the Voice of the Faithful. Last week, Murphy ordered a local pastor to prohibit a Voice of the Faithful chapter from meeting in a parish hall and said his ban will apply to all parishes within the diocese.

Such a heavy-handed effort to quash a movement by committed Catholics to reclaim their church is antithetical to the spirit, and the letter, of the Second Vatican Council. Maybe in 40 more years, the bishops will get around to reading those documents that make clear that it is the people, not the princes, who are the church.

Eileen McNamara is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at

This story ran on page B1 of the Boston Globe on 8/14/2002.
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