Bishop Clark Displays the Nature of True Authority

National Catholic Reporter, December 5, 1997 | Go to article overview
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Bishop Clark Displays the Nature of True Authority

"Why can we not openly dialogue about the ministry of women, the meaning of sexuality and the condition of homosexuality, the situation of the divorced and remarried?"

That is but one of a series of questions asked by Bishop Matthew Clark in an essay published earlier this year in New Theological Review.

Clark's questions, thoughtful and provocative, were predictably pounced on by critics. Ultra-right opponents lined up outside the diocesan offices in Rochester, N.Y., holding large placards proclaiming: "Bishop Clark: Come back to the Catholic faith!"

Clark is of course deeply embedded in the Catholic faith and its traditions. His essay, "The Pastoral Exercise of Authority," takes up a theme that will become increasingly important to the church in the years ahead as the current curial administration in Rome continues its attempts to centralize power and to impose rigid constraints on local bishops.

The issues raised in his essay--and by other actions he has taken as bishop --are essential to a healthy church. The dialogue his thinking has fostered in the wider community in Rochester constitutes a wonderful witness to a church that is vibrant and unafraid.

The demonstrators that have become a part of the diocesan landscape in Rochester clearly illustrate that the vaunted obedience of those on the right to leaders appointed by the pope has severe limits. "Cafeteria Catholics" can be found across the liberal-to-conservative spectrum.

A reading of the literature of today's Catholic fundamentalists makes it clear that the treasured image of unwavering orthodoxy has its limits. Let the pope declare that, for all practical purposes, there is no circumstance in modern society that warrants the use of capital punishment or that nuclear weapons should be banned, and they trot out their interpretations of Aquinas and embrace the "exercise of the intellect of the faithful." They discover, in fact, the indispensability of individual conscience and "intellectual understanding" in weighing and accepting papal teaching.

The self-proclaimed papal loyalists engage in the same relativism they raise as a criticism of their opponents.

The point is, a debate continues in this church over positions that are not even absolute to the absolutists.

It is no secret that throughout Pope John Paul II's tenure, the type of men appointed to episcopal posts and the characteristics essential to upward mobility in the hierarchy have, for the most part, changed dramatically from those rewarded during the tenures of Pope Paul VI and Pope John XXIII.

Concerns about pastoral skills, compassion and a view of the church as the people of God have been subjugated to assurances that new bishops will toe the line, enforce the rules and brook no discussion of any of the difficult topics having to do with sexuality or orders.

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