Beliefs Opinion

COMMENTARY: Will politics or grace guide the choice of Chicago’s new archbishop?

c. 1996 Religion News Service

UNDATED _ Two distinctive traits characterize Roman Catholic fundamentalists: they appear to be obsessed with papal authority and they seem largely ignorant of history.

Such rigid conservatives tend to extend the infallibility of the pope beyond the boundaries defined by the First Vatican Council to include virtually everything he says and does. Their definition of papal authority means that everything the pope orders must be instantly obeyed and praised as correct _ even highly debatable issues such as Pope John Paul II’s conviction that nuns should wear religious habits rather than civilian garb.

To my mind, such people are utterly ignorant of the history of the Catholic Church, including the fact that often men and women who were later canonized as saints disagreed with popes and criticized them in public.

Catholic fundamentalists have sent me letters attacking my oft-expressed concern about the next archbishop of Chicago. The pope, they tell me, will make the appointment, just as popes always have. The man appointed will be the best possible archbishop for Chicago, they argue, because the pope will be inspired by the Holy Spirit.

But this makes me remember the late Cardinal John Cody, who once proclaimed”I am Chicago!”and who was on the verge of indictment for financial misconduct at the time of his death. Was Cody, who caused such pain and confusion for Catholics, the best choice for Chicago?

What few hard-liners remember is that the Vatican became involved in the appointment of bishops only at the end of the last century. Up to that point, popes were content to let local clergy choose their own bishops. For the first 1,000 years of Catholic history, bishops were chosen by local clergy and laity.

Popes who have been proclaimed saints _ Leo and Gregory _ have said that to choose a bishop by any other way was a grave sin.

Even in the first decades of this century, when a bishop was to be chosen, priests had the right and duty to submit three names to Rome. The present practice deprives priests and people of ancient rights.

There is no room for politics, Catholic fundamentalists say, in the selection of an archbishop. But what do they think is going on right now? Some cardinals are playing relentless political games to place one of their favorites in Chicago. What right do they have to supercede the laity and clergy of the archdiocese?

I hear that New York Cardinal John J. O’Connor is pushing strongly for his candidate, Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein of Indianapolis. What does Cardinal O’Connor know about Chicago? For him to lobby for a candidate is like New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani claiming to have the right to appoint a mayor for Chicago.

It was on Buechlein’s watch that the archabbot of St. Meinrad’s Seminary in Indiana fired Sister of Mercy Carmel McEnroy, who was a tenured professor of theology at the seminary. The reason? She publicly advocated the ordination of women.

Such a punitive move might win favor in this Vatican, but it would cause Buechlein immense trouble with Catholic women in Chicago, some of whom feel strongly about discrimination against women in the church.

Placards and protest marches would hound him on arrival and throughout his administration. If Buechlein were chosen to be Chicago’s archbishop, would there be similar incidents in which all the women who work at the archdiocese’s Pastoral Center or who teach at the seminaries, universities, colleges, high schools and grammar schools would be required to state explicitly that they do not believe in the ordination of women?

The Chicago media would tear such a man to pieces. If the Archbishop of Indianapolis is offered the job, he would be very wise to decline.

This is what happens when ancient rights are violated and a new bishop is chosen without consultation with the local clergy and laity. This is what happens when historical fundamentalism dominates the church. This what happens when people come to believe that the pope cannot make a mistake in appointing a bishop, even though those who seek to influence his choice know little about the city or its people.

God will take care of everything, one is told. There is a name for this attitude: it is called”tentatio Dei,”or tempting God. It is a very serious sin because it assumes that God will make up for lack of responsible human effort.