INCREASINGLY [in this paper] we have lamented the growing climate of fear in the church and the right-wing campaigns against respected theologians and other thinkers and activists.
Too often local bishops have moved to cancel speaking engagements or interfered with catechetical programs, in the process smearing reputations and lives of long service in the church.
So it was refreshing to receive a statement by Cardinal Roger Mahony, archbishop of Los Angeles, in response to critics of speakers participating in that city's giant annual religious education congress.
This congress, an immense undertaking that draws tens of thousands of educators from around the United States and other countries, has been fair game for critics on the ultra right in past years.
To his credit, Mahony has largely disarmed the critics with a statement that could well be a model for other bishops and dioceses under similar circumstances.
First, he grants the good intentions and dedication of the thousands who have a "profound commitment to their Catholic faith" and who attend the conference. "Whether they be professional educators or volunteers, they are women and men who seek to deepen and to grow in their own understanding of the faith so that they might better share it with others back in their home parishes and schools."
He assures everyone that both he and the organizers of the conference are "fully committed to the teachings of the Catholic church" and notes that the teachings are based on scripture, tradition and documents from the magisterium, "especially the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the fundamental compendium of Catholic theology for contemporary catechesis.
"Should any doubt arise about any opinion or statement offered by any speaker or presenter at the congress, only the normative teachings contained in these sources and resources should be considered correct," he writes.
The speakers who participate in the congress, said Mahony, come "fully approved by the diocesan bishop where he or she lives and is engaged in pastoral ministry."
In the most significant paragraphs of the statement, Mahony makes it clear it is not the role of the congress "to promote the personal agenda of any group or faction within the church. Rather, the congress provides the opportunity for religious educators to meet and hear speakers and presenters who are some of the most outstanding experts in their respective disciplines.
"Some theological and liturgical issues within the church are topics of continuing discussion and debate, and our adult Catholics, well grounded in the normative teachings of the church, possess the intellectual fortitude and the spiritual discernment to grapple with many of the complex discussions taking place within the church -- as they have for many centuries."
Mahony's statement contrasts dramatically with the tactic used by Archbishop Francis Schulte who, fearing reaction from conservatives, recently interfered with the scheduled appearance in New Orleans of moral theologian Jesuit Fr. Richard McCormick of the University of Notre Dame. Most striking is Mahony's willingness to grant that "adult Catholics" have the intelligence, faith and integrity to deal with complexity.
It is a welcome expression of trust and confidence in people who deeply love the church and spend much of their lives working to spread its message. Such a gesture enhances the church's credibility far more than the actions of Catholic leaders who feel compelled to act out of fear.
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