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Selections from ARCC LIGHT
the ARCC Newsletter 
edited by James E. Biechler, Ph.D.

A Question of Rights
The Vatican:  “V” is For “Vindictive”

By  James E. Biechler

“I don’t want to be hypercritical but it I have the impression that lately there seems to be a kind of anti-Vatican sentiment abroad in the church.  You can hardly pick up a Catholic periodical without reading that somebody or other has a problem with church authority.  Is this just me or am I on to some new trend?  And if the latter is true, what sense do you make of it?”
—A.E.S., Kansas City, KS

No, it’s not just you.  And that news is not necessarily bad news.  It can mean that the People of God are simply following the church’s law that it is their duty to make their views on church matters known to their pastors and to others who have a right to know.  But you also need to get the story straight:  “anti-Vatican” does not translate into “anti-authority.”  If you have been reading these columns you will remember our analysis of the “dissent” phenomenon in the modern church.  Our prime exemplars of “dissent” are the officials in the Vatican curia who dissented and are still dissenting from the documents of the Second Vatican Council.  These “prophets of doom” opposed Pope John XXIII’s council, they fought the bishops all during the council, and are still hacking away at its teachings.

The reason people have a problem with “church authority” as you call it, is that today’s educated Catholics do know something about what the Second Vatican Council taught.  They look for collegiality in the church and find only a caricature of Pope Paul VI’s vision of a collaborative episcopal office.  They look for the equality of the People of God which the council taught and find the continued repression of women, and the incessant directives aimed at keeping the laity in its place.  They look for enlightened applications of the council’s teaching on the liturgy and find instead a retreat into Latin, picky rubricism, and an omniscient dominance of all liturgical translation, overriding local conferences of bishops and their linguistic advisors.

Some might be inclined to think this centralism is nothing more than careful management.  But that would be to miss the critical difference which historical perspective gives us.  We must constantly place Vatican actions in the context of the Second Vatican Council and the bitter opposition which the Vatican curia exhibited throughout.  A few short years after the council the synod of bishops came close to voting to permit a married clergy.  The curia merely tightened the screws and went on record as prohibiting any married priest from having any liturgical role at all.  All lay persons are permitted to be lectors or Eucharistic ministers in the liturgy.  The only persons excluded by Vatican decree are those who have resigned the priesthood.

Another recent and appalling instance of Vatican revenge was the recent decree from the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts that canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law must be interpreted to exclude all divorced and remarried persons from the Eucharist (cf. the last issue of this newsletter).  They must be excluded, the Vatican said, as being “publicly unworthy” because they “obstinately persist in manifest grave sin.”  Now why should the Vatican make such a declaration?  It is surely not because canon 915 needs clarification.  That canon simply states:  “Those who are excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to Holy Communion.”  Some canons might need interpretation but this canon is a model of legislative clarity.  

To understand what the Vatican is doing in this case, one must see it as focused not on the Catholic faithful, but on those bishops, pastors, theologians and canonists who have in recent years questioned the scandalous exclusion of remarried Catholics from Holy Communion.  Not being pastors themselves—perhaps not even knowing any  divorced and remarried Catholic—they are playing their Vatican trump card in the power game.  The so-called mandatum requirement for Catholics teaching theology, the recent attempt to control liturgical texts, the norms which prohibit any lay person from being called “chaplain,” “minister,” “coordinator,” or “moderator,” and, more recently yet, the instructions which prohibit the lay minister of the Eucharist from washing the sacred vessels, from breaking the Eucharistic bread, and from returning the ciborium to the tabernacle, the decree on the ordination of women—all of these are curial attempts to stop the reforms which Vatican II began.  It is hard not to see a kind of revenge or vindictiveness in this pattern of negativity.  When the Vatican goes out of its way to say that the resigned, married priest may not distribute communion what other conclusion can be drawn but this?  Nor is it hard to see vindictiveness in the association of Pius IX with the beatification of John XXIII.  It’s an “in your face” kind of ploy which gives a stiletto-like stab at the soul of Vatican II.  

We regret that we are driven to an interpretation which imputes a kind of ill-will to those who should be exemplars of the opposite.  But we are not alone in this.  Recall Bishop Stecher’s lament a few years ago that the Vatican issues only an “unforgiving ‘no’” to laicized priests who request some pastoral function.  We wish another judgment were possible.


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America. 

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Ingrid H. Shafer, Ph.D.
e-mail address: ihs@ionet.net
Posted 26 September 2000
Last updated 26 September 2000
Copyright © 2000 Ingrid H. Shafer
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