To some Catholics, U.S. bishops have chartered the correct course by focusing on liturgical matters at their three-day spring meeting, which begins today in San Antonio.
More than 150 bishops from across the nation will fine-tune the English translation of the Mass to conform more closely to its Latin original. They'll seek more effective ways to spread their stated-but-little-known ministry goals. And they'll approve a new Mass of Thanksgiving.
But to others, the bishops' agenda is off base and might add to their perceived ineffectual leadership in dealing with the foremost Catholic university.
About 80 of roughly 200 bishops condemned Notre Dame University for having President Barack Obama speak and receive an honorary degree at its May graduation. The bishops' conference has a policy against Catholic institutions rewarding or giving a platform to politicians who support abortion rights.
Informally, Notre Dame's decision to ignore bishops' warnings and let Obama speak is sure to come up among the bishops. But devising a united response to it — and more broadly whether the U.S. Catholic Church should cut ties with Obama in protest or work with him on common-ground issues — is not on the agenda.
Supporters and critics closely watch the bishops' meetings for clues about the future of the church and its 68 million members in the United States. For the event's host, San Antonio Archbishop José Gomez, the liturgy rightly is at the top of the list.
“We are teachers of the faith, so it makes sense that we give a lot of attention and time to the liturgy,” he said. “The biggest challenge we have is that Catholics do not know the Catholic faith. They know it, but not as much as they need.”
Masses in contemporary, spoken languages were permitted — and translated from the original Latin — after the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.
The English-language Mass was published in 1973, according to the conference, and has been memorized by two generations of English-speaking Catholics in America.
In 2001, the Vatican called on all bishops to review those translations for accuracy, and the revisions are expected to be released next year after some promised training. Some worry the change will cause confusion. Others say it'll clarify meaning lost in the first translation to English.
The whole effort epitomizes the widening gap between bishops and lay Catholics, a majority of whom voted for Obama and would rather have bishops' insight about him, said Father Tom Reese, senior fellow at Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and former editor of America, a Catholic news magazine.
“Why the bishops are running toward the cliff is just, I find, incredible. People have finally gotten these things memorized and now they're going to change them?” he said.
For Russell Shaw, former spokesman for the conference, the bishops must openly weigh in on Notre Dame.
That about 110 bishops were mute has created a leadership vacuum, said Shaw, author of “Nothing to Hide: Secrecy, Communication and Communion in the Catholic Church.”
“Bishops are reluctant to crack down, and so they have moved slowly,” he said. “But they now confront a direct and highly visible challenge to their authority by the most highly visible Catholic university in the country. If they let that pass, it's going to gravely diminish their authority.”
Gomez said bishops should act individually concerning a Catholic institution and praised Bishop John D'Arcy, whose diocese encompasses Notre Dame in Indiana, for doing so. Gomez did the same last year in calling out San Antonio's St. Mary's University for allowing then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, an abortion rights supporter, to hold a campaign rally on campus.
The universities defended hosting the speakers as exemplifying academic freedom.
The Notre Dame issue “is already past, and I don't know what else we can do,” Gomez said. “I think what we are trying to promote is communication and collaboration with Catholic
universities. We support Catholic universities, but they need to be more aware that they need to work with us. It's surprising that some of them don't really work with us in a closer way.”