Mary Jo Anderson
In May, following Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz's excommunication
warning to the Diocese of Lincoln (see CRISIS, May 1996 issue),
irate reformers held a national press conference in Washington,
D.C., announcing that ARCC and fellow reform groups were demanding
that members of the Church be permitted to choose their own
bishops. "The pope has failed to live up to his own best
democratic instincts," charged Mary Louise Hartman, president of
Although a similar referendum is being circulated in Germany,
Austria, Italy, and Australia, ARCC itself provides the strategic
blueprint for We Are Church in its proposed Charter of Rights of
Catholics in the Church. The worldwide referendum calls for the
popular election of bishops, married priests, women priests,
preservation of the environment, and the primacy of conscience in
all moral decisions.
Frenzied over John Paul II's "dictatorial acts," such as the
ordinary Magisterium's infallible teaching on the male priesthood,
ARCC hopes its demands "will trigger a constitutional convention
for the Church." ARCC believes American Catholics should offer
their democratic heritage to the universal Church. Drafts of its
constitution and bill of rights are circulating among various
reform groups, including the Call to Action national conference.
Its has been translated into French, German,
Italian, Japanese, Polish, and Spanish. Believing the documents of
Vatican II "resonate with the dreams of our democratic culture,"
ARCC works to implement structural reforms in the institutional
church it describes as "repressive, inquisitional, and secretive."
Electing Church Leaders
The six-page constitution attempts to restructure the Church and
remove its centralized authority: Legislative and juridical
provisions are extensive. Loosely patterned in a combination
parliament-federation model, elected representatives begin at the
parish level, proceed through the diocesan, regional, national,
and continental councils to the international level. "Each local,
regional, and national community shall form its own body of
Women and minority quotas are imposed on positions of leadership;
ecclesial leadership is elected by the representatives to the
local, regional, and national councils; pastors and bishops are
chosen by parish and diocesan councils; the pope, limited to one
ten-year term, is elected by the delegates to the global General
Council; delegates to the General Council are one-third bishops,
one-third (non-episcopal) clergy, one-third laity.
This design for the universal Church is based upon the broader
human rights movement: "This Charter of Rights of Catholics in the
Church pre-supposes the rights expressed in the United Nations
Charter." ARCC describes itself as the only Catholic organization
"that takes a global view of the need for fundamental structural
reform in the Church."
The pope is divested of any genuine power or authority by the
following provision: "The General Council shall function as the
main decision-making body of the universal Church. The Pope . . .
and a layperson elected by the General Council shall be co-chairs
of the General Council . . . The General Council . . . shall bear
the ultimate responsibility for . . . governing the universal
Church and setting policy concerning doctrine, morals, worship."
Should it choose to do so, this provision would permit the General
Council to abolish the papacy.
The fail-safe for an elected pope that still thwarts its design
for third-millennium Catholicism is a Supreme Tribunal, which
"shall hear cases charging illegal or un-constitutional actions by
the Pope. There shall be no appeal from the judgments of the
Supreme Tribunal." If this were to come about, the Church would be
left with no spiritual or moral authority.
A Protege of Kung
The ARCC constitution and Charter of Rights is an elaborate
construction with creative interpretations of both canon law and
the documents of Vatican II. It is the project of Leonard Swidler,
professor of Catholic Thought at Temple University. Swidler, a
protege of Hans Kung and admirer of Haring, Rahner, and
Schillebeeckx, saw his vision of Vatican II threatened by John
ARCC was born in 1980 when Swidler rushed to the defense of his
mentor, Kung, whom he believed the Vatican treated unfairly.
Today, Swidler cites the action of Bishop Bruskewitz as a prime
example of the need for a Catholic bill of rights: "I think our
Bishop B. is an excellent example of an imperious acting out of an
Dissatisfied with the new Code of Canon Law (1983), Swidler edited
Contributors included the "Who's Who"
of dissent at the time: Charles Curran, Rosemary Radford Ruether,
Hans Kung, and Anthony Padovano. Swidler attempts to ground his
view of rights in Paul VI's discarded document, , which he believes was a constitution put before
the Commission for the Revision of the Code of Canon Law.
According to the professor, the curia attacked the document,
absorbing it into "preconcilliar notions of papal primacy and
episcopal subservience." Paul VI's document was never completed
nor ratified, yet Swidler refers to it as though it enjoyed the
ecclesiastical status of a papal encyclical.
Swidler consistently applies a tortured reading to Church history
and documents. Desperate to overturn papal primacy in an effort to
reverse several difficult teachings (e.g., birth control, male
priesthood, divorce), Swidler asserts that ecumenical councils,
based on the decrees of the Council of Constance, had greater
authority than the pope until Vatican I reestablished the Petrine
primacy. An impartial and fuller reading of history, however,
demonstrates that within the tradition of the Church the decrees
of councils are not authoritative unless ratified by the pope.
Dr. Warren Carroll of Christendom College explains: "The Church
and popes, subsequent to the Council of Trent, have all upheld the
doctrine that the pope is superior over councils, and must approve
the decrees of a council to make them binding. This position is
firmly maintained by the great nineteenth-century German historian
of the councils, Karl Joseph Hefele, and the great Austrian
historian of the papacy, Ludwig von Pastor. It is denied by many
twentieth-century scholars. The general case for the supreme
authority of the pope over the last two thousand years is
exceedingly strong beginning all the way back with the letter of
Pope St. Clement I to the Corinthians in approximately 95 A.D."
The is similarly definitive in
this regard. Citing 22, which traces the
unhindered and universal teaching authority of the Roman pontiff
through the ecclesiastical history of Eusebius back to apostolic
times as relayed in Matthew's Gospel, "there is never an
ecumenical council which is not confirmed or at least recognized
as such by Peter's successor."
The Council of Constance, 1415-18, followed a difficult time of
schism. Fearing to reignite the schism, Martin V ratified the work
of the council regarding heresy, but withheld approval of
and , which declared the council superior
to the pope. What is Swidler's weak claim? That the council
refused to allow Martin V to ratify the decrees, since that would
appear to grant superior authority to the pope.
Scripture also suffers from the professor's tinkering. "Yeshua" is
preferred to "Jesus (not Christ)" and suppositions about him
include: "it would seem from a number of remarks by Yeshua that he
shared the Pharisaical doctrine of the resurrection of the body,
which is built on a holistic view of the human being . . . not
completely satisfying ways to speak of this body-spirit being."
And, "As to whether Yeshua
was the Messiah, it has to be said that he did not fulfill the job
description.... [F]or one, he didn't throw out the occupying Roman
forces and reestablish the Kingdom of Israel. What happened, of
course, is that Yeshua's followers 'spiritualized' the notion of
Messiah with the result . . . Yeshua became the Christos for the
Gentiles . . . the entryway to the love of Yahweh." The Virgin
birth, Incarnation, and divinity of Jesus are likewise summarily
That a professor of Catholic thought would publicly brand as
fictitious the irreducible tenants of our faith clearly
demonstrates the wisdom of Bishop Bruskewitz, who pointed out the
hypocrisy of dissidents. The issue for these "exiles," as they
refer to themselves, is that their censure of the creed and its
doctrines is no grounds for episcopal action. Swidler reminds the
disgruntled, "The Charter says that doctrinal truth is best
formulated by a process of dialogue with his/her peers. It is
obvious . . . that serious dialogue among theologians will much
better preserve the heart of the doctrinal tradition than a heavy-
handed authoritarian from the Holy office."
Leonard Swidler moderates a computer list server, Vatican II,
where "rights" and the "abuse of rights" are debated tirelessly.
Swidler sits at the center of Web links connecting other reformer
groups worldwide. His ENI
collects dissident news ("The bishop of Verona, Italy refuses to
allow Referendum workers on Church property") and forwards it to
other news groups worldwide.
The cyberforum permits instantaneous dissemination of the angry
professor's personal theology: "If Jesus were bodily 'raised up' .
. . why would he then not have made another vastly more triumphant
entry than the Palm Sunday one? Why even Pontius Pilate would
probably have joined his entourage! Judging from the way Jesus
operated in Israel right up to his death, that would have been
precisely the right sort Professor Swidler has abandoned his
faith. He does not hide his ire with those who remain faithful:
"Avery [Dulles], it seems, is bewitched-not into a toad but a
toady"; Dulles supports the Vatican's declaration on the male
priesthood. "One should not bother reading Malichi Martin. In two
words: he is a liar and a crook." Nor do Church Doctors or the
Apostles escape his bite: "As much as I admire Newman, . . . I
find his statement . . . absolutely appalling- here we have an
example of [St.] Matthew's Pharisee mentality.... I especially
identified with the problem of God as Monster and after reading
St. Augustine's attempt to explain evil, I seriously considered if
it was possible to remain Christian. I as a Catholic theologian I
 am not persuaded by Augustine's egregious mistake in
reading Original Sin and the Fall into Genesis. "
If the theology has changed, so must the liturgy be changed:
"IT]he parish council with the pastor . . . shall bear ultimate
responsibility for parish worship." The same provision is made for
the diocese. The goal is "shared responsibility and corresponding
freedom individually and communally," states the proposed
constitution. The Charter of Rights provides a right to:
"[w]orship which reflects the joy and concerns of the gathered
community." There is no mention of praise and sacrifice offered to
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
In the first hours after Bishop Bruskewitz's excommunication
warning, Swidler's Internet site was sizzling. "A Catholic
Piltdown [sic]," scoffed the professor. "However, if it is
authentic, I think that this is one bishop who has put his head in
a miter-box and Rome is going to have to saw it off out of sheer
The good bishop's mitered head stands tall today, despite
Swidler's subsequent tirade, "Why should I leave MY church because
some C-type bishop got away from his keepers again? This sort of
thing is bound to happen quite regularly until we can put an
effective Constitution in place. That is a task that obviously the
'sign of the times' places on me."
The Dissident Trajectory
Leonard Swidler was raised in Catholic schools where he was
attracted to the religious and scholarly examples of the
Norbertines. He studied for the priesthood, but before ordination
was advised that "[He] was too intense for them. 'Try the
Trappists,' they said." The Trappists suggested he become a
diocesan priest. "They blew it. I didn't want to be a parish
priest, I wanted the scholarly life." The laity were not accepted
as candidates for theological degrees during the 1950s in the
United States. Dr. Swidler earned a degree in intellectual history
before traveling to Tubingen to study theology with Kung and
Haring. Swidler, fleeing in frustration and disappointment,
learned protest in the hotbed of German dissent.
For many dissidents the authentic Catholic liturgy is devoid of
meaning. They no longer believe in the real presence. Yeshua, the
pacifist Jew, is not God Incarnate-a real, bodily resurrected
Jesus. For them this liturgy is outdated and irrelevant, the
product of an unenlightened theology. That anyone would wish to
retain this ossified liturgy is merely an authoritarian attempt to
control the expressions of the people. Similarly, the priesthood
of this liturgy is no longer germane. The demand to permit married
men, women, homosexuals, indeed, all who feel called to be
ordained, is a logical corollary. Democratically elected bishops
and a magisterium drawn from modern theologians would ensure
liturgical as well as theological freedom.
The lack of faith in the reality of the mystery that occurs in the
eucharistic liturgy makes rational their demand for liturgies and
priests that "reflect the community that has gathered." They see
the words and rituals of the Mass as arbitrary-at best a magical
incantation-where any words substituted would be equally
efficacious in communicating the communal needs. Lost to these
exiles is the understanding that the ritual of the eucharistic
liturgy is not arbitrary, not a pagan concoction, but the very act
of God incarnate. God has given no permission for man to change
the mode of his coming among his people in the holy sacrifice of
the Mass. Is it any wonder that exiles who cannot accept the
incarnation of God in human flesh are unable to accept God's
coming among us in the bread and wine?
Dissidents teach one another that in the liturgies of their faith
communities they are to activate themselves as sacraments of God's
love to one another. For this reason they struggle mightily
against the "authoritative church" and seek freedom to institute a
liturgy that reflects their theology. Newly designed "relevant"
liturgies may legitimately differ from group to group, in pursuit
of a meaning that reflects the particular needs of "the gathered."
This embodies their catch phrase "Unity in Diversity." The unity
they strive to achieve is a total acceptance and affirmation of
all persons, behaviors, and belief systems, provided that love
characterizes their motives. A "gathered community" of lesbians is
free to celebrate goddess liturgies; a community of eco-spiritists
may consecrate seedling trees in celebration of Earth Day, a
practice that has replaced the celebration of May Crowning in
several Catholic schools.
Freedom to be a "catholic according to the dictates of conscience"
is then assured. The resulting design-as-you-go religion is the
Enlightenment apogee of a forever-relevant worship of man as self-
A question looms large: Why do dissenters stay in the Church? Why
desire membership in an institution whose doctrines and liturgies
are irrelevant and whose structure is restrictive? What remains
for them once faith is lost? Swidler's comoderator Ingrid Shafer
answers: "it is MY Church; I am part of the process; NO ONE can
tell me to get out!"
Some deposit Church paychecks and leaving the Church would invite
And many a theologian's rise to prominence was built on "loyal
dissent" rather than solid scholarship. Catholic professors who
profess scandalous beliefs find themselves the darlings of the
talk-show circuit. Exiles understand that once outside the
Catholic fold, they hold no sway with the media. To leave the
Church is to forfeit their platform. Recall the fate of Rev. Gene
Stallings; and where would Andrew Greeley's silly steamies be
without his Catholic priesthood? Would Swidler's new , calling for a constitutional convention of
the Church, be published unless he were a professor of "Catholic
For a dissenting idealist, sheer numbers and the weight of history
make the Church the preeminent Christian expression in the world-
sinful as her structures may be. The cynical covet the vast
influence of the Church, despite her two thousand-year-old
machinery, which they plan to seize in order to drive mankind
toward Teilhard's numinous omega point- the convergence of all
that is conscious into a "unique universal ultimate."
Others see their Catholicism much as nonreligious Jews see
Judaism-a cultural inheritance too deeply embedded in their
identity to sever without loss. This sentiment is a vague
consciousness of the indelible mark received at baptism and
confirmation-a spiritual strand of DNA forever defining the
organism. Their rebellion notwithstanding, the Church claims them
as her own.
The history of the Church reveals that heresy and betrayal come
from within. The Bride of Christ is attacked by her own brightest
sons and daughters. For two thousand years she has absorbed their
error and anger. The Church holds them all in preserving prayer:
"In mercy and love unite all your children, wherever they may be."
MARY TO ANDERSON writes from Orlando, Florida.
This article was taken from the September 1996 issue of "Crisis"
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