Thin Skin

Liberal Catholics are appalled. American bishops have dared to criticize them.

Going into the June meeting of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), Father Tom Reese was not happy. The American bishops had not been listening to him.

At their June meeting the US bishops were to vote on a new set of liturgical translations, which have been prepared by linguists operating on the novel theory that a translation should reflect what the original text says, rather than what a small group of liturgists think the text should say. Father Reese didn’t like that theory, and—summoning all of his subtlety and dialectical skill in a Washington Post analysis—described it as a “stupid idea.”


Father Reese wanted other priests to treat their own diocesan bishops with the same sort of respect he shows for the episcopal conference. Thus:

Not only are the translations bad, the poor parish priests are going to have to use these prayers and explain them to their people. Most priests are simply going to say, “The bishop says we have to do this, so don’t blame me.”

That’s probably true, unfortunately. Taking their cues from the experts like Reese, thousands of parish priests will encourage their people to sneer at the new translations. Then the pundits will report that the translations are unpopular.

But I wonder what would happen if the ordinary Catholics in the pews were left to respond for themselves, without cues from the clergy and the commentators. Would they be horrified to see that “We believe” has been corrected to “I believe”? Would they struggle over really hard words like “dew”? Father Tom Reese would like to know, but he conceded with disgust that the bishops were likely to approve the new texts without waiting for the results of a 25-year survey process:

Market testing, beta sites, learning from experience and listening to the people are not part of the hierarchy’s lexicon.

That’s funny. I don’t recall hearing about the need for market testing of the radical liturgical changes that followed Vatican II. I didn’t read any editorials in America suggesting that ICEL should set up a “beta site” before saddling the long-suffering Catholic laity with the jarring translations we’ve endured for the past generation. It’s remarkable how much one’s perspective changes, when one moves from court to countryside.


He didn’t reach the same fever pitch of sputtering petulance that Father Reese managed, but David Gibson, writing for BeliefNet, let us know that he, too, was sorely disappointed in the American bishops. Moreover, he cited editorials in America and Commonweal to demonstrate that liberal Catholics generally are disheartened.

“The US hierarchy,” Gibson wrote, “gathers for its spring meeting tomorrow, in San Antonio, in the wake of one of the most divisive and ugly stretches the Catholic Church has seen since, well, Joseph Bernardin was alive.” The bishops themselves, he added, “have been the perpetrators and victims of much of the nastiness.”

The “nastiness” in question was the public debate over President Obama’s appearance at Notre Dame. Many American bishops made clear public statements chastising Notre Dame, and the guardians of the “spirit of Vatican II” are not accustomed to episcopal scoldings. It’s been routine, over the past generation, for bishops to criticize conservatives. Criticism of liberals— public criticism, no less!—is something quite new. So now they know how we’ve felt for the past 35 years or so.

To say that our liberal friends are thinskinned would be, I’m afraid, a gross understatement. Yes, some bishops issued stinging criticism of Notre Dame’s decision. But were they “nasty” in their approach? Or is it inherently nasty to criticize the “second magisterium”— that authoritative voice that has spoken from America and Commonweal, Notre Dame and Georgetown for all these years? Maybe “disrespectful” would be a better word. These bishops must be put back in their proper place.

And there’s something more here. The controversy that surrounded Obama and Notre Dame did command headlines for a few weeks. But to suggest that it was “one of the most divisive and ugly stretches” for the Church since Cardinal Bernardin’s death suggests a failure of memory that can only be attributed to a severe shock.

Think about it. Can you name a topic that arose within American Catholicism between 1996 and today that was uglier, more divisive, more destructive for the welfare of the Church? A topic that generated literally thousands of disgraceful headlines stories, over a period of years rather than weeks? Now that story is nasty.


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