COMMENTARY: Who’s calling who divisive?

c. 1996 Religion News Service

(Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and sociologist at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center. His home page on the World Wide Web is at Or contact him via e-mail at agreel(AT)

(RNS)-The response of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops to the massive petition drive recently launched by a coalition of liberal Catholic organizations is a classic example of the ecclesiastical double-talk I call"bishop-speak."It was at once a proclamation that the hierarchy is open to dialogue and a put-down of everyone in the church who is even vaguely liberal.

I am sympathetic to the goals of some of the groups that comprise the"We Are Church"coalition and I am adamantly opposed to others. It is a diverse assembly of organizations, from CORPUS, which supports the idea of married priests, to the Chicago-based renewal group Call to Action, which urges a return to the principles of the Second Vatican Council. A decidedly un-Catholic abortion rights group, Catholics for a Free Choice, also is a member of the coalition, though it is not recognized by the church.

Even so, I must take exception to the warning issued by Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, president of the bishops' conference, that the referendum would cause division within the church and would likely confuse many Catholic lay people.

The"don't-confuse-them"line is often heard at the Vatican, which tends to depict the Catholic laity as a large mass of nervous, timid, uncertain and uneducated people who are terrified by every alarm that is heard in their church.

I find such attitudes insulting, patronizing and self-serving. Moreover, warnings about"divisiveness"come with singular ill grace when they are aimed only at the liberal majority of American Catholics, but never at the rigid reactionary minority.

Why don't the bishops warn of the divisiveness of their colleague, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., who recently issued a blanket excommunication order directed toward members of liberal Catholic organizations and other groups he considers dangerous to the faith?

Why isn't there a word of warning to the Rev. Joseph Fessio, the conservative Jesuit who succeeded in getting the bishops' proposed gender-neutral lectionary (a book of readings used at Mass) shot out of the water?

Why are these actions not denounced as divisive?

The answers are obvious: In the case of Nebraska's Bishop Bruskewitz, bishops don't criticize other bishops. And Fessio is too influential in Rome to be taken on directly.

I recently completed an analysis, with University of California at Berkeley sociologist Michael Hout, of a new Gallup poll on what American Catholics expect from the next pope. It shows that overwhelming majorities favor more democracy, more pluralism, more concern for the lives of ordinary people-and more change in the church.

No matter how much their efforts are discounted by the hierarchy, I don't doubt that the"We Are Church"coalition will succeed in gathering their 1 million signatures. I wouldn't be surprised if they collect 5 million. But in one sense, their work will be a waste of time.

No one in Rome will take them seriously. And the American bishops will never admit that a petition drive is a powerful assault on the way the church is being run. Nothing can shake the hierarchy's serene pose of aloof complacency.

Those who sign the petition will not be regarded as representative of U.S. Catholics. My survey results will be publicly dismissed as irrelevant, as they always are. Nothing will change in the short run because by definition nothing can change. What the laity think and feel and hope for doesn't seem to matter to those who run the institutional church.

In the long run, however, the"We Are Church"petition drive-and others like it that have already occurred in Germany and Austria-may shape an agenda for discussion in the future, when it will be possible to discuss again.

In the meantime, the cry for more democracy from the laity will be ignored. Those who ignore the laity-or patronize them-will continue to be astonished when they find that the laity ignores them.