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Catholic Dissidents Call for Openness

John Paul Silenced Many, Critics Say

By Alan Cooperman and Daniel Williams
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, April 16, 2005; Page A01

VATICAN CITY -- Some quantitative measures of John Paul II's papacy are well known: He visited more countries, named more saints and issued more teaching documents than any other pope. But there is another statistic that is seldom mentioned here: By some estimates, the Vatican silenced or reprimanded more than 100 Roman Catholic theologians during John Paul's 26-year reign.

As 115 cardinals prepare to enter a conclave Monday to elect the next pope, dissidents are calling for a new openness and willingness to debate such topics as the ordination of women, condom use to fight HIV/AIDS and the morality of homosexuality.


A worker installs a new chimney on the Sistine Chapel that will emit white smoke when the 115 cardinals holding a conclave there have chosen a pope. (Kimimasa Mayama -- Reuters)

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"Suppression of thought, loss of ideas, closing down of discussion -- that's not an act of faith. That's not of the Holy Spirit," said Sister Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun from Erie, Pa. "Unity is good, but it has a dark side."

Chittister is one of several critics of John Paul's legacy who have been brought to Rome by an international dissident network, We Are Church, in an effort to widen the pre-conclave debate. Feeling they are shut out of normal discourse with church leaders, they are holding a series of news conferences, hoping to have an impact through the media.

Their appeals for greater tolerance of dissent are echoed by theologians such as the Rev. Hans Kung of Germany and the Rev. Charles E. Curran of the United States, both of whom were stripped of authority to teach in Catholic universities under John Paul. Neither Kung nor Curran has come to Rome, but they are speaking out. "Many people are now hoping for a pope who will seriously free up the log-jam of reforms" and "have the courage to make a new start," Kung said in a statement.

Advocates for sex abuse victims, Catholic feminists and groups seeking a greater role for the laity in church governance are also calling for a pope who will allow more open debate. Giovanni Avena, editor of the Catholic lay newsletter Adista, said John Paul created a "medieval atmosphere" at the Vatican by emphasizing ritual for ordinary believers while restricting discussion on important issues to his inner circle. He said the decision to bar the College of Cardinals from talking to the media after John Paul's funeral exemplified this attitude.

"They let everyone watch the rituals. Then they forbid access to reality," said Avena, a priest who once worked to turn young people in Sicily against the mafia. "There is no real participation. That is why in Italy you have plazas full of people for this kind of spectacle, and empty churches. Dissidents are asking simply for citizenship to be restored to the people of the church, to the community of believers."

By all indications, the cardinals are focused on a different set of issues. Before they stopped speaking to reporters last Saturday, they pointed to the spread of Islam, the declining vitality of the church in Europe, the challenge of Pentecostalism in Latin America and the rapid march of biotechnology as their top concerns.

But dissidents have taken heart from a few cardinals' comments about the importance of "collegiality," which in church jargon refers to the principle that all bishops, not just the pope, govern the church. In the view of some prelates, John Paul was a great evangelizer but an inattentive administrator who left too much authority to his curia, the Vatican's bureaucracy. On this, at least, the dissidents agree.

"With the pope's declining health, greater authority devolved toward Vatican officials," said Lavinia Byrne, a British commentator on Catholic affairs. "The balance of power became skewed as power was taken away from bishops and national and local churches and invested in the center." Byrne was a nun until 2000, when she left her order, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, after refusing to repudiate the arguments for women's ordination in her book "Women at the Altar."

"I want debate on this to be reopened," she said. "The arguments against women's ordination have never really been spelled out conclusively. It's not that I think there will be women priests overnight, but why can't we even talk about this?"

The answer from Vatican officials is that the matter was firmly settled by John Paul in 1994 in a short letter saying that Jesus had anointed only men as apostles and that the church "has no authority whatsoever" to ordain women. This judgment, he added, "is to be definitively held by all the Church's faithful."

More broadly, the Roman Catholic Church, like all faiths, has to define and protect its "real treasure," the teachings it considers essential, said the Rev. Augustine DiNoia, an American priest who is the second-ranking official in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican department charged with ensuring orthodoxy and disciplining theologians who cross the line.

"In theology as in softball," DiNoia said, "you can't play the game if you don't agree on the rules."


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