NEW YORK -- A conference of liberal Catholic scholars, anticipating the visit of Pope John Paul II to this country next week, laid out an agenda for changes they said are needed in the Roman Catholic Church as it approaches the 21st Century.
"Vatican II talked about collegiality, the college of bishops and the pope with solicitude and responsibility for the whole church," said the Rev. Charles Curran. But there have been no structures to bring about that change, he said.
Curran, now teaching at Cornell University after a Vatican ruling last year deprived him of his position on the theology faculty at Catholic University, said that all major change in the church is determined by the pope.
The theologian maintained that collegiality will not become a reality "unless and until individual bishops and groups of bishops can say publically to the pope, 'You're the Bishop of Rome . . . but we think you're wrong on this issue.' "
Citing Thomas Aquinas' dictum that "something is commanded because it is good," Curran suggested that "we must learn something is not necessarily good because it is commanded . . . . We are all seekers on the journey after the truth . . . and we need all the help we can get."
Appearing with Curran at the meeting sponsored by the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, a liberal advocacy group, was the Rev. Hans Kung, who like Curran has been deprived by the Vatican of his right to teach as a Catholic theologian.
Kung, whose troubles with the Vatican grew out of writings challenging the doctrine of papal infallibility, predicted that on Pope John Paul's forthcoming trip, the "hot issues will be avoided again."
Referring to the pope's recent meeting with Jewish leaders in Rome, Kung noted that the Jewish leaders "have more success" at getting John Paul's ear than the pope's own "loyal opposition."
The Swiss theologian said the pope "would not come here without talking to the Jews." But he predicted that American Catholic critics "will not get the same treatment" from the pope, whom Kung termed a "demigod."
Kung criticized the Vatican for its refusal to give formal recognition to the state of Israel, a continuing sore point in Catholic-Jewish relations. The church "is the last to recognize Israel where we should be the first," he said.
Leonard Swidler, professor of Catholic thought at Temple University in Philadelphia, said there is "deep dissent" from the regime of Pope John Paul II, but he urged that "this dissent should not be seen as a flaw in American Catholicism."
Rather, Swidler said, it should be viewed as part of the maturing of the church in America. The scholar, a founding member of the Association for the Rights of Catholics in the Church, said the "signs of the times" demand that the church "move away from its authoritarian, patriarchal style" of leadership to one of "adulthood schooled in responsible freedom and dialogue."
In this perspective, Swidler said, the American church has a special role to play because "freedom, with its necessary concomitant, dissent and dialogue" have been most fully developed here.
Sister Madonna Kolbenschlag, formerly a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, said the most overriding question facing the church is the status and treatment of women. She questioned whether the Catholic Church "can continue to be a sacramental and evangelical church . . . without the full participation of women."
Citing numerous examples of what she described as repressive exercises of patriarchal authority in recent years, Kolbenschlag said the church displays a "neurotic fear of women." The primary effect of this repressive atmosphere on women, she said, "is fear, a sense of powerlessness and overwhelming mistrust."
Kolbenschlag charged that the changes in communities of religious women that were mandated by Vatican II have been met by "a kind of moral terrorism" from Rome and a "right-wing" witch hunt by extremists who take their cue from Vatican attitudes.
Rosemary Reuther, who teaches at Garrett Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Ill., said the institutional church is making itself irrelevant to women.
For this reason, she said, many Catholic women are forming small communities and support groups outside the mainstream of the church, where they are reinventing forms of spirituality, language and mission that confirm, rather than marginalize them as women.