“Church Autonomy” 1

OK, long time away from writing here. 

The current flare-up with MD in Holyoke is yet another instance in which the authority of Bishop McDonnell has been challenged, and once again, it is for just cause. Victor Anop, Peter Stasz, Jeanne Boynton and other parishioners have many good points and many unanswered questions. They also have much love for the parish, and much determination.

They will need it. It is a hard road they have elected to travel, but it is worth it. As someone said: “My yoke is easy and my burden light”. We should not doubt this in the long run — though, in the short run, elders huddling on a hard pew at 2 a.m. may be forgiven for entertaining a few doubts!

It points up once again how backwards the Diocese of Springfield remains. Once again, instead of meeting with people and working toward a creative solution, the Bishop hides. In lieu of a response, he sends underlings.  The problem is, the underlings are told to follow a script. Not being given enough clout to respond, they can only react.

This is a time-honored corporate move, but one that does no honor to a Bishop. It attempts to defuse the problem by shifting attention. It is no wonder, then, that when Mark Dupont arrives on the scene he evades the questions and seems ready, and even eager, to heap blame on the parishioners.

Once again, we have the spectacle of Mr. Dupont trying to baffle the parishioners and the press with his bullsh**. This always ends badly: he soon ties himself into knots. It is humiliating to see how willing Mr. Dupont is to compromise himself.

The Bishop appears to have only one answer to the questions raised by the parishioners: “case closed, let's move on.”  But, this attitude has led him into a blunder. For the last 6 months or so, Bishop McDonnell has incorporated preemptive strikes into his decrees. Ostensibly, this additional writing shows that proper consultation and due process was followed. See the Catholic Mirror diocesan magazine for May/June, pg. 26.

It is not clear that these additional reassurances were stick in with the goal of forestalling Vatican objections?

This tactic has come back to bite McDonnell, big time. The  mistake was to include the claim in his decree that the Holyoke building inspector had signed off on the condemnation of the steeple, when the building inspector, in fact, had done no such thing. Furthermore, the building inspector subsequently signed an affidavit to confirm that he had done no such thing. Ouch.

Affidavits may not mean much to ecclesiastical authorities, but civil authorities have a different opinion.

So do law-abiding American citizens, including rank-and-file Catholics, who recognize a clumsy corporate move when they see one. That is one of many reasons why MD parishioners are more highly motivated than ever.


I’m glad to report that I’ve been productively studying the underpinnings of  the “church autonomy” doctrine and that the next effort at this blog will be to explain that misnomer. I believe that the study of “church autonomy” has a lot to teach Catholics.

The concept of “church autonomy”would appear to be self-explanatory. After all, is there not a separation between church and state in this country, and is it not true that churches should be free to be churches?

Both of these statements are true enough. Separation implies respect (or at least tolerance) between church and state; and churches rightfully claim freedom to do as they wish to further their objectives, subject to common sense.

But, that’s just the problem. It is not common sense to permit a church to withhold medical care from an adherent’s child because the church is a faith-healing church and the child has cancer. To state the obvious, society has a vital interest in the well-being of the child, irrespective of the religious views of the parents.

The problem is not that the church believes that faith is a better healer than chemotherapy or radiation. They can exercise their believe all day long and no one would object. It’s when that belief is codified into action, and when that action is harmful to a human being, that common sense realizes: “wait, this is wrong”, and must step in.

Crackpot claims about church autonomy are not limited to Catholics (though John Egan has brought it to a new level by claiming church autonomy in the bikepath controversy in Northampton). The Mormon church has invoked this defense for a pedophile who was allowed access to children. He was "forgiven", and this First-Amendment-protected forgiveness was a shield against government prosecution. So the argument went, anyway. Fortunately, justice prevailed. See the New York Times review of The Sins of Brother Curtis.

The problem with “church autonomy” is the autonomous part, not the church part. Once you begin to track the arguments for and against this doctrine, it becomes a surprisingly rich field of study.

“Church autonomy” emerges as not only a key concept in church/state relations, but also as perhaps THE key. Once you begin to notice how many court cases hinge on the doctrine, or refer to it, it becomes clear how central it is to the church’s self-understanding. These are weighty issues, and we have seen these types of conflicts before. For example, in the run-up to WWII, when Nazi Germany and the Vatican suspended diplomatic relations, each gave the same reason: that the other was impinging on their right to autonomy. Autonomy emerges as an essential attribute to those who seek to maintain and increase their power.

This is true of churches in the U. S. in general, but for obvious reasons, we concentrate on the Catholic faith here. And, it must be said that through the USCCB and chief counsel Mark Chopko, the bishops of the U. S. have made a particular claim to “church autonomy” that is very well-articulated — and aggressive.

And all of that is all by prelude to suggest that the most important lesson of the “church autonomy” doctrine may not be in the civil legal arena at all. The most important application of what it does or does not mean may be within the church. Nearly every legal argument I have seen supporting the validity of “church autonomy” can be made with equal force for supporting the pre-Vatican II internal makeup of the church.

“Church autonomy” in the pure civil form posits a belief that the Catholic church has a right to its own governance that is so sacred, and so complete, that no "outsider' (even civil law) can so much as question it without transgressing the First Amendment — in a word, the decision-making of the church is absolute.

How different is this from a strongly held clerical belief that the laity cannot inquire into the hierarchy's self-governance without transgressing canon law?

Let us remember that the latter was the rule of the church prior to Vatican II, as codified by Pope Leo XIII, among many others. Leo drew the distinction between pastors and flocks, leaders and people, in this way:

"The role of the first order [clergy] is to teach, to govern and to lead men in life; to impose rules. The duty of the other [laity] is to submit itself to the first, to obey it, to carry out its orders and to honor it."

Well said, Pope Leo! But, that was a long time ago. Meanwhile, the 20th century, which included Vatican II, happened.

The meaning of the “church autonomy” doctrine (and where it came from); the many ramifications of it; the way it has shaped legal theory; what it shows about the aims of church officials vs. civil authorities; and, most of all, how the doctrine of "church autonomy" may be applied to make more sense of clerical/lay relations — these are the topics ahead.