In his April 25 article, “Reforming the Vatican,” Thomas J. Reese, SJ, claims it would help the governance of the church if bishops were “elected by the local clergy, accepted by the people of his diocese, and consecrated by the bishops of his province.”

As a bishop for thirty-two years, I have become increasingly convinced that it would be a disaster for the church if bishops were elected by local clergy, either in a bishop’s diocese of origin or the diocese where he will serve. I suspect that the most popular priests, those who would offer the people of a diocese emotional support but little governance, would often be the ones elected bishop. They would add to the dismantling of episcopal authority and the diminishment of papal oversight and accountability.

Local election of bishops would move the church toward a congregationalist model of governance that would undermine the international unity of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church. It is a great blessing for a diocese when a bishop is appointed from elsewhere on the basis of his real pastoral gifts and not on his previous popularity as a hail-fellow. It is a primary duty of a bishop to help keep his diocese in union with the universal church under the leadership of the successor of St. Peter who, with the other apostles, was not elected by his peers.

I can assure your readers that the collective wisdom of the church, with two thousand years of experience, will not let her return to the selection of bishops by the local clergy and laity. Bishops are expected to govern with authority that comes not from clergy or people but from the Lord himself.


Whatever the weaknesses of the present system for appointing bishops, we are much better served by the work of the papal nuncio and the Congregation of Bishops working directly with the Holy Father than we would be by local diocesan political processes.

Omaha, Neb.



Thomas Reese does an excellent job of showing how Vatican structures have been derived from secular forms of governance. His six points for reforming church bureaucracy stem from civil and democratic developments in modern societies. I would like to add three relevant points that he doesn’t discuss.

First, a kind of creeping religiousness, a cousin of creeping infallibility, tends to enshroud the absolutist and courtly modes of Catholic governance. Bishops become princes of the church and the pope, effectively one of the world’s last absolute monarchs, becomes the Vicar of Christ. The royal aura adds to the seeming unchangeability of Vatican offices. Change is harder to accomplish if Catholics sense that the way things currently are is God’s dictate. Second, an even greater difficulty in breaking the monarchical hold on the church stems from that peculiar institution, clerical celibacy. If women and married people could become priests, bishops, and popes, the church might open up a little and find room for more elements of democracy. Finally there is the matter of money. As long as Catholics are willing to fill the bishops’ coffers and ask no questions about how the money is used, the absolutist structures of governance will persist.

Atlanta, Ga.



In the May 9 issue, Cathleen Kaveny mentions that Catholic institutions of higher education regularly squabble over whether to host productions of The Vagina Monologues (“The Right Questions”). Having seen a production of the play this spring at my own institution, the Pacific School of Religion at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, I believe that any Catholic school that is serious about Catholic social teaching should go out of its way to mount a production of The Vagina Monologues every year—and that every student in an ethics class should be required to attend. The Vagina Monologues was the most powerful and eloquent expression of the anguish of the victims of systematic rape in Bosnia, of child molestation and incest, and of garden-variety misogyny that I have ever witnessed. Anyone who wishes to understand and faithfully address these injustices should not miss the opportunity to see this powerful play.

Berkeley, Calif.



For some years now, David Carlin has been writing articles along the lines of his most recent piece (“Two Cheers for John McCain,” May 9), in which he claims to be a Democrat, yet declares that “on the really big issues” McCain “is more correct than either Hillary or Obama.” But McCain is a mainstream Republican and the Democratic candidates are mainstream Democrats. He argues that the Democratic Party has been taken over by a vaguely defined group called the “ultras.” These elitists disdain “traditional morality and religion” and think ordinary Americans are “boobs, nincompoops, and potential fascists.” Really? Could Carlin be specific about who the people holding these beliefs are, and how exactly they control Senators Obama and Clinton? If the two senators don’t represent the beliefs of the overwhelming majority of Democrats, why have voters turned out for them in such great numbers? It is time for Carlin to stop posing as a loyal old Democrat regretfully endorsing another Republican. He is a Republican, and we don’t miss him.

New Rochelle, N.Y.



David Carlin argues that Catholic Democrats should vote for John McCain because he opposes abortion. This argument was also presented as a reason to vote for George Bush in 2000 and again in 2008, and look where that got us. The president cannot end abortion in our country.

But the president can engulf our country in an unnecessary, devastating war, as Bush has done in Iraq. Carlin states that he was in favor of this war. Does he not realize that Pope John Paul II was vehemently opposed to the war in Iraq? Or that the American bishops opposed the war? Or that, contrary to Carlin’s assertion, there was evidence that Saddam Hussein no longer had weapons of mass destruction?

Carlin, like McCain, favors the continuation of this war even though Gen. Petraeus and others have repeatedly said that the issues in Iraq cannot be resolved militarily. Meanwhile, thousands of Americans have died there and tens of thousands have returned severely wounded or suffering from extreme emotional illnesses. The war is also devastating our economy: the latest estimates indicate the cost of the war to be $2 trillion—if it ends next year.

Carlin sees McCain as being more patriotic than the Democratic candidate. I see McCain going beyond patriotism to an overweening nationalism in which he views America as the next world ruler.

Philadelphia, Pa.



As a sometime admirer of David Carlin, I am troubled by his demand for tough-minded patriotism not diluted by cosmopolitanism. This is another version of the call for “100 percent Americanism,” whose implications have always been both anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic. Catholics should never forget that we are a cosmopolitan church, our pope is a German, our previous pope a Pole, and the next pope very likely an African. More important, we have views on war and peace that do not conform to cowboy/military ideology.

Providence, R.I.


[Click here for a response to the above letters, from the August 15, 2008, issue.]



Thank you for Robert J. Egan’s landmark article on women’s ordination (“Why Not?” April 11). Reading the letters written in response to his article, I notice that Father Hottinger (“Too Historical?” May 9) misreads the Letter to the Hebrews as supporting the idea of a Christian priesthood. It does the opposite. It was written to console the Jewish Christians on the loss of the Aaronic priesthood following the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE. It says, in effect, that Jesus Christ, by his unique sacrifice, has done away with the need for a priesthood or temple. Jesus is our unique and all-sufficing High Priest. That’s why Jewish Christians no longer need a priesthood.

As Egan rightly says, the creation of a Christian priesthood took several centuries. Another letter writer, Gino Dalpiaz, CS, (“The Answer is No,” May 9), does not pretend to have read and understood the article. Instead, he simply claims that because the pope has said no to women’s ordination, the conversation is over. Thomas A. Shannon’s letter (“Continuous Conversation,” May 9), has it exactly right. Egan’s argument about the historicity of the church means that “no questions can be off-limits and no doctrines can be insulated from re-examination.”

Chicago, Ill.



Sue Norton’s “Pomp and Piety” (April 25) left me sad. My generation (I am seventy-three) did not do well by Ms. Norton’s generation if we did not pass on to them a deeper understanding of religion than is shown in this piece. Commonweal is to be commended for printing this article because it shows us the terrible truth of our failure.

A good friend of mine who teaches theology to seniors in a Catholic high school here in Rhode Island uses the pope’s Introduction to Christianity as the text for his doctrine course. His students are learning to articulate the large questions they didn’t even know they had and to search for soul-nourishing answers in the Gospels. Perhaps it is not too late for those in Norton’s generation to be introduced by this book to the Christianity that is their birthright.

Wakefield, R.I.

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Published in the 2008-06-06 issue: View Contents
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