Lay Hands

Regarding “Bishops or Branch Managers?” by John Wilkins (October 12): What’s so interesting about the books and articles being published around the anniversary of Vatican II is that most continue to view the church from the perspective of its clerics. While the debate about the relationship between pope and bishop, universal church and local church,  continues at the academic level, the Body of Christ is made present and active in its mission in history by the witness of the baptized, the lay church. Because of Vatican II, especially its reform of the liturgy, all the church’s members, women and men alike, recognize themselves to be true, full ecclesial persons. In this they are formed and continually strengthened by their regular participation in the Eucharist. One of the signal achievements of Vatican II, perhaps not directly intended, was to place the church’s future in lay hands. But really, hasn’t that always been the case?

Georgia Keightley

Alexandria, Va.

The Council & The Catechism

The cynical article “Bishops or Branch Managers?” accuses John Paul II and Benedict XVI of undermining the Second Vatican Council and seeking to return the church to a monarchy. Wilkins claims that Benedict avoids discussing the conciliar documents, noting that the present Year of Faith, rather than focusing on the conciliar documents, “is linked as much to the Catechism of the Catholic Church—an endeavor subsequent to the council.” One need only open the Catechism to see that the documents of Vatican II are directly quoted or referenced on almost every page. Indeed, it is cited more than all other councils combined. Far from being in opposition to or disconnected from the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism is one of its greatest fruits. I am grateful that the Holy Father is encouraging Catholics to study the Catechism’s riches. He is certainly not discouraging them from also reading the documents of the council during the Year of Faith.

John Knutsen

Berkeley, Calif.

The Author Replies

I do indeed find the Catechism a valuable reference book. But it is not equivalent to the documents of a general council, the highest teaching authority of the Catholic Church. The Catechism is not magisterial teaching. It is, rather, a compendium of articles of faith, opinions commonly held, prudential recommendations, and devotional reflections. Each of these has the authority only of its particular source. The Catechism is not a creed.

Yet the “Note with Pastoral Recommendations for the Year of Faith” issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on January 7 links the Vatican II texts with the Catechism continually, almost as though they were on a similar footing, or as though the first could be read in the light of the second. Right at the start the note ranks them together: “The beginning of the Year of Faith coincides with the anniversaries of two great events which have marked the life of the church in our days”—the opening of Vatican II on October 11, 1962, and the promulgation of the Catechism on October 11, 1992.

In several areas of great importance, the note omits any mention of Vatican II so that the Catechism stands alone, for example when it urges educators in centers of theological studies, seminaries, and Catholic universities to demonstrate the relevance of the Catechism, or when it addresses Catholic schools. Every diocese worldwide is asked to organize a study day on the Catechism, and parishes are encouraged to distribute it. But the true treasures are in the Vatican II texts, and far too many people have no idea what those contain. This opportunity to revive the conciliar momentum may be missed.

As to collegiality, I explained in my article how the theories of the conservative Jesuit canonist Wilhelm Bertrams were taken up in the prefatory note (nota explicativa praevia) affixed by order of Paul VI to the council’s constitution on the church, Lumen gentium, specifying that the pope could act inside or outside the college of bishops. The resulting position was put in a nutshell by Bishop Christopher Butler, former abbot president of the English Benedictines, who emerged after Vatican II as a leading interpreter of its work in the English-speaking world. “There was now a moral obligation on the pope to act collegially,” he would say, “but he did not have to.” The popes, as I sought to demonstrate in my article, exercising their right to decide, have mainly not done so. A future reforming pope, of course, with the bishops on his side, could change that.

John Knutsen calls my article “cynical.” I would be sorry if people saw it in that way. I am a believer, not a cynic. As a journalist, however, it is my job to ascertain facts and present them objectively.

John Wilkins

Fracking Controversy

In his article “Boom Times Ahead?” (September 14), Charles Morris presented only one side of the ongoing debate about the safety of hydraulic fracturing. For the past few years Exxon Mobil, Chevron, and Conoco Phillips have poured millions into an advertising campaign to tout the economic and environmental benefits of natural gas and to defend “fracking” as safe. A November 2011 article by Chris Mooney in Scientific American, however, concluded that drilling for natural gas has gotten ahead of the science needed to prove it safe.

The fracking process involves injecting 2 to 4 million gallons of water combined with toxic chemicals and sand at high pressure into wells more than a mile deep to break up underground rock formations and free natural gas. The Oil and Gas Accountability Project of the environmental organization Earthworks reports that injected fluids have been known to travel as far as three thousand feet from a well and that about half the contaminated water remains trapped underground. The Union of Concerned Scientists describes how the fluid, referred to as “flow-back water” by drillers, is returned to the surface, where it’s held in open pools or pits until it can be trucked away for disposal. That presents additional environmental risks. Meanwhile, the toxic mix of chemicals it contains evaporates and pollutes the air, while the flow-back water is prone to leak into the ground, or, in the case of heavy rainfall, may overflow into adjacent rivers or streams.

Landowners and communities are experiencing changes in water and air quality that occur during and after fracking. Yet they have little recourse, because the Energy Act of 2005 specifically exempted the fracking industry from the provisions of either the Clean Water or the Clean Air federal regulations. As a result, drilling companies do not have to reveal what chemicals they use, even though some are known carcinogens and others have proved harmful to the skin, lungs, and nervous and reproductive systems of humans and animals. In the handful of cases where the complainants have succeeded in defeating the companies’ well-paid defense lawyers, the money is paid to the winners only if they sign a nondisclosure agreement.

As a result of the exemption from federal regulation, it falls to individual states to protect their land, water, and air. Because the states also lack pertinent information about the chemicals employed, they are handicapped in trying to evaluate or develop monitoring programs to assess the risks posed by injecting these unknown fluids into the ground. The nonpartisan advocacy organization Common Cause highlights another problem at the state level in its study Deep Drilling, Deep Pockets: the vast monetary resources of the big oil and gas companies are used to reward elected officials who are friendly to their interests and to defeat those who oppose them or attempt to regulate fracking in their states.

Rather than glossing over the serious environmental risks of fracking, as Charles Morris does, America’s number-one priority should be to scale up the clean renewable-energy technologies at hand and to invest in developing additional sources of renewable energy for our own long-term benefit and that of the entire world.

Mary Simon

Chicago, Ill.

The Author Replies

For a thorough and, judging by the contributors and experts involved, unbiased report on the status of unconventional natural gases, I refer readers to Golden Rules by the International Energy Agency. It is highly readable and offers a careful delineation of the risks of shale and other unconventional gas extraction, and the costs and changes in practice required to ensure that it lives up to its promise. The costs of such changes are a small fraction of the revenues at stake.

The early shale-gas boom was driven by more than a thousand small companies that were difficult to police and were often thinly financed. Bigger players with the resources to do quality work appear to recognize that their growth will be stunted until they satisfy environmental concerns. The relevant environmental standard, however, is not a vision of a 100-percent renewable future. In the United States, natural gas will be replacing coal, nuclear, and imported oil, which are tainted respectively by severe environmental threats, Fukushima-type catastrophes, and links to terrorist finance. In addition, alone among the currently available technologies, natural-gas development can help generate a manufacturing revival in America and make a big dent in our international indebtedness problems.

Charles R. Morris





Maria Doerfler’s review of Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years (October 26) incorrectly stated that the book is “wholly without illustrations.” In fact, the finished copy of the book includes sixteen pages of images. We regret the error.

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Published in the 2012-11-23 issue: View Contents
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