By now you have probably heard of Connecticut Bill 1098, which would force Catholic dioceses to appoint lay-dominated boards to their parishes, thus diluting, and perhaps even removing, episcopal oversight. Many other news agencies and blogs can give you the run-down of the political motivations behind this move, and what is needed to do to prevent this action, but I’d like to mention another aspect of this issue.
Oversight of parishes is fundamentally a theological issue, not a political or financial issue, and as such, I can’t see how this isn’t a clear violation of the 1st amendment. In Catholic theology, the rule of a bishop over his diocese is almost absolute, with the only caveat being that the Pope is the sole figure whose rule is greater. This is fundamental to Catholic theology, and can be traced back to the earliest Church. For example, around 110 A.D., St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of John the Apostle, wrote,
“But avoid all divisions, as the beginning of evils. See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father, and the presbytery as you would the apostles; and reverence the deacons, as being the institution of God. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop. Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is[administered] either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it. Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude[of the people] also be; even as, wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church. It is not lawful without the bishop either to baptize or to celebrate a love-feast; but whatsoever he shall approve of, that is also pleasing to God, so that everything that is done may be secure and valid.” (Letter to the Smyrnaeans 7-8 Emphasis added).
In other words, to a Catholic, our hierarchical church structure is not something man-made, simply set up this way for practical reasons. It is part of the very DNA of being Christ’s Church. It is something that no secular power can abridge or remove.
It is true that there have been times in Church history, especially in the Middle Ages, in which the internal affairs of the Church have been influenced, and even directed, by political entities. But the difference then was that the political powers did not try to change the internal structure of the Church, they simply tried to take advantage of it. When the office of bishop was a political appointment, the underlying assumption was that bishops had authority – which is why the appointments were so valuable. Now, however, the Connecticut legislature wants to simply obliterate the divinely-ordained authority of the apostles’ successors. This is similar to China’s efforts to remove the authority of the Pope from Church affairs in that country.
It is not a good sign when a comparison can be made between communist China and an American legislature.
Update: Good news! It looks like this bill has just been pulled.