IF IT IS possible to excommunicate an organization instead of an individual, the American Catholic bishops excommunicated Catholics for a Free Choice the other day. But good.
In an unusual, almost unparalleled attack, a committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops released a statement saying that the reproductive-rights group was not "an authentic Catholic organization." The statement added, "It attracts public attention by its denunciations of basic principles of Catholic morality and teaching -- denunciations given enhanced visibility by media outlets that portray CFFC as a reputable voice of Catholic dissent."
Meeting last week in Washington, D.C., the bishops had more on their minds than the censure of an upstart alliance of Catholics who believe conscience is the best guide on intimate questions of reproduction. Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, a prelate of great sagacity and sensitivity, has been accused of a long-ago sodomy. Even if the charges prove baseless, it is a terrible blow for the church.
Yet the gratuitous attack on a group of dissidents does more to illuminate the real crisis in the hierarchy in America.
Happily it is not a crisis in many individual parishes. Priests still go about the business of inclusion, saying mass alongside women deacons, placing communion in the cupped hands of divorced parishioners, developing spiritual relationships.
But the message sent by church leaders often seems to be the antithesis of inclusion. Divorced Catholics and women who yearn for full participation in the liturgy feel disenfranchised and dismissed by pronouncements on marriage and ordination. There is no meaningful dialogue on reproductive issues, although millions of Catholics use birth control and have had abortions.
And the revelations of priestly The word Catholic is a description -- not, like Styrofoam, a registered trademark.
sexual misconduct, much of it known and ignored for years, give rise to the conclusion that the church is run by hypocrites. If the bishops sense a lack of public compassion for their brothers struggling with matters sexual, perhaps it is because they have shown so little of the same.
Last month the pope handed down his latest encyclical, a learned explication of the concept that Catholics will know what's right when bishops tell them. The pontiff cautioned that church leaders had the power to grant the title "Catholic" to institutions -- and "in cases of serious failure to live up to that title, to take it away."
Catholics for a Free Choice was never granted any title. Neither were Catholic Campaign for America or the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, but they are conservative organizations, and have not been branded inauthentic. Nor should they, or any other group of Catholics drawn together by thought and faith, be so branded. The word Catholic is a description -- not, like Styrofoam, a registered trademark.
Frances Kissling, who runs CFFC, says she fits the description. "I was baptized, I was confirmed," she says. "I am a Catholic woman." So are most of the organization's activists, who include a woman in Cleveland who headed a diocesan committee on women's roles, another in Chicago who is a past president of the National Coalition of American Nuns, and various other churchgoing mothers and grandmothers. This is what Catholic dissent looks like.
The bishops' statement includes the revelation that CFFC "shares an address" with the National Abortion Federation. It also shares an address with Greenpeace. And the U.S. Catholic Conference shares an address with International Planned Parenthood, which shows that real estate makes strange bedfellows. Such innuendo is a tactic of machine politics, not spiritual guidance.
For every dissident Catholic organization, there are scores of quiet dissenters at church every Sunday. They believe that they are the best judges of the intimate details of their marital lives, that women should be ordained, that their relationship with God transcends a group of men who guide largely by using the big-daddy approach: Why? because I said so. This dissent should not be denigrated or dismissed. It is honorable, and demands dialogue.
According to the bishops, Catholics for a Free Choice "can in no way speak" for all members of the church in the United States. The real crisis is that neither can the bishops.
Anna Quindlen is a columnist for the New York Times.