Getting serious about orthodoxy: an American bishop shows how

Getting serious about orthodoxy: an American bishop shows how

Michael Gilchrist

In a bold move - and an example for other bishops on how to get serious about orthodoxy - Bishop Robert F. Vasa of Baker, Oregon, directed earlier this year that all those in his diocese serving in official capacities should formally declare their adherence to specific Church teachings.

Formerly a priest of the Diocese of Lincoln, Nebraska, Bishop Vasa has been in charge of the Diocese of Baker in America's north-west since 2000.

The Church already requires the making of a Profession of Faith by various persons when they undertake specific duties related to Church administration and teaching (cf. Canon 833). In the Diocese of Baker this has been expanded to include those who take on the ecclesial duties of catechist, liturgical reader, cantor, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, and other Church positions which entail a presumption of orthodoxy.

Explaining his initiative, Bishop Vasa said he connected the scandal of clerical child abuse with the widespread legitimisation of dissent from Catholic teaching: "I have become increasing convinced that there may be another much more subtle form of episcopal negligence which also has the potential to harm children, not only emotionally and physically, but primarily spiritually." This could occur when "those commissioned by the Church to be witnesses to and examples for them give witness to values or beliefs incompatible with the authentic teachings of the Church."

Bishop Vasa sent to those involved in official responsibilies a covering letter, a document titled, "Giving Testimony to the Truth" and an "Affirmation of Personal Faith" (based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church).

He explains in his covering letter that as it is his "responsibility before God to be a shepherd and a teacher" he must ensure that those entrusted with important church tasks are worthy of their roles: "A failure on my part to verify a person's suitability for ministry would be judged as seriously negligent".

An assurance was needed that those commissioned to teach and act in some official capacity "hold interior dispositions consistent with Church teachings". This could not be taken for granted: "The only way I can verify this is to ask, and so I am asking." This meant establishing "clear qualifying or disqualifying criteria" and exercising "an oversight role by verifying that the established criteria are being observed".

General phrases such as being a "practising Catholic" or "of outstanding moral character" can be subject to broad interpretation, he pointed out. Many pro-choice politicians, for example, have claimed to be in full communion with the Catholic Church and would subjectively apply such phrases to themselves.

For this reason, he said, "the diocesan criteria need to be more clearly enunciated". Being of "outstanding moral character" involved more than having a good reputation in the community - it "necessarily entails a clear knowledge and proper understanding of the teachings of the Church and a firm adherence to those teachings."

These teachings, said the Bishop, are to be found "clearly enunciated" in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, papal encyclicals and documents, liturgical rubrics and the Code of Canon Law, "to name a few of the authentic sources".

He continued: "The People of God have a right to expect a higher standard from those who function in various ministries and the Bishop has an obligation of vigilance. Those persons presented as persons of 'outstanding moral character' must, as far as possible, actually meet that standard."

The process for obtaining the requisite certification is to be conducted privately between the lay minister and the parish priest. The Affirmation of Personal Faith is to be read by the lay minister, "who by presenting himself or herself for ministry affirms that he or she accepts and believes and strives to live what the Church teaches". The parish priest is to accept the veracity of the proposed minister's affirmation unless the contrary is manifestly evident.

The Affirmation of Personal Faith asks candidates for ministry to state unequivocally: "I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church teaches, believes and proclaims to be revealed by God." This carries with it an affirmation of specific teachings of the Catholic Church.

Doctrinal statements

These include statements on the inviolability of human life, the sinfulness of contraception, the evil of extra-marital sexual relationships, the unacceptability of homosexual relationships, the wrongness of cohabitation before marriage, the significance of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the uniqueness of the Catholic Church, the legitimacy of the Holy Father's claim to infallibility, and the moral teaching authority of the Catholic Church.

As the present temporary commissions previously granted to lay people to serve as catechists, liturgical readers, extraordinary ministers of Holy Communion and cantors expire, said Bishop Vasa, "all renewals will be based on this clarified understanding of 'outstanding moral character'."

Within one year of the publication of the Bishop's letter all former temporary commissions will have expired and all serving in these official capacities in future will have assented to the Affirmation of Personal Faith. "Only those officially commissioned by way of a document from this office," said Bishop Vasa, "will be authorised to serve in these capacities".

The Bishop concluded: "Whether we are touching the Word of God or the Body and Blood of the Word made flesh we are in contact with the Holy and the Sacred. Our interior disposition, our focus, our reverence, attention and devotion must all be brought to bear on the 'work' we have been commissioned to carry out."

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