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Barnett: NC Catholic bishops sever a bond with other churches

nbarnett@newsobserver.comSeptember 29, 2013 

Pope Francis’ surprising comments that his church should not be obsessed with abortion and gay marriage arrived a few weeks too late in North Carolina.

Officers of the N.C. Council of Churches said with regret last week that the bishops of the state’s two dioceses, based in Charlotte and Raleigh, had informed the council that they were withdrawing after a membership that dates back to the 1970s.

In a joint statement Friday, the dioceses did not mention the divisive issues. They said only that church leaders have been “associated, via the council, with positions that are at times in contradiction with their practice and the teaching of their faith.”

The Rev. Steve Hickle, president-elect of the council and a United Methodist minister for 40 years, said of the bishops’ decision, “This is a step back for ecumenicism. It takes us away from the constant conversations we’ve been able to have around a broad variety of issues such as workers’ rights, peace and climate change.”

Membership in the council is largely symbolic, and the financial effects, while significant for the nonprofit council, were not large. Each diocese pays $6,000 a year to support the council, whose members represent 6,200 North Carolina congregations and which focuses on taking Christ’s message of social justice to the secular – and the political – world. Two weeks ago, for instance, the council called for a U.S. Senate committee to release its full report on the treatment of detainees caught up in anti-terror operations. The council has supported the rights of undocumented immigrants, migrant workers and all who are poor or marginalized.

It is disappointing, even disheartening, to see the bishops take this step. Particularly after the recent death of Bishop F. Joseph Gossman, who led the Raleigh diocese for 31 years and supported social justice and ecumenicism. Under Gossman, the Raleigh diocese joined the council in 1977 and the bishop was an active supporter. Gossman’s linking of Catholics with the council was a departure. In many states, the Catholic Church is not a member because its politics tend to be more conservative than those of the largely mainline Protestant churches. The conservative Southern Baptist Convention also has not joined.

But the Catholic Church’s distance from state councils of churches elsewhere reflects the strength of its numbers and resources in many states where it speaks powerfully on its own. That was not the case with the Catholic Church in North Carolina. When Gossman arrived in 1975, only 1 percent of the state’s population was Catholic, compared with 10 percent today. In those days, membership in the council was as much an instance of the Catholic Church reaching out as it was of Catholics being welcomed in. That made the North Carolina bond between Catholics and the council especially strong, as well as unusual.

Membership demonstrated Gossman’s commitment to ecumenicism. He was an outward-looking Catholic, a Vatican II Catholic. He was conflicted about the church’s ban on women becoming priests and assertive about the church standing up for workers. For instance, he supported strikers at the Mount Olive Pickle plant. He was, of course, opposed to abortion, but he was not, as Pope Francis cautioned, “obsessed” with it.

Gossman’s views were out of step with the conservative Pope John Paul II, who for all his authentic and admirable humility, piety and love of people was rigid in his approach to church doctrine. Gossman’s long stay in Raleigh was the story of a once-rising leader who would go no further in a church led by a pope whose legacy includes a thick strata of conservative bishops and cardinals.

Now, with comments in an interview that Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson described as an “extemporaneous encyclical,” Pope Francis called for a change from an absolutism that turns from those who doubt or disagree. But the words come too late for North Carolina’s Catholic bishops. They are committed to a course where the council’s neutrality on abortion and its objection to using the state constitution to ban gay marriage makes it a partnership the Catholic dioceses must leave.

Though membership in the N.C. Council of Churches isn’t central to the Catholic Church’s mission, it was a sign of a willingness to rise above differences.To sever the bond between the council and the Catholic Church is to widen the distance between one Christian faith and many. The reason, the bishops say, is that beliefs have come between the believers and Catholics must stand apart. Such severance appears antithetical to what the pope has said. He called for ways to create a bigger, more inclusive church. Implicit in his call is a dream for one day restoring a Christian church large enough to hold all who believe. But like an ancient war in which the news spreads slowly to its distant corners, some Christian soldiers battle onward even after their leader has called for peace.

Editorial page editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, or nbarnett@newsobserver.com

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