CTSA: Interview with Bishop William Skylstad

Interview with Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Washington
President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops
At the Catholic Theological Society of America’s 62nd Annual Convention
Los Angeles, California

This morning we heard Michael Root argue that there is an internal contradiction in Catholicism’s teaching about ordained ministry and its teaching on “imperfect communion” with other Christian bodies. What do you think?

This is one of those mysteries we continue to address. I think we’ve come a long way since Vatican II. Look to the practice in the United States and the doctrine of the bishops. I think the theological development will continue. When I meet with my ecumenical counter-parts, we have great respect and appreciation for one another and for our ministries. Officially, we may not see their ordinations as valid, but we highly respect their polity, their organization as a church. I see that person as ordained in that church, as a bishop of that polity, and that has great importance for me. We’ll continue to work on the theology.

A decade ago, there were significant tensions between the Catholic Theological Society of America and some of the bishops. Cardinal Bernard Law famously called the society a “wasteland.” Where do things stand now?

I have profound gratitude for the theologians in the church. We want to be in relationship with our theologians, and to work collaboratively together to address what I think is a unique, watershed moment in world history. We are becoming ever more a global village, and in response to that we’ve built up tremendously our dialogue with other Christians, other religions, other cultures. We need the help of our theologians to deepen this dialogue. I think about John Paul II’s encyclical Ut unum sint, which I think was one of his most radical encyclicals, in which he urged us to seek out unity and to be in dialogue. We need to be committed.

So the tensions of the past are largely resolved?

You see some bishops present here. That’s mean to be a support for Catholic theologians. The place of theologians in the church is very important. In the church, we should be about the business of relationships, building up unity. The bishop is a sign of unity. He should be a good witness to the spirituality and theology we profess. That doesn’t mean we’re going to agree on everything. Theologians are on the cutting edge of development. They’re always probing, and so there will always be some tension. Ultimately, the magisterium of the church keeps us centered. But I hope that our relationship continues to improve in the future, because we need one another face the challenges of the day. I just came from the meeting of CELAM [the Bishops of Latin America and the Caribbean], and saw the huge issues they’re facing of cultural change, of justice. It’s a terribly complex world out there. Yet with all its challenges, there are also great opportunities.

One source of tension between bishops and theologians has long been the question of the mandatum. Where are we on that?

I think there’s some discussion, some revisiting of that at the present moment. Although the big issue has been the mandatum, it’s important to remember that Ex Corde Ecclesiae [John Paul II’s 1990 apostolic constitution on higher education] offered a wonderful theological reflection on what a university should be. The question of Catholic identity continues to surface in a lot of areas, and not just education. We’re dealing with in Catholic hospitals, for example, and other areas. So the question is, are we implementing Ex Corde Ecclesiae as well as we should? There’s discussion on this, but I don’t think there’s a significant policy push in any given direction at the moment.

Right now, each bishop decides for himself how to handle the mandatum. Are you comfortable with that?

I’m comfortable with it. Each situation in each diocese is unique. What’s important is for the bishop to be in relationship with the local theological community. That’s obviously easier in some dioceses than others. If a diocese has a large number of Catholic institutions, it’s more complicated, but even there it can be done. One issue that still comes up is whether the mandatum should be public or not. As you well know, some bishops make it public who has the mandatum and others don’t. Right now, the bishops are not in agreement on that. I can’t say how it will go forward, but at the moment it’s left up to the individual bishop.

On another matter, were you disappointed that President Bush’s proposed immigration reform effort has fallen apart?

Broadly speaking, we supported it, even though there were some problematic areas. We will continue to push for immigration reform. It’s obviously going to be more difficult as we move into an election year. It’s unfortunate that this effort is failing, because this is a significant issue for us in the church. I know that this is a divisive question, and the most vocal elements tend to be negative. I’ve received some hostile messages and e-mails. They focus on the illegality of the undocumented, whereas our approach is to look to their human dignity as persons. Somehow, we’ve got to work to have that reflected in the legal process. The bishops will certainly continue to press for that.

Some critics might say that your push on immigration will never be as visible as your stands on abortion and stem cell research, so long as politicians are threatened with excommunication for their votes on the latter and not the former.

We have to address this. On the issue of communion, I can tell you that this conversation will continue as we work on our document “Faithful Citizenship,” in whatever form that eventually takes. The individual bishop has the right to make his own decision, but as we process the document, we hope to offer some guidelines for the whole country. As bishops, we understand the need to teach and witness about the value of human life. We have to uphold that, because it’s so profoundly important.

I want to ask you about something said yesterday by a Latina theologian. She said that the recent reorganization of the bishops’ conference, which collapsed ministries for Hispanics, African-Americans, Asians, and other ethnic groups into one office for “cultural diversity,” amounts to a “Hallmark card ecclesiology,” homogenizing the diversity among these groups and signaling a short-sighted lack of interest, especially given that Hispanics today make up 40 percent of the American church. What do you think?

The church has always been concerned about how we can respect the ethnic diversity in our midst, and that’s even more true today in light of immigration from Latin America, for example, and Southeast Asia. The reality, however, is that we also have to ask ourselves how we can do ministry smarter and better in a time of fewer resources. Every diocese in the country is looking at ways to conserve resources. It’s the same thing with the national conference. It’s very difficult, but we have to get our fiscal house in order. We’re working on the best way to address our responsibilities, including those to our diverse ethnic groups, at the same time we face the need to cut back, and of course it’s tough. We’re going to see how things shake out, and in the future if there’s a need to tweak the system, we will do it. Right now, we have to do our level best to serve our people with the resources we have. We’re going through the most significant overhaul of the conference in a long time, and there are significant areas of work for which we don’t have adequate resources. But this is not at all a sign of diminished commitment to Hispanics or other ethnic groups, not at all.


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