Bishop who challenged governor on abortion takes over doctrine panel

Posted: Wednesday, November 22, 2000

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Name a hot-button issue in contemporary religion and chances are that Bishop Donald W. Trautman is at the center of it, often taking hits from both left and right.

Liberals have faulted the Roman Catholic bishop of Erie, Pa., for taking on Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, including one considered a GOP vice-presidential prospect.

Conservatives have criticized him for wanting to make the language of prayer more gender neutral.

''I am not afraid to take positions that are necessary for the future of the church. I am not afraid to fight for what is important,'' said the 64-year-old prelate, who wrote his doctoral dissertation on the biblical understanding of celibacy. ''I want to be involved in these issues only if I can clarify things and serve as a balancer.''

Now, he will be involved even more prominently.

Trautman recently took over as chairman of the Doctrine Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

''Its job is to ensure doctrinal integrity,'' Trautman explained during a break in the conference's recent annual meeting here.

In the next few months, the seven-bishop committee -- whose members are picked by Trautman -- will help implement a Vatican document that governs how theology is taught at Catholic colleges. The document's requirement that faculty be approved by local bishops has brought protests that the church is treading on academic freedom.

Another issue the doctrine panel will take up is clarifying the church's definition of the Holy Eucharist.

Trautman says he is ''proud to be a centrist because 'in the middle stands virtue,''' a phrase he translated from Latin.

A Buffalo, N.Y., native, Trautman has been Erie's bishop since 1990.

He made national headlines when he said Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge would not be allowed to speak at church events because Ridge supports abortion rights. The prelate's action came after the bishops' conference issued a statement in 1998 called ''Living the Gospel of Life.''

''I have to fulfill my role as the shepherd of the diocese,'' he said earlier this year. ''I think we have to point out that there is a higher law, which is the law of God, and no human law can contradict the commandment 'Thou shall not kill.'''

Ridge had been on many people's short list of possible running mates for George W. Bush, but some conservatives cited his disagreement with Trautman as potentially alienating Catholic voters.

''It's obviously pretty difficult for me because it puts me at odds with my faith community,'' said Ridge, a former altar boy who attends Mass regularly. ''I realize the church hasn't created the problem. I have, because I've parted company with my church on this.''

While chairing the bishops' conference Liturgy Committee, Trautman pushed to change the language of prayers to make them more gender inclusive. He criticized the Vatican for not being sufficiently sensitive to the needs of a more modern, diverse church.

Conservatives maintained that Trautman's efforts contradicted the church's liturgical tradition.

Trautman has long been involved in reform efforts within the church.

In graduate school at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, he studied under theologian Karl Rahner and liturgist Josef Jungmann. Their work provided much of the intellectual basis for the 1962-'65 Second Vatican Council, whose pronouncements have shaped the modern church.

The meeting, known popularly as Vatican II, introduced liturgical changes that were controversial at the time but have since been largely accepted. These include permitting Mass in the language of the people and granting a greater role to lay people.

Trautman was a junior staff member at Vatican II and on the floor during most of the deliberations. He strongly defends the reforms as ''inspired by the Holy Spirit'' and sees part of his job as a committee chairman as ''keeping the spirit alive of Vatican II.''

The Rev. Thomas Reese, who has written a book on the politics of the bishops' conference, says Trautman has the right combination of intellectual and political skills to implement his goals.

''His colleagues admire his prudent and thoughtful handling of the issues,'' said Reese, who edits America, a weekly opinion magazine published by the Jesuits. ''He is someone who will listen to others and is not a lone ranger.''

Trautman's rise through the ranks of the church builds on an interest he has had since childhood, despite his father's urging that he follow in his footsteps and become an architect. For fun, Trautman still sketches buildings, but he never seriously thought of any profession but the priesthood.

''I've always wanted to be a priest. It is a special grace to be called by God,'' he said. ''I enjoy interacting with people and leading them to understand the great theological legacy of the church.''

He has had stints as a parish priest, seminary professor and chancellor, auxiliary bishop and bishop.

Trautman declined to predict how he will be best remembered, but hopes people will say that he ''helped hold the church together in difficult times and helped keep the family of God together.''


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