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Newark's Myers defies the usual stereotypes

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By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
Livingston, New Jersey

tThough Archbishop John Myers of Newark is usually type-cast as part of Catholicism’s conservative wing, in part because he belongs to a priestly society affiliated with Opus Dei, in some ways he’s among the least “traditional” bishops you’ll ever meet.

tRecently, for example, Myers and his boyhood friend Gary Wolf, creator of the “Roger Rabbit” character, signed a six-figure deal for a science fiction novel the two men have co-authored, called “Spacevulture.” The book is due out in the late fall from New York-based Tor/Forge, a publisher which specializes in sci-fi titles, and a movie deal may not be far off.

tMyers is described by friends as a “sci-fi nut,” with a passion for all the usual suspects – “Star Trek,” “Star Wars,” and so on. The new novel, “Spacevulture,” has been characterized as a cross between science fiction and a spaghetti western, with a storyline about redemption woven into the tale.

tSources close to Myers said that the archbishop did draw the line on one matter – while characters in “Spacevulture” may struggle with relationships, they say, don’t expect any sex scenes.

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tMyers, 65, spoke to NCR during a session for area priests with Capuchin Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa, the Preacher of the Papal Household.

tWriting sci-fi novels in his spare time is not the only way in which Myers defies the usual stereotypes. For example, he has spoken strongly against a “communion ban” for politicians who don’t vote in accord with church teaching.

tMyers told NCR on Feb. 22 that he has “no intention” of announcing communion bans against candidates in the 2008 presidential elections, a position he expects the “vast majority” of other American bishops to adopt as well.

tMyers said debates over communion should not be restricted to politicians.

t“Anyone should live their professional lives in accord with Catholic teaching,” he said. “People should be honest. If they’re struggling with one or another point, that’s one thing. But if over a spectrum of issues they are not in agreement with the church, they should withhold themselves from communion.”

tAs for formal bans, Myers said that while he “may have some sympathy” for the instinct behind such moves, he won’t do it himself, and regards them as “practically impossible to enforce.”

t“For the most part, communion in this archdiocese is distributed by laypeople,” he said. “There’s a danger that they might not understand the issues so clearly, and end up imposing their own politics on who gets communion and who doesn’t.”

tThat doesn’t mean, he said, there aren’t obvious cases where some action would be required.

t“If someone is running an abortion clinic, that’s fairly clear,” he said, in terms of when he might be inclined to withhold communion. Beyond such clear-cut situations, he said, “I doubt that we would be able to find consensus” as to where to draw the line.

tMyers was among the first American bishops to raise the issue of politicians and communion, in a 1990 pastoral letter issued while he was the Bishop of Peoria.

t“What I saw then, even in central Illinois, was that some people involved in public life were abandoning the pro-life position and becoming pro-choice, in part because their party was pushing them in that direction,” he said, referring to the Democrats.

t“I was worried that they were taking on a dynamic that would lead them away from the church,” he said.

tMyers said he will not publicly forbid any presidential candidates from receiving communion in Newark in 2008, “unless something unexpected happens to force my hand.”

tOn another front, Myers also surprised some observers in September 2005 when he issued a pastoral letter on death and dying which approved the withdrawal of food and water from terminal patients under certain circumstances.

t“When specific medical conditions indicate that a medical treatment may place excessive burdens on the patient without a sufficient benefit, the decision not to undertake such a treatment can be morally licit,” Myers wrote.

tThe letter came on the heels of a 2004 allocution from Pope John Paul II which seemed to reject withdrawal of food and water under almost all circumstances, calling them a “natural means” of preserving life rather than a “medical act.”

t“The presumption is always in favor of nutrition and hydration,” Myers told NCR, “unless there are negative indicators. Given someone’s complete health situation, if it would only cause more pain, then it can be stopped.”

tMyers said this is not an entirely abstract interest for him. His mother suffered from a combination of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, and spent her final years in a nursing home.

t“I’m the oldest of seven kids, and we had some tough decisions to make,” he said.

tMyers said he does not read John Paul’s allocution to mean that food and water can never be withdrawn. Nor, he said, does he believe Rome needs to issue any additional guidance on the question.

t“I think the principles are pretty clear,” he said, while acknowledging that in practice, some Catholic health care agencies, and even some bishops’ conferences, may set the bar in different places for terminating food and water.

t“If Rome comes down differently,” he conceded, “then I’d have to rethink my position.”

tIn the meantime, Myers said, he respects the fact that these are usually agonizing decisions.

t“I’ve seen people struggle with these issues, including my own family,” he said. “I don’t judge them.”

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