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Bishops struggle with disaffection issues

NCR Staff

The U.S. Catholic bishops gathered in annual conference here Nov. 11-14 added a fresh anxiety to their lives: the flight of young adults from the church. Already faced with declining Mass attendance, dwindling giving and a radical shortfall in vocations, the bishops now know that young adult Catholics -- late teens to early 30s -- are less likely than ever to return to the church if they drift away.

Historically, the U.S. church could anticipate that many Catholics in their late teens and early 20s would wander away from regular church practice but return when they wed and began raising a family.

"Today this return is no longer certain or if they do return, it can be with great tentativeness," said the bishops in "Sons and Daughters of the Light," a new pastoral plan they have approved for ministry to young adults.

Boise Idaho Bishop Tod D. Brown, chairman of the Subcommittee on Youth of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said the report was not based on studies conducted by the church. He added, "I think it is generally known that congregations are seeing fewer young people on weekends than has been the case in the past."

When asked the primary reason for the flight of young adults, he said, "I don't think there is one primary reason. I think it is a very complex issue. To some extent, there has been a failing on the part of the church itself in actively reaching out to young adults and attempting to involve them. We recognize that." He added that he was hesitant to get specific on the flexibility or inflexibility of the church when it comes to young parishioners.

The document said the problem is more widespread than just Catholics: "There is a growing movement away from an institutional conception of religion to an individual conception of faith. This is particularly true for those born in the 1970s and 1980s."

The bishops' recommendations for attracting youth include creating parish contact teams or naming individuals to be "the link between the church and local young adult community," establishing support groups for newly married couples, and identifying weddings and anniversaries as times to reconnect and affirm married couples.

"If U.S. bishops really want to confront the issues of youth," said Loretto Sr. Maureen Fiedler, speaking outside the hotel where the bishops met, "they need look no further." She was addressing more than 75 people gathered to pray in support of "We Are Church," a Catholic referendum that calls for women priests, married clergy, a lay role in selecting pastors and bishops, respect for primacy of conscience, and human rights regardless of sexual orientation.

Fiedler said, "Until there is serious dialogue on these issues, youth are not going to be comfortable in this church."

Back inside the hotel, in a faint echo of "Economic Justice for All," their headline-making economics pastoral letter of 1986, the bishops approved "A Catholic Framework for Economic Life."

Spokane Bishop William Skylstad, speaking for both his domestic policy committee and the international policy committee that produced the statement, said, "We need to be very clear. Our defense of the poor, our pursuit of economic justice is fundamentally a work of faith. It is Jesus and his church that call us to serve the least of these and defend their lives and dignity."

The document is the U.S. bishops' economic policy reduced to 10 tenets drawn from Catholic teaching:

  • The economy exists for the person, not the person for the economy.
  • All economic life should be shaped by moral principles. Economic choices and institutions must be judged by how they protect or undermine the life and dignity of the human person, support the family, serve the common good and care for the earth.
  • A fundamental moral measure of any economy is how the poor and vulnerable are faring.
  • All people have a right to life and to the basic necessities of life (e.g., food, shelter, education, medical care, economic security).
  • All people have the right to economic initiative, to productive work, to just wages, to decent working conditions as well as to organize and join unions and other associations.
  • All people, to the extent they are able, have a corresponding duty to work, a responsibility to provide for the needs of their families and an obligation to contribute to the broader society.
  • In economic life, free markets have both clear advantages and limits; government has essential responsibilities and limitations; voluntary groups have irreplaceable roles, but cannot substitute for the proper working of the market and the just policies of the state.
  • Society has a moral obligation, including governmental action when necessary, to assure opportunity, meet basic human needs and pursue justice in economic life.
  • Workers, owners, managers and consumers are moral agents in economic life. By our choices, initiative, creativity and investment, we enhance or diminish economic opportunity, community life and social justice.
  • The global economy has moral dimensions and human consequences. Decisions on investment, trade, aid and development should protect human life and promote human rights, especially for those most in need.

The "framework," which will be reproduced on cards and posters in English and Spanish, focuses "on moral principles and not the latest polls," said Skylstad, who urged the bishops to give it to their "legislators and investment advisers, union leaders and business executives."

In a generally conciliatory meeting that concentrated on internal church matters, the closest incidence of a clash of opinions came on Sunday, before the conference actually began, between a bishops' committee and representatives of groups advocating for victims of clergy sexual abuse.

Barbara Blaine, president and founder of Survivors' Network of those Abused by Priests -- SNAP -- had joined with Tom Economus, national director of Survivors of Clergy Sexual Abuse LINKUP, to meet with Bishop John F. Kinney of St. Cloud, Minn., chairman of the NCCB's Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.

Their Nov. 10 discussions centered on what further steps could be taken to deal with the problem of abuse that has been plaguing the bishops' conference since the mid-1980s. Frustration mounted when Blaine and Economus were unable to convince Kinney to speak with the survivors who gathered in front of the conference's hotel.

Meanwhile, outside the hotel a SNAP member unleashed a tirade in the face of a priest who walked past the demonstrators. "All of you are alike. You don't know how you've destroyed my life!" she yelled. The priest responded softly, "It is very hard to have a dialogue with you people when you talk like that."

Though both sides in this issue -- the hierarchy and the victims -- have made several attempts to come to some mutual understanding of the problem, the church's responsibility in the matter and its response to victims, the meetings usually end up short of the mark.

"The dialogue with SNAP and LINKUP has been on-again, off- again from my perspective," Kinney told NCR. And that on- again, off-again quality of the discussion "is built into the very nature of who they are and who we are. So I am not surprised that we don't just sit down and agree on everything. They are in an advocacy position and that is not exactly where our committee nor the church is," he said.

"There is a lot of quiet work going on that there aren't media stories for," Kinney said.

David Clohessey, SNAP spokesman and national director, disagreed. "Talk is cheap. And action is what matters. To those who believe that the Catholic church is doing better on this issue, I would like to point out that this year they are not even doing the talk."

He noted that the agenda for the bishops' meeting contained no reference to the issue.

Kinney said the committee felt the written report it had issued earlier, "Restoring Trust," part of which was written by victims, was sufficient to update American bishops on the issue. "We want to make sure that when we ask for time [for an oral report at a meeting] that we have something substantive to say. And we felt that we could do this with a written report this year. There is no hidden backing off from the issue."

Appropriately enough, Cleveland Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, NCCB president, opened the conference with an address on the challenges confronting priests.

"So many negative images of priests are carelessly, even heartlessly spread around that today I believe it both a duty and a joy to speak words of affirmation and reaffirmation to our priests," he said.

In other business, the bishops elected Green Bay, Wis., Bishop Robert J. Banks as treasurer of NCCB and the U.S. Catholic Conference. In executive session, the bishops were expected to name 15 delegates to the 1997 Synod of Bishops. The names were not to be released until approved by the Holy See, but it was known that retired San Francisco Archbishop John R. Quinn -- who delivered a paper at Oxford University June 29 (NCR, July 12) -- was a favorite. Quinn at that time called for broad reforms in the way authority is exercised in the church.

Ex Corde Ecclesiae, a Vatican constitution on higher education, was approved. Intended to reinforce and protect the identity of Catholic colleges and universities, the document for years has been a subject for debate and anxiety among academics worried over a provision, relegated to a footnote, that would require theologians to seek a "mandate to teach" from the local bishop.

The bishops spent a good portion of their final morning discussing recommendations to streamline and change the conference's bureaucratic makeup as proposed by the Ad Hoc Committee on Mission and Structure. Most discussion came from bishops who favored increasing the conference Administrative Committee membership to include greater regional representation.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996