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U.S. bishops vote to push social teaching

Special Report Writer

The nation’s Catholic bishops approved a 27-page document opposing pornography, excessive violence and what they termed irresponsible use of sex and violence in the media during their spring meeting here. They also voted to have “the best kept secret of the Catholic church” -- its social teaching -- incorporated into all Catholic educational programs and institutions.

The two actions, along with a broad discussion of ways to encourage greater use of the sacrament of reconciliation and a vote to submit the lectionary to Rome for its confirmation and authorization, highlighted the agenda for some 220 prelates during the June 18-20 meeting at the Hilton Hotel.

Favoring a V-chip but not censorship, the bishops urged the media to self- regulate, the government to more strictly enforce licensing rules for broadcasters and parents to oversee their children’s use of the media.

The document also urged parishes and schools to push for aggressive enforcement of existing pornography laws, to hold discussions about the media and to analyze the moral messages transmitted over the air, in movies and via cyberspace.

The prelates suggest that families forsake television, video games, talk radio, the Internet and music videos one day each week and take time to pray and to discuss how the media contributes to each family member’s understanding of sex and violence.

Titled “Renewing the Mind of the Media,” the paper acknowledges the media’s “culture-forming impact” and its great potential for good. “The media has the power to shape human destiny,” Auxiliary Bishop Michael Cote of Portland, Maine, told NCR, “but it also has its dark side.”

Cote, who headed a subcommittee of the bishops’ Communications Committee that drafted the document, said he thought the central message, “pornography harms the human person who is made in God’s image,” would be well received.

The responsibility for parents, he said, is to become “more reactive” to what their children see, read and listen to.

Although the bishops adopted the statement by a vote of 207-11, several criticized its wordiness, bad writing and lack of documentation.

Urgently needed

Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Sullivan of Brooklyn quoted sentences that he felt were overwritten or lacked clarity. An example: “Sexuality offers the prospect of the most fulfilling experience of this drive toward social communion.”

If that’s what the media thinks the bishops see as the sex drive, “then we’ve got nothing to worry about,” Sullivan said with a laugh.

Auxiliary Bishop Peter Rosazza of Hartford, Conn., also critical of the document’s composition, said that no document should be addressed to the media before it had first met the standard “of the finest articles in the Catholic and secular press.” But Baltimore’s Cardinal William Keeler said that the statement was urgently needed, even in its current form.

Citing the $6 billion U.S. pornography industry, Keeler said: “We know from parents what’s happening in movies, TV and on the Internet.” The cardinal also said the National Council of Churches and the National Association of Evangelicals are looking at the same issues and are ready to approve “similar statements.” He added that “Jewish and Muslim leaders are willing to support our position taken here.”

The bishops’ statement, which made no mention of guns nor of the teaching of nonviolence, was adopted the day the Presbyterian Church (USA) took a first step against violence by asking its members to remove guns from their homes.

Asked by NCR whether he could foresee a day when the U.S. bishops might confront the National Rifle Association, Cote said: “They are part of this reality.”

At a news conference after the vote, Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., said the document was meant to include all violence from soft porn to murder. He pointed to the Jonesboro, Ark., case in which two boys are charged with killing four girls and a teacher at school this spring and asked: “Where did they learn that from?”

Keeler said that support for the bishops’ suggestions exists in both Hollywood and New York, where he and Archbishop John Foley have made several visits to entertainment industry executives. Foley heads Rome’s Pontifical Council for Social Communications.

A new effort to communicate the church’s more than 100-year history of social teaching won the bishops’ support by a vote of 213-5. The 17-page paper emerged from three years of work by the Domestic Policy, Education and International Policy committees. The three committees convened a 30-member task force headed by former Archbishop John Roach of St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The task force found that in too many classrooms the values, principles and lessons of the church’s social teachings are “vague ... unclear ... unlearned.” The task force is promoting a new effort to infuse the tradition from preschool through graduate school and to link service and action, charity and justice.

Teaching falls short

In an interview with NCR, Roach said that sermons and classroom teaching had fallen short and that priests and teachers had failed to use the church’s resources to advance its social teachings. Many instructors in Catholic institutions would fail, he said, were they to be tested on church teaching on assisted suicide, the death penalty, a just wage and working conditions or a just war.

They feel “uncomfortable” teaching a topic about which they find themselves inadequately prepared, Roach said. Some are selective in sharing only that part of church social teaching with which they agree, he said.

But no one “can treat this issue as if it were an option,” he added. With preparation, he said, any teacher should be able to spell out the seven broad principles of Catholic social teaching as outlined by the bishops:

  • the life and dignity of the human person;
  • the call to family, community and participation;
  • the rights and responsibilities of persons;
  • the preferential option for the poor and vulnerable;
  • the dignity of work and rights of workers;
  • the love of neighbor;
  • the care for God’s creation.

Roach said that schools like the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., had programs in place for Catholic school instructors. Materials from the bishops’ conference will be made available both in publications and on the Internet, he said.

Pax Christi speaks out

When Pax Christi hosted a reception for the bishops on the subject of nuclear deterrence and its place in Catholic teaching, only 10 bishops came, including the Pax Christi USA president, Bishop Walter Sullivan of Richmond, Va., and former president Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, auxiliary of Detroit.

A number of nuns attended, as did some officials of the bishops’ conference. Also attending were two protesters from upstate New York who stood outside the hotel for two days to call attention to religious and laity imprisoned for protesting the School of the Americas, which trains Latin American soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga.

All had come to hear Douglas Roche, Canada’s former ambassador to the United Nations Disarmament Conference, who is adviser on security issues to the Vatican’s mission to the United Nations.

Roche lauded the 80 Pax Christi bishops who had signed the peace movement’s statement condemning nuclear deterrence (NCR, June 19). He said the strictly conditional moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence, which the bishops allowed in their 1983 peace pastoral as an interim step to progressive disarmament, has lost its legitimacy.

He urged the prelates to withdraw that acceptance, given the recent presidential decision directive on nuclear policy, made public last December. He said that under the directive, Washington will continue to rely on nuclear arms as the cornerstone of national defense.

Roche said that the government has announced its Stockpile Stewardship Program by which it will continue to develop, test and rely upon nuclear deterrence well into the next century.

“The bishops have had their 1983 letter thwarted,” Roche told NCR. “They need to review their position in the light of the nuclear states’ deliberate retention of such weapons in a post Cold War era. ... The bishops are compromised if they stay silent in the face of this new situation.”

Pax Christi’s Sullivan said that the bishops would be heard. “To have had 80 bishops read and sign this in a few weeks is the greatest sign-on we’ve ever had,” he said.

The signers represent about 50 percent of the bishops who are members of Pax Christi and a quarter of all the bishops. Gumbleton said: “A good number of bishops don’t sign anything, and there are a good number who won’t work outside the conference.” Sullivan and Gumbleton said they hoped the deterrence issue might win more adherents before the bishops meet again in November.

Roach said he was not trying to provoke an individual crisis of conscience among the bishops but only to spotlight “the enormous pastoral concerns around this question. ... We’re talking about the destruction of God’s creation,” he said.

Under the direction of Portland Archbishop John Vlazny, the bishops broke into regional groups to try to come up with creative ideas for iNCReasing the practice of confession. According to the reports following those meetings, one bishop, who was not identified, suggested improving examination of conscience. Within the context of communal reconciliation services, most examinations were so general, the bishop said, that “a serial killer could slip through without feeling any sorrow.”

Others suggested opening confessionals in malls or in large public places. Some wanted the church publicly to confess its sins of racism, sexism, discrimination and anti-Semitism.

Many called for the extension of confession hours beyond the usual 30 to 60 minutes on Saturday. “We give signals of our non-availability” by limiting times available for confession, said Vlazny, a member of the Third Millennium Subcommittee, whose sacramental focus in 1999 is on reconciliation.

The bishops appeared to reconcile their differences with Rome by voting 196 to 6 to submit Volume II of the Lectionary for Mass for confirmation by the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament.

Volume I of the lectionary, which contains the readings for Sundays and Feast Days, was submitted last August and received Vatican approval last October.

“The presses are ready to roll; it should be in the churches by Advent,” Archbishop Jerome Hanus of Dubuque, Iowa, told NCR.

Hanus, who chairs the bishops’ Liturgy committee, said Volume II, which is much larger and contains the daily readings as well as those for rituals, will take longer to be approved, but is still expected in 1999.

However, some bishops contended that larger issues raised by the lectionary approval process remain unresolved. After 10 years and thousands of hours contributed by scripture scholars, translators and censors, the U.S. bishops approved Volume I of the lectionary, only to have it rejected by Rome over issues such as use of inclusive language. Protracted negotiations produced a compromise version, which the bishops approved with a provision for review after five years.

At the time, some bishops and liturgists suggested that the Vatican’s action was troubling, raising questions of why Rome rather than the U.S. episcopacy should determine the best way of rendering texts into English. Those concerns have been exacerbated by the Vatican’s recent decision to demand more than 400 changes in the lectionary’s introduction, and to ask that the imprimatur be lifted from a 1995 translation of the psalter (NCR, June 19).

Bishop Sullivan of Brooklyn said he wondered whether Rome could distinguish between “mature collaboration” and “authority.” He called the Vatican action a matter of “sheer incompetency” that undermines “the enormous work and skill of this conference.”

Sullivan said the veto offends the American sense of fairness. “We’re not going to impose U.S. democracy on the church. Everybody knows that. Yet there are guys here who think we have to defend the Holy See at every turn.”

Sullivan saw the Vatican’s intervention in the process as an affront to the U.S. episcopal conference and as “undermining the role of the local church.”

For Auxiliary Bishop Emil Wcela of Rockville Centre, N.Y., the critical issues preceding the 1998 meeting were the legitimacy of a bishops’ conference to oversee a translation and its competency to approve the translation. The fact that the U.S. bishops received no guidelines for the translation of biblical text for use in the liturgy until some five years after they had asked the Vatican to approve revised liturgical texts is “disappointing,” he said.

Similar concerns were revealed in comments made about translations during the recent Asian Bishops Synod, he told NCR. But Wcela, a Biblical scholar who is a member of the bishops’ Committee on Liturgy and on its Ad Hoc Committee on Review of Scripture Translations, said that most bishops are eager to move on and get the new lectionary out.

“It will not be everything we had hoped for, but a compromise is better than what we had,” Wcela said.

The new lectionary incorporates a revised translation of the New Testament, available since 1986, and retains the 1970 New American Bible translation of the Old Testament, including the psalms.

In cases where the original text was not gender specific, certain words and phrases (such as “whoever” and “anyone”) were used in previous translations approved by the bishops to achieve greater inclusivity. But Rome insisted on more literal translations of scriptural texts in preparing the revised edition of the lectionary.

While few bishops seemed delighted with the compromise and few were willing to talk about what had gone on in their closed door meetings prior to the June open session, most said they expected a new lectionary on their altars by Nov. 29.

When presenters of the bishops’ paper on Catholic social teaching announced that a Spanish version of the text would be available within a few weeks, Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati coyly posed what he termed “a friendly inquiry.”

“Do we have conference principles to follow when we translate into Spanish?”

The response came in loud laughter.

National Catholic Reporter, July 3, 1998