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Sept. 11 concerns invade bishops’ meeting


It was not business as usual at the semi-annual meeting of the U.S. Catholic bishops. New York Cardinal Edward Egan and Brooklyn Bishop Thomas Daily could be seen hurrying from the Hyatt Regency Hotel here to catch a train back to New York early on Nov. 12, just as their fellow bishops were beginning their first morning session -- a preview of a pastoral response to terrorism.

The outgoing president of the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, had just finished the final page of his presidential address when a note was handed to him. He read it and then somberly announced the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in New York.

Hours later hotel employees, alarmed by a suspicious package, evacuated the hotel lobby while the bishops met in the ballroom below. That evening the prelates rode to the National Shrine in a convoy of small buses, each accompanied by police escorts.

The attacks of Sept. 11, which left some 5,000 dead and millions on edge across the nation, had not spared the bishops. Before their meeting ended Nov. 15, they adopted a pastoral proclamation on terrorism, affirming that nations have the right to use military action in response to terrorism, but must exercise moral restraint and reflection in the use of force.

“Our nation, in collaboration with other nations and organizations, has a moral right and a grave obligation to defend the common good against mass terrorism. The common good is threatened when innocent people are targeted by terrorists,” the pastoral said.

Cautious endorsement

The 15-page document was a cautious endorsement of U.S. policy, while stressing the need to pursue nonmilitary means such as bolstering homeland security and ensuring greater transparency of the financial system to strengthen global cooperation against terrorism.

Titled, The Pastoral Message on the Aftermath of Sept. 11, and written by the bishops’ International Policy Committee, the document emphasizes that nothing justifies terrorism, but that poverty, violence and human rights violations can breed the anger and resentment that generate it.

It goes on to declare that there can be “no religious or moral justification” for the attacks on the twin trade towers and the Pentagon. The terrorists’ claims that they acted out of religious conviction must be countered by the tenets of the world’s religions and by the constructive deeds of believers. The pastoral calls Catholics to greater dialogue with Muslims and a deeper appreciation of the role that religion plays in world affairs.

It also urges national leaders to redefine U.S. policy so that the alleviation of global suffering and the advancement of human rights become priorities. It calls for efforts to end the civil war in Sudan, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the sanctions against Iraq.

Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit introduced a motion to amend the meeting’s agenda to allow for discussion of the need to end sanctions, which Gumbleton and other Iraq-watchers say cause the death of more than 5,000 children each month due to malnutrition and illness (NCR, Nov. 9). He withdrew the motion when Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, chair of the International Policy Committee, argued that the pastoral on terrorism included the bishops’ call for an end to the economic boycott.

Prayer for Peace

They asked Catholics to join in a National Day of Prayer for Peace on Jan. 1, 2002, and to fast one day per week. The events of Sept. 11 require a time for teaching, for dialogue, witness, service, solidarity and hope, the bishops wrote.

Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, an outgoing member of the International Policy Committee and the new chair of the Domestic Policy Committee, said the drafters “tried to be balanced.” The document’s release came after Fiorenza’s final presidential address, which ended his three-year term as conference president. In the address, he called upon his brother bishops to be messengers of hope to people beset with fear and anxiety. “It is Christian hope that gives confidence despite the catastrophic problems of the present time,” he said.

The bishops also lent hope to the peoples of Africa, Asia and the Pacific and to newcomers in America from these lands. They adopted the pastoral statement Asian Pacific Presence: Harmony in Faith, which recognizes the growing Asian and Pacific communities in the Catholic church as well as in U.S. society (NCR, Nov. 9).

The document, prepared by the bishops’ Committee on Migration -- chaired by Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Camden, N.J. -- expresses the bishops’ appreciation for the gifts that Asian and Pacific communities bring to the American church. It also points to challenges that such communities face and looks for practical ways to assist their integration into the church.

In unanimously approving the 46-page Call to Solidarity with Africa, the bishops sought to remind U.S. Catholics of the gravity of Africa’s poverty and health crisis as well as of the richness that Africans have contributed to the universal church (NCR, Nov. 9).

About time for Africa

After years of concentration on Latin America, Cuba and Eastern Europe, “it’s about time the bishops addressed Africa -- one of the most tragic dramas of our day,” Bishop Ricardo Ramirez of Las Cruces, N. M., told NCR. In the light of Sept. 11, the U.S. church and society are in a position to review “all our relations with the world,” he said.

Jesuit Fr. Gordon Bennett, auxiliary bishop of Baltimore, welcomed the Africa statement and looked forward to traveling to Africa in April along with the 12 other African-American bishops.

Bennett expressed delight over the election of Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., as the first African-American head of the bishops’ conference. “Obviously, it’s not on the caliber of a Michael Jordan,” he said, and added, “In some ways, it is. … It’s harvest time for blacks in the church. The seeds grown and planted in Vatican II have taken root.”

In what they term A Campaign in Support of Life, the bishops urge Catholics and the church’s institutions and organizations to unite in an effort to restore respect and legal protection for every human life.

The latest revision follows similar plans to those adopted in 1975 and revised in 1985, but it takes into account Pope John Paul’s 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (“The Gospel of Life”).

Since 1985 physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem-cell research and a growing use of the death penalty have posed increasing threats to human life just as has abortion, said Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., a member of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

The plan calls for a three-pronged strategy -- an educational campaign, a public policy effort and pastoral services. The nation’s deepening recession at a time when many welfare recipients have reached their five-year limit on welfare payments will put greater demands on local churches, Lynch told NCR.

“The church is often accused of caring only for life in the womb,” Lynch said, adding that many more human services are part of pro-life activities after a woman gives birth. Among them are nutritional, prenatal, childbirth and postnatal care for the mother; nutritional and pediatric care for the child; adoption and foster care services; counseling and spiritual assistance; opportunities for teenage parents to continue their education during pregnancy and after childbirth and support for victims of rape and abuse.

Although the federal law on abortion has changed very little in 28 years, Lynch said the bishops would continue to work for its reversal no matter the obstacles or who was in the White House and Congress.

Baltimore Cardinal William Keeler, who chairs the pro-life activities committee, noted that despite the existence of Roe v. Wade, the number of abortions declined in the 1990s; more young people are attending pro-life rallies and prayer services; and the percentage of people nationwide who call themselves pro-life and pro-choice has evened out at 46 percent each. These figures represent “a sea change” over the past decade, Keeler said, adding that the bishops’ consistent pro-life teaching as well as widespread disagreement with the practice of partial-birth abortions can be credited with some of the shift.

The bishops devoted extensive time to liturgical issues ranging from the theory of Biblical translation to matters of church furnishings, posture at Mass and how Communion is to be received.

Some were concerned that a directive from Rome’s Congregation for Divine Worship would mute inclusive language and risk alienating Catholic women and that it would also interfere with scriptural translators. The directive on authentic liturgy, Liturgiam Authenticam, favors literal translations over idiomatic renderings of Biblical texts.

‘Tool box for translators’

Although bishops may disagree among themselves about the directive’s reach and its implications, Chicago Cardinal Francis George said “it would be a mistake to be so critical of Liturgiam Authenticam that we act as if it hadn’t been issued and there is an impasse.” The bishops elected George to chair the Committee on the Liturgy over the next three years. The bishops also voted in favor of approving the Vatican’s directives.

Fr. James Moroney, executive director of the liturgy committee, called Liturgiam Autenticam “a tool box for translators,” and not an instrument of regimentation. “No toolbox restricts a carpenter from building a house, rather it assists him,” he told NCR. Similarly women should not be anxious about inclusive language. It is still there, Moroney argued, pointing to approved translations for adelphoi, which translate as brothers and sisters, not just brothers. “The proof of the translating is in the confirming,” he said. A close look at Volume II of the Lectionary for Mass bears this out, he added.

The matter of when people should rise from kneeling at the end of the eucharistic prayer stirred an hour’s debate. The bishops decided (180-38) that people should remain kneeling “until after the Amen.”

Patricia Lefevere is NCR’s special report writer.

National Catholic Reporter, November 23, 2001