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Church in Crisis

Group of bishops calls for U.S. plenary council


The last time a plenary council was held in the United States -- in Baltimore in 1884 -- the bishops, among other matters of business, mandated publication of a national catechism (popularly known as “the Baltimore Catechism”), established the Roman collar as obligatory clerical dress and addressed growing pastoral needs in the young nation, calling for “care of Negroes and Indians.” That latter item was an expansion on their previous council that called for segregated churches for black Catholics.

In the wake of the clergy sex abuse crisis in the United States and the bishops’ post-Dallas efforts, eight bishops believe the time is ripe to dust off the idea of a plenary council -- spelled out in canon law -- and once more convene such a gathering, “this most solemn common act of teaching and governing” by a nation’s bishops.

The letter and five-page background document was dated July 17 and signed by Archbishops Daniel Cronin of Hartford, Conn.; James Keleher of Kansas City, Kan.; Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala.; and John Vlazny of Portland, Ore.; Bishops Raymond Burke of La Crosse, Wis.; Daniel DiNardo of Sioux City, Iowa; Robert Morlino of Helena, Mont.; and Auxiliary Bishop Allen Vigneron of Detroit. The documents were sent to all the bishops of the United States.

The letter was first announced in Crisis magazine; the text was subsequently obtained by NCR.

In their cover letter, the council proponents note that the bishops’ June meeting in Dallas and the charter and norms that resulted were just a first step in dealing with the current clergy sex abuse crisis. What needs to be addressed next, the letter said, are “the root causes of the crisis” and meeting the challenge the pope gave the U.S. hierarchy April 23 when he called on them to “bring a purification of the entire Catholic community … [with] a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier church.”

According to the letter, a plenary council should ponder “what has happened to the life and ministry of bishops and priests that makes us vulnerable to the failings that have humiliated us.”

The proponents say they envision the plenary council “working in three dimensions to advance that purification which will be the ultimate measure of whether or not we have succeeded in meeting the current crisis:”

  • “Solemnly receiving the authentic teaching” of the Second Vatican council and postconciliar documents on priestly and episcopal identity, life and ministry; sexual morality in general; and celibate chastity.
  • “Giving unequivocal endorsement and normative force” to the means church teaching outlines “to foster the acts of virtue required of pastors,” especially celibacy. Among these it specifies daily Mass and meditation, frequent confession, “regular acts of asceticism, obedient submission to church teaching” and a simple lifestyle.
  • “Confirming the bishops in the authoritative exercise” of their ministry so that they can strengthen priests, especially in regard to sexual morality, “so that we can give support to the lay faithful in responding to their call to holiness.”

The proponents say that a plenary council could produce significant results, providing a “galvanizing focus that is authentically evangelical,” with “maximal impact in shaping the ecclesial culture throughout the United States” because it is an authoritative body, and giving a “definitive stamp” to identifying what is the authentic heritage of the Second Vatican Council in regard to the role of pastors and people.

They also answer a question they expect from their fellow bishops: Why call a plenary council when there is already the existing vehicle of their national conference? While the two-day twice-yearly conference meetings enable the bishops to tackle issues of policy and general direction, the plus of a plenary council, proponents suggest, is its added magisterial authority: The assembled bishops would “clearly be engaged in a common act of teaching and governing.”

The eight bishops acknowledge that a plenary council could produce problems of its own. It could seem redundant and more cumbersome than their current national conference. Since a council would have leaders and staff different from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, it could risk compromising the conference’s own credibility. Minimally it could be a wasteful use of scarce resources. The lengthy preparation needed could delay action that needs to be taken quickly.

They also pointed out that if a plenary council achieves “no effective results, the church is worse off.” But primarily, they worried, “there is the danger that the bishops could have their freedom impeded by public opinion, e.g., the holding of a sort of parallel council, with experts and pundits” by others than the bishops.

After listing another four plusses of a plenary council, though, they conclude, “It would offer the clearest and fullest modality for the U.S. bishops to act collegially, at a time when common thought and action are most needed.”

The letter asks the bishops to recommend that the proposal for a plenary council be put on the agenda as a discussion item at the November meeting of the U.S. bishops’ conference. It also outlines the canonical requirements for a council and proposes an agenda, to be approved by the Vatican. If a plenary council is approved by the national conference, the nation’s metropolitan archbishops are recommended as the primary organizers, charged with working out the preparations.

According to canon law, all diocesan bishops, coadjutors and auxiliaries within the nation or its territories and U.S. members working in the Vatican are automatically members of the plenary council with deliberative vote. Retired bishops may also attend, and have a vote. Other participants -- vicars general, a predetermined number of major superiors of religious orders, Catholic university rectors, deans of theology and canon law, and some seminary rectors -- have a consultative voice. Some lay Catholics can be invited to attend, with consultative voice only, but the code specifies that their number is not to exceed half the total of the other participants combined, and no norms are given for determining how these additional participants are to be selected.

Pat Morrison is NCR managing editor. Her e-mail address is pmorrison@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002