National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 2, 2004

Meeting in private, bishops leave Communion decision to local leaders

Englewood, Colo., and Washington

The U.S. bishops’ “special assembly” is designed as a time of quiet and private reflection for the leaders of the American church. With no prying press, television cameras or laity invited, the every-five-year, five-day getaway is supposed to offer an opportunity for the bishops to let their hair down, remove their Roman collars, and recharge their collegial batteries.

This year, however, the real world intruded.

Among the topics debated and discussed behind closed-doors during the June 14-19 meeting in Englewood:

  • Whether to allow teams of auditors to visit each diocese to test compliance with the bishops’ child protection programs. Such audits, promoted by the lay-led National Review Board, appointed by the bishops to investigate the clergy sex abuse crisis, grew out of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Youth approved by the bishops in June 2002.
  • How to respond to the challenge presented by those bishops who, in light of John Kerry’s presidential candidacy, would deny the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who defend abortion rights.

On the former, the bishops took decisive action. By a vote of 207-14 they agreed to proceed with a second round of audits. In the months leading up to the special assembly, dozens of bishops expressed hostility to the process (NCR, May 21), but that view was ultimately not shared by the body of bishops. The overwhelming vote in favor of continued audits represents “a clear indication of our commitment to the charter and to the protection of children and young people, which is the purpose for which we adopted it just over two years ago,” said Minneapolis-St. Paul Archbishop Harry J. Flynn, chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.

On the second question -- how to treat pro-choice Catholic politicians -- the bishops were numerically decisive though substantively cautious. By a vote of 183-6 they approved a document that says the decision to deny Communion rests “with the individual bishop in accord with the established canonical and pastoral principles.” The statement continued, “Bishops can legitimately make different judgments on the most prudent course of pastoral action.”

The vote followed several hours of debate and discussion over three days. The statement, “Catholics in Political Life,” called on Catholic politicians and political activists to oppose legal abortion “lest they be guilty of cooperating in evil and in sinning against the common good.”

The bishops, acting after they received an interim report of their Committee on Catholics in Public Life, said that they want to “maintain communication with public officials who make decisions every day that touch issues of human life and dignity” but that the “Catholic community and Catholic institutions should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles” through “awards, honors or platforms which would suggest support for their actions.”

Said the statement, “We need to do more to persuade all people that human life is precious and human dignity must be defended. This requires more effective dialogue and engagement with all public officials, especially Catholic public officials. We welcome conversation initiated by political leaders themselves.”

The bishops’ Committee on Catholics in Public Life, chaired by Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, is expected to issue its final report after the November elections.

Throughout the week a host of critics were relegated to the boundaries of the pricey Inverness Hotel. Various lay groups set up demonstrations and news conferences on traffic medians and vacant lots. Conservative and progressive groups were represented. One median held the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Voice of the Faithful, Call to Action, the Women’s Ordination Conference, and Pax Christi.

Across the street was Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry, Colorado Right to Life, and the American Life League. Terry’s group held a 50-hour vigil and displayed a large banner asking that Kerry be denied Communion. The American Life League placed a full-page ad in USA Today asking that “pro-abortion” Catholic politicians be denied Communion.

The bishops proved remarkably adept at avoiding the various groups with the help of hotel security and the county sheriff’s department. A citation for trespass was issued to Judy Johnson of the Women’s Ordination Conference for re-entering the hotel lobby after having breakfast there. An attempt by SNAP’s Barbara Blaine and Peter Isley to deliver a letter to Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops’ conference, was quickly intercepted by local law enforcement.

On the first day of the bishops’ assembly, Colorado Concerned Catholics held a vigil of “Catholics Seeking Dialogue” in a room at a nearby hotel. More than 100 people from various lay organizations attended. Many speakers voiced feelings of sorrow and disappointment regarding the bishops’ isolation. “We are not so much angry as deeply saddened,” said Frank Gold of Colorado Concerned Catholics.

Blaine called for the bishops to improve the effectiveness of the audits by focusing on performance and not paperwork. SNAP also called for the implementation of a “Bishops’ Report Card” that would chart specific actions taken by dioceses to guard against clergy sexual abuse. At its national convention held prior to the bishops’ meeting, SNAP called for the addition of a SNAP member and a prosecutor to the National Review Board.

Prior to the bishops’ public statement on Catholic politicians, Call to Action board member Lena Woltering said her group was, “appalled by such single issue targeting as well as by the misuse of the sacrament of Communion as a political weapon.” Call to Action’s vice president, Amy Sheber Howard, called on the bishops to consider multi-issue political accountability that included issues of poverty, economic justice, war, peacemaking and support of the family.

Anne Burke, chair of the lay-run National Review Board, created by the bishops to investigate the clergy sex abuse crisis, welcomed the June 15 decision to continue the audits.

In a statement released by the bishops’ public relations office, Burke said, “The message is clear: Children will be safe from harm in the Catholic church and the bishops and lay people will work on this together.”

A more pessimistic assessment of cooperation among the laity and the bishops was presented by Voice of the Faithful executive director Steve Krueger. Looking around the darkening room at the Monday vigil Krueger said, “This is where the church is.”

He continued, “We don’t need a building, maybe we don’t even need a bishop to tell us what to do.”

The bishops’ next meeting, in November, will be open to the press.

Melissa Jones is a freelance writer who lives in Colorado. Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent.

National Catholic Reporter, July 2, 2004

This Week's Stories | Home Page | Top of Page
Copyright  © The National Catholic Reporter Publishing  Company, 115 E. Armour Blvd., Kansas City, MO   64111
All rights reserved.
TEL:  816-531-0538     FAX:  1-816-968-2280   Send comments about this Web site to: