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Issue Date:  November 26, 2004

Analysis: Inward-looking bishops see pastoral issues as key


It was the type of motherhood-and-apple-pie proposal -- development of a statement encouraging Catholics to read the Bible -- that previously would have been easily adopted by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. A no-brainer.

Not this time. Concerned about budgets, a perception that the statements they produce are ignored, and a desire to establish firm priorities to guide their deliberations, the bishops voted 137-102 to shelve the project.

A day earlier, Nov. 15, at the start of their three-day annual business meeting, the bishops voted overwhelmingly to “develop a process to prioritize the goals and objectives of the USCCB” and only approve projects found to be demonstrably in-line with those objectives. The statement about the Bible was made the first test case of this new approach.

“The issue is not whether it’s a good idea” but “whether we should follow the processes [we] approved yesterday,” Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk told his colleagues. “The question is whether we are serious about what we did yesterday or not.” In offering his proposal to send the project back to committee, Pilarczyk challenged the bishops. “It seems we are saying we are going to go on a severe diet -- sometime next year. In the meantime, let’s have another helping of what we are used to.”

The bishops did, however, take some extra helpings. They rejected a Pilarczyk proposal to set aside a National Pastoral Initiative on Marriage, approving that proposal by a wide margin. And they backed a measure to establish an Ad Hoc Committee for the Church in Africa, which will create a “Solidarity Fund” to assist the church on that continent.

Yet a decided theme had emerged. Facing budget cuts in their home dioceses, still reeling from the intense media coverage generated by the clergy sex abuse crisis and the recent presidential campaign, and concerned that their agenda is driven by outside forces, the bishops want a time-out: some room to breathe and, many say, discuss issues of a pastoral nature outside the limelight.

That was made evident when Indianapolis Archbishop Daniel Buechlein, chairman of a committee created to consider whether a nationwide plenary council should be convened, noted that there was “little support for a plenary council or a regional synod” among the bishops. Such an extraordinary gathering was originally proposed by a group of conservative bishops at the height of the clergy sex abuse scandal. Still, said Buechlein, the issues raised in the course of considering whether to call a plenary council generated a consensus that the bishops “need a more focused and defined idea in our own minds about the nature of these pastoral challenges.”

In a series of non-binding votes designed to guide the conference leadership, the bishops indicated by overwhelming margins that they want to focus on evangelization and catechesis, the importance of the Eucharist and the sacraments, and the priesthood. Further, they would like to do so privately. By a vote of 193-41 the bishops said they would “prefer that further reflections” take place in a “special assembly” where “nonessential staff or media” are not present. If the conference follows the will of its majority, one day of the bishops’ meeting in June 2005 will follow this format.

“Because of the circumstances of the last couple of years we haven’t had much of a chance to address pastoral issues. Our agenda has been largely controlled by external forces [and] this gives us an opportunity to address some things of importance that would probably get lost, given the usual press of business,” said St. Petersburg, Fla., Bishop Robert Lynch, a former conference general secretary. “We always seem to be driven by committee agendas that are focused on much smaller issues,” said Lynch. “They’re important, but not at the heart of what the church is doing.”

Said Buechlein, “The public discussion will eventually come forward, but we [bishops] need to get out heads together so we can provide the leadership.”

It is about “freedom to speak,” Chicago Cardinal Francis George told NCR. “We find the conversation very different when we’re just among ourselves than from what it is when we’re with everyone else publicly.”

Incoming bishops’ conference president William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., told his inaugural news conference, “Bishops feel the need to discuss things privately.”

Meanwhile, outside the bishops’ meeting, members of Soulforce, the interfaith gay-rights advocacy organization, maintained a polite vigil, holding signs that urged an end to “spiritual violence” against gay, lesbian and transgender Catholics. Antiabortion activists rallied, urging the bishops to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

Leaders of FutureChurch and Call to Action urged the bishops to raise the issue of the priest shortage at the October 2005 International Synod on the Eucharist. They released a letter members had received from George in response to a postcard campaign directed to him as outgoing chairman of the bishops’ liturgy committee.

“It is hard to tell whether this letter- writing campaign indicates a concern for the availability of the Eucharist or is just another occasion to advance an agenda that has little to do with Catholic tradition,” wrote George. “At the present time in this country,” he continued, “the Eucharist is readily available. What is missing is practicing Catholics.”

St. Joseph Sr. Christine Schenk, executive director of FutureChurch, termed George’s response “insulting.”

And victims of clergy sex abuse gathered. They criticized the election of Skylstad as president of the bishops’ conference (see related story, Page 6), and urged the bishops to disband and reconstitute the committee they established in 2002 to promote accountability among their membership.

“The prospects for bishops disciplining or criticizing any of their peers in the future looks bleak,” said Mary Grant, western regional director of the Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests (SNAP). Further, said Grant, the bishops’ support for meeting privately at their June 2005 meeting in Chicago is another sign of backtracking. “Despite repeated and emphatic pledges to be more open and transparent … America’s bishops will instead meet behind closed doors.”

Voice of the Faithful, meanwhile, urged that the bishops take more time to solicit comments on proposed revisions to the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, the 2002 document that spells out the bishops’ response to the clergy sex abuse scandal. The deadline for comments is Jan. 15, which gives some interested parties too little time to respond, Voice of the Faithful’s president, James Post, said in a Nov. 12 letter to outgoing conference president Wilton Gregory.

Back in the meeting hall, the bishops approved a $39,000 proposal to update data gathered last year by researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the scope of the clergy abuse crisis. Funding for the study is to be provided by an anonymous donor. In addition, the bishops voted to proceed with a third round of “audits” of their diocesan child-protection programs, though under the streamlined process approved dioceses found to be fully compliant with the charter in 2004 will “self-report” their 2005 findings to the outside firm managing the process.

In other areas, the bishops:

n Approved their participation in the new ecumenical forum, Christians Coming Together in the USA. The group, which is intended to include all the major Christian denominations in the country, aims to “enable churches and national Christian organizations to grow closer together in Christ in order to strengthen Christian witness in the world.”

n Supported publication of a 36-chapter adult catechism. The book is expected to be used in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults and in other religious education programs. The catechism must receive a recognitio from the Vatican prior to publication.

Finally, the bishops did not, as previously scheduled, hear directly from Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, chair of their Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians. Instead, McCarrick offered a written statement in which he said that “media or partisan forces sometimes tried to pit one bishop against another” in the recent political campaign. “I look around the room and see bishops who have been unfairly attacked as partisan, others who have been called cowards. Some have been accused of being ‘single issue,’ and indifferent to the poor or unconcerned about war. Others have been called unconcerned about the destruction of unborn human life, but preoccupied by poverty or war.”

Said McCarrick, “We do not believe that our commitment to human life and dignity and our pursuit of justice and peace are competing causes. While we do not believe that all issues have equal moral claims, we will work to protect those whose lives are destroyed by abortion and those who are dying of hunger, we will strive to protect human life from the moment of conception until the moment God calls us home and [emphasis in original] we will strive to pursue peace.”

McCarrick offered his presentation in writing, he said, in the interest of time. The bishops, following a Nov. 17 afternoon executive session, completed their work and concluded their four-day agenda in just three days.

Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is

National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2004

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