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Issue Date:  July 1, 2005

Bishops discuss liturgy, abuse norms

Memorial acclamation under dispute at Chicago meeting


The normally taciturn archbishop of New York, Cardinal Edward Egan, was positively animated. “I really believe the pastoral consideration has to prevail here,” implored the 73-year-old Egan. “We have to stop this… [and] not give the impression that everything is up for grabs.”

Egan’s topic at the June 16-18 meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was not consequences for priests who abuse minors, though that was the agenda. Nor was he addressing the death penalty, Catholic schools, lay ecclesial ministry or priestly formation -- all subjects of discussion and deliberation at the three-day meeting.

Instead, Egan’s passions were piqued by a proposal that would have scrapped “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” as one of four “memorial acclamations” included in the Mass’s Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Egan had allies. It is “time for common sense” to prevail, said Youngstown, Ohio, Bishop Thomas Tobin, who rose in support of a prayer that “is very well known and very useful for our people.” Mobile Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb, calling it a “very valid act of faith,” offered a proposal to restore the acclamation.

Arguing for its elimination was Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie, Pa., chairman of the bishops’ Liturgy Committee. The acclamation, first adopted in 1970, is not found in the Ordo Missae, the Order of the Mass, nor is it a translation from Latin, said Trautman. Further, said Trautman, unlike the other acclamations -- such as, “Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life, we proclaim your death, Lord Jesus” -- the “Christ has died” acclamation is “more an assertion of the Paschal Mystery, rather than a unique expression of the gathered assembly of its own incorporation into the Paschal Mystery.”

Chicago Cardinal Francis George, until recently chairman of the bishop’s Liturgy Committee, suggested that action on the recommendation might be premature, that it could wait until the new Latin language Roman Missal is received in the United States. Gently reminded that it was under his leadership that the committee initially made its recommendation to remove the acclamation, George looked surprised.

“I was wrong,” he deadpanned.

Few such admissions of error were voiced at the three-day gathering at which George, as vice president of the conference, ordinary of the host city, and the highest ranking American member of the U.S.-Vatican “mixed commission” that developed amended “canonical norms” to deal with clergy accused of sex abuse, was a high-profile participant. Three years after the bishops adopted their Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, George defended changes to that document, the norms implementing the approach it outlined, and the structural changes made to the offices and committees charged with implementing it.

Of prime concern was the “zero tolerance” policy for sexual abuse by clergy enunciated in the charter and renewed for five years in the amended document. Ambivalent acceptance of the policy -- in which clergy accused of sex abuse are banned from public ministry while the case is investigated and, if the charges are found credible, removed forever from the priesthood -- was evident among the bishops.

“Many, perhaps a majority [of those dioceses and religious orders commenting on the proposed changes], wish it could be modified in the future, especially in the cases of limited offense committed many years ago followed by an apparently unblemished record,” according to the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse’s written presentation. “Overall,” however, “there was a definite expression that the ‘one strike’ policy needs to be retained for now,” said the document.

While “not advocating that we allow admitted or convicted offenders back into ministry at this time,” Bishop Edward Hughes of Metuchen, N.J., told the assembled bishops that he opposed the revised norms because he is “concerned about what effect this new reaffirmation will have on our priests.”

Said Hughes, “Many are anxious and uncertain and still believing an accusation is tantamount to being judged guilty.”

At a June 16 news conference, George expressed understanding for those bishops who see the one-strike policy as too harsh and antithetical to the ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation promoted by the church. Nonetheless, said the cardinal, “there are consequences to even forgiven sins.” The bishops will explore what role, if any, abusive priests can play in the public life of the church, said George, but “not right now.”

Before the body of bishops, George asserted that “the enemies of the church who say this is weak and ineffective” are incorrect. In making the case for the revised norms to implement the charter, George said the bishops made three pledges at their June 2002 meeting in Dallas: “to reach out to those who have been victimized,” to deal with perpetrators, and “to create an environment in our church that protects children.”

Said George, “We have kept those promises with some difficulties and sometimes unevenly, but it has worked.”

The bishops voted overwhelmingly to accept the revised norms and Vatican approval is expected.

In other issues related to the sex-abuse crisis, the bishops:

  • Specified that the National Review Board created in 2002 to investigate the crisis and make recommendations to prevent additional abuse is a “consultative” body to the bishops and not an independent committee. Prospective members of the review board will now have to receive the written endorsement of their diocesan bishop.
  • Made the Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse a permanent committee of the bishops’ conference.
  • Approved “A Statement of Episcopal Commitment” in which the bishops pledge to hold themselves accountable for the actions and inactions of their brother bishops.
  • Agreed to provide $1 million to support a study of the “causes and context” of the crisis. Additional funds to finance the effort will be sought from private foundations.

All the sex-abuse-related items passed by wide margins.

Still, victim advocates termed most of the measures “backpedaling,” saying the bishops were failing to live up to the commitments they made at their 2002 meeting. “Time and time again since Dallas, bishops have moved backward toward the failed policies of the past, not forward toward real prevention in the future,” Barbara Blaine, president of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), told a June 16 news conference.

Blaine pointed specifically to changes in the treatment of older cases of abuse, the revised definition of “sexual abuse” included in the charter, and the definition of the National Review Board as a “consultative” body. Over the long term, said Blaine, it is likely that the bishops will backpedal on their “zero tolerance” policy for abusive priests, the core of the Dallas charter.

“This never was a tough, binding national policy,” concluded Blaine. “It’s even less of one today.”

In other actions, the bishops:

  • Approved “Renewing Our Commitment to Catholic Elementary and Secondary Schools in the Third Millennium,” a document that states that “the burden of supporting our Catholic schools can no longer be placed exclusively on the individual parishes that have schools and on parents who pay tuition.”
  • Approved the fifth edition of the Program for Priestly Formation, a document requiring Vatican approval. The document does not address whether gays are suitable for the priesthood, an issue that will be addressed in forthcoming guidance from the Vatican, said Bishop John Nienstedt of New Ulm, Minn., chair of the committee that drafted the document.
  • Rejected a 4 percent increase in the diocesan dues used to support the bishops’ conference.
  • Agreed to consider a statement on Catholic opposition to use of the death penalty at their November meeting.
  • Supported the establishment of an “annual day of prayer” for priestly vocations. Each diocese will designate the date for local observance of this day.
  • Heard presentations on lay ecclesial ministry, a topic that will be addressed again in November when the bishops consider a draft of “Co-Workers in the Vineyard: Resources for the Development of Lay Ecclesial Ministry.”

Meanwhile, “Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again” is not dead yet. By a vote of 160-70, the bishops voted to table the suppression of that memorial acclamation as they await additional guidance that will come with the publication of the new Roman Missal.

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

National Catholic Reporter, July 1, 2005

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