|Nation -- Analysis|
Issue Date: November 25, 2005
Bishops scale back conference
Truncated meeting in D.C. heralds evolving strategy to limit activities
By JOE FEUERHERD
Approximately 300 U.S. bishops met for four days just blocks from the nations capital -- and few outside ecclesiastical circles noticed. Which was part of the plan.
Of the 10 items up for debate and vote at the truncated public sessions of the Nov. 14-17 annual meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, eight dealt with intrachurch issues. Among the topics: the $131 million budget for the bishops national conference, a new lectionary for childrens Masses, the role of lay ecclesial ministers, and guidelines for the treatment of retired bishops.
Just two items addressed broader concerns: a statement reiterating the bishops opposition to the death penalty and a resolution of support for a day of remembrance and prayer for mariners and people of the sea. Both won hearty endorsement.
The low-key approach to the bishops gatherings -- limiting their collective statements on hot-button issues with political overtones and restricting public access to their deliberations -- is part of an evolving strategy likely to be even more pronounced in years to come. Numerous bishops have indicated a desire to hold more meetings outside public view. And a strategic planning document drafted by a committee chaired by Pittsburg Bishop Donald Wuerl called for the body to focus on a more limited range of responsibilities and activities in the future.
Even such seemingly benign actions as commemorating the 20th anniversary of their pastoral letter on the economy -- Economic Justice for All -- are out of fashion. The conference has clearly indicated its desire to limit anniversary statements of other documents, according to a list of proposals rejected by the Committee on Priorities and Plans.
A lot of the bishops are tired of statements and they question their utility and therefore were going to have fewer statements and probably have shorter meetings, Cincinnati Bishop Daniel Pilarczyk, a former president of the conference, told NCR.
In years past, the bishops typically met in public session for at least three of the four days of their annual November meeting. But in the wake of intense and unprecedented media coverage resulting from the sex abuse crisis, there is a new normal. A cryptic Nov. 1 release from the bishops press office cautioned the media: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will conclude its public sessions at its fall meeting at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill at noon on Tuesday, Nov. 15. The release continued, The remainder of the fall meeting will either be in executive session for the full body of bishops or the bishops meeting in their USCCB regions, neither of which are open to the media.
The message to the national press was clear: Keep moving. Nothing to see here.
It was in executive session -- two-and-a-half days of the four-day gathering were closed to the press and public -- where, apparently, the controversial issues were discussed. Though the bishops spokesperson, Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, told an information-hungry press corps that both the topics and the discussion [of the executive sessions] are not public, some participants in the private meetings distributed some crumbs of information. Among the items said to be slated for closed consideration: the clergy sex abuse crisis and the bishops response to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights. Also slated for private discussion, according to Santa Fe, N.M., Archbishop Michael Sheehan, chairman of the Priorities and Plans Committee, was the effort to narrow the conferences agenda.
In its public document, the committee recommended four areas for conference focus over a three-to five-year period beginning as early as 2007: faith formation, vocations, marriage and family, and pro-life activities. Exactly what issues are deemed subsets of the four central themes, and therefore appropriate for the national body of bishops to grapple with, is unknown to outsiders and clearly a point of concern to some bishops. The four enunciated priorities, Sacramento, Calif., Bishop William Weigand said from the floor of the public assembly, mean engagement with the world is getting short shrift.
Under the broad outlines of the strategic plan, more of the work currently conducted by the bishops collectively and by their Washington-based staff will take place at regional and diocesan levels. To carry out that mandate, representatives from each of the U.S. churchs 14 regions are represented on the Priority and Plans Committee. The bishops agreed to extend the terms of the regional representatives to the committee through November 2006 to provide continuity as the bishops decide what level of the church will take on what responsibilities.
Plans for a restructured USCCB will be presented to the full body of bishops at their meeting next November, according to the schedule outlined by Sheehan.
Theres a desire to get a lot of the work out of the way at the regional level, said Pilarczyk. However, he continued, its my experience that it doesnt always work out that way. What happens is that [we] come to the national level and discuss it all over again.
Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., Bishop John Ricard, outgoing chairman of the bishops Committee on International Policy, shared Pilarczyks skepticism.
Frankly, most of us experience that the regions dont work effectively. They are a good place to convene and talk about our priorities, said Ricard, but the work necessary to carry through on the priorities requires staff and resources and that can only be afforded at the national level.
Said Ricard, You cant duplicate what you have at the national level 14 times over.
The conferences committees on international affairs and domestic social development issues will continue to ensure that work on those issues doesnt slip through the cracks, conference president William Skylstad, bishop of Spokane, Wash., told NCR. Further, said Skylstad, the new emphasis will guarantee much broader consultation than weve had before because more bishops will have genuine input.
I dont think engagement with the world is getting short shrift, said Sheehan, because one of those priorities is the defense of human life and dignity and that includes not just abortion and euthanasia but also means the concern for the poor and concern about the death penalty and the elderly. Further, said Sheehan, the conferences response to the clergy sex abuse crisis remains a priority though it is not included among the focus areas developed by the planning committee. This will continue to be an extremely important issue for the bishops conference and we will in no way pull back on our commitment in the Dallas charter to protecting children, said Sheehan.
Meanwhile, conference president Skylstad, in one of the few public allusions from the floor to the clergy sex abuse crisis, told the bishops that priest morale remains high despite the scandal. Further, said Skylstad, research indicates that Catholics think highly of their priests.
This is a reassuring reminder, said Sklylstad, that our Catholic people think of the priesthood in terms of the many faithful men whom they have encountered in their lives and do not judge all by the unfaithfulness, as terribly damaging as it has been, of a few.
In other areas the bishops:
Joe Feuerherd is NCR Washington correspondent. His e-mail address is email@example.com.
National Catholic Reporter, November 25, 2005
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