WASHINGTON—Forty Catholic leaders met with a group of bishops Sept. 8 in Washington, D.C., to talk about the crisis in the Church.

The crisis of dissent, that is.

“I think dissent is the major cause of the sex-abuse problem,” Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis magazine, told reporters after the meeting he spearheaded. “It has loosened priests and laity alike from core beliefs,” including those about sexual morality.

The meeting participants also talked about the scandals in the Church.

The scandals of abortion supporters being honored by the Church, that is.

Partial-birth abortion supporter Leon Panetta's seat on the bishops' National Review Board was a major bone of contention.

“It's odd and it's scandalous, and it sends a message that we aren't taking this issue seriously,” said Robert George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University.

The “Meeting in Support of the Church” was scheduled after Hudson and Russell Shaw, a Catholic author who co-hosted the September meeting with Hudson, protested a July meeting on the future of the Church that the bishops held with Catholics known for their dissenting views.

Participants met with the same bishops who attended the July meeting of dissenters. Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and Bishop Wilton Gregory of Bellville, Ill., president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, attended along with three other conference officials: Bishop William Friend of Shreveport, La.; Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash.; and Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla.

Among the participants at the September meeting were U.S. Rep. Michael Ferguson, R-N.J.; Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele; political commentators Robert Novak and Peggy Noonan; Kate O'Beirne and Kathryn Jean Lopez of National Review; Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights; and Father Frank Pavone of Priests for Life. The Register's executive editor, Tom Hoopes, also attended.

The meeting was off the record and participants were not allowed to be quoted in the press.

The meeting began with an address by Frank Hanna III, chief executive officer of HBR Capital and a strong promoter of Catholic education.

His remarks set a tone of respect for the bishops, while he also made it clear that “we believe that laity should be held to the same standard if they are put in leadership positions” in the Church, as he put it in the press conference afterward.

Barbara Henkels of the Catholic Leadership Conference called Hanna's address “a masterpiece … It was clearly inspired, but he obviously had worked a great deal on it.”

“We believe our bishops are the successors to the apostles,” Hanna is quoted saying. “We were there to encourage and support them in that role and to let them know that when they are courageous and strong, the entire Church is courageous and strong.”

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, set another tone by asking the first question at the meeting.

“I asked about the April 2002 meeting with the Holy Father, after which [the bishops] released a statement in which they said they would deal with dissent in the Church and that there would be reprimands,” he said.

“Well, where were the reprimands for the 70 professors from Georgetown University who signed a letter of protest against Cardinal Arinze for stating Catholic teaching on sexuality?” he asked. “And where was the reprimand for Father James Keenan, SJ, of the Weston School of Theology, who testified for gay marriage before the Massachusetts Legislature?”

Participants raised the topic of dissent again and again at the September meeting. Panetta's appointment to the board was seen as part of a pattern of bishops honoring dissenters.

Carol McKinley of Boston, founder and spokeswoman of Faithful Voice, a group that regards itself as a defender of the faith, said she viewed the meeting as an “opportunity to let the bishops know how people in the parish feel when dissidents are exalted and given positions” on Church-sponsored organizations or institutions.

“It doesn't help instruct the faithful,” Hudson said, “when publicly dissenting Catholics are rewarded with positions of participation and official roles in the Church.”

Presenters

The second presenter, Robert George, spelled out why life issues are so important and what will happen if Catholics ignore them. Then he connected the dots to situations in which the Church seems to honor pro-abortion politicians, explaining why pro-lifers care so deeply about the public stance the Church takes.

“This is indeed a critical moment in the history of the Catholic Church,” George said at the press conference after the meeting. “The culture stands in need of our witness on life issues.”

Catholic apologist Patrick Madrid addressed the meeting on a topic where there was little tension: priestly celibacy.

Meeting participants praised Bishop Gregory for publicly defending priestly celibacy. Last month, more than 160 priests from Milwaukee asked for a discussion of the issue; Bishop Gregory and Milwaukee Archbishop Timothy Dolan said in early September that the topic is not up for debate.

“No voice to the contrary was heard at any time during the course of the discussion,” said Shaw, a former spokesman for the bishops' conference.

“I think the title of the meeting sums up the general tone of the day,” Madrid said. “It was definitely ‘A Meeting in Support of the Church.’ Instead of pointing fingers and spreading blame, the participants were there out of love for the Church and a desire for constructive dialogue about the problems currently plaguing her. While attendees voiced their concerns and confronted the bishops with some pretty pointed questions, the meeting never devolved into a shouting match.”

Peggy Noonan gave a presentation about the best virtues of Catholicism in America and how to preserve them.

The participants pulled no punches. George said the bishops were confronted about abuse problem and that participants wanted to know if it was “fundamentally a matter of homosexual seduction of teen-age boys.”

“Honesty and integrity require that the matter be described accurately and dealt with as it is,” George said. “Don't use euphemisms, don't mis-describe. First describe it accurately, say what it is and then deal with it.”

The National Review Board, on which Panetta is a member, will issue a preliminary report in January on the roots and causes of the scandal. Meeting participants say they trust that the bishops will describe the problem accurately.

What did the meeting accomplish?

“Well, all told,” Hudson said, “I think the meeting went better than I expected. In considering the day, we need to make sure our goals are realistic. It would have been great if the bishops loudly agreed with everything we said and pledged to move forward on all our proposals. That obviously didn't happen, nor should we have expected it to.

“But if we give up the opportunity to speak to the leaders of the Church when we're given the chance, we lose the right to complain that we're ignored.”