WASHINGTON—From the outside, the U.S. bishops'fall meeting Nov. 10–12 was a mostly quiet affair. From the inside? Only the bishops know.
The approximately 260 prelates on hand spent nearly twice as much time as usual in “executive session,” which is closed to the press. Speculation as to what topics occupied their attention behind closed doors included the Church's approach to dealing with clergy sex abuse scandals and lawsuits, the controversial Always Our Children document for parents of homosexually oriented children released last month by the bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family Life, and other sensitive topics.
“We feel freer to talk without the cameras rolling and without copious notes being taken on every word spoken,” one bishop said in reference to the decision to spend the afternoon of Nov. 11 and the morning of Nov. 12 meeting privately.
Though the bishops' agenda was light-they wrapped up business a day early-it was not insignificant. Their decision to consider bringing back “meatless Fridays” was widely reported in the media, but in all the talk about a return to the Pre-Vatican II practice, the reason seemed to get lost. The idea, conceived as a unified protest to “attacks against human life and human dignity” wherever and in whatever form they occur, was proposed by Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, chairman of the bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
While Fridays that are not solemnities are already “penitential days” according to canon law, that sense has been lost in recent years by most Catholics.
The bishops voiced unanimous support for Cardinal Law's suggestion of bringing back the penitential practice. The idea will now be sent to a bishops' committee to be shaped into concrete recommendations and considered by the full Conference next year, possibly as early as their June meeting.
Philadelphia Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua recommended that the observance not be limited to forgoing meat. “A day without meat is hardly a day of penitence when one can always substitute a good lobster meal,” he said, in urging that the practice include fasting and abstinence.
Whether the observance would be mandatory remained unclear. But in noting that the bishops' 1983 pastoral on peace had called for voluntary fasting and abstinence on Friday without significant results, Archbishop Francis George of Chicago seemed to make the case for stronger direction beyond mere suggestion.
Cardinal Adam Maida, another supporter of the proposed practice, said reviving the practice would offer Catholics a unifying way to express their support for pro-life causes. In past times, he said, fasting was “something that people took seriously, and it identified who you were and what you believed.
“What we would like to do [with the current proposal],” he added, “is focus this in such a way that we are in effect saying: 'Life is sacred; life is good. It comes from God, begins with God and ends with him, and we shouldn't interfere.'"
Cardinal Maida pointed to the advance of the euthanasia movement in Oregon, where citizens voted by a 60% to 40% margin earlier this month to retain the so-called right to assisted-suicide. The prelate warned that Michigan may soon be confronted with a similar measure. His point was underscored a few days after the bishops' meeting when Dr. Jack Kevorkian assisted in the suicide of a 74-year-old woman, reportedly in a Catholic church, though that claim was made without proof by Kevorkian's lawyer.
While the general press remained focused on the possibility that “meatless Fridays” would return, the bishops, on the last day of their meeting, focused on another life issue: the upcoming 25th anniversary of legalized abortion in the United States.
In a forceful four-page statement, Light and Shadows: Our Nation 25 Years After Roe vs. Wade, the bishops called the ruling that overturned most state restrictions on abortion “a sign of failure so monumental that to speak of it even as a 'tragedy' is pitifully inadequate.”
“What was once seen as an act of desperation-the killing of one's own child-is now fiercely defended as a good and promoted as a right,” the statement said. “Even worse, a deadly blindness has come over our land, preventing many persons of good will from recognizing the right of innocent human lives to respect, acceptance, and help.”
In the statement, the bishops compared abortion to slavery, criticizing the reasoning that would object to either but strictly at a personal level.
“It was morally absurd then to say, 'I am personally opposed to owning slaves and would never own one myself, but I can't force my moral views on others. It's not the government's task to legislate morality. It's a personal choice,'” the document said. “It is just as morally repugnant to say the same about abortion today. Our nation stands in judgment now, as it did more than a century ago: are we to be a nation that honors its commitments to the right to life, or not?"
Light and Shadows also described the corrosive effects on a society that permits taking the lives of its most innocent and defenseless members. “Among the many threats to human life in our society, the tragedy of abortion plays a central role. The right to exist, the right to be allowed to live, is the basis for every other human right and the necessary condition for their realization.”
Though the bishops struck a grave tone in assessing the fallout from Roe v. Wade, they also sounded some hopeful notes. “We thought it important to note this sad anniversary, [but] we also wanted to take note of the positive elements within the pro-life movement,” said Cardinal Law.
While offering the horrific statistic of 35 million abortions in 25 years, the document also said that more than 3,000 pro-life centers offering counseling services to pregnant women now exist. The bishops noted the presence in the pro-life movement of “teenagers and young adults who have come of age with legal abortion, but who are not seduced by its empty promises.”
The bishops point out in Light and Shadows that abortion has not resulted in a reduction of poverty or child abuse since its legalization, despite such predictions by supporters of Roe v. Wade.
Global Solidarity & Iraq
Turning their attention to world matters, the bishops Nov. 12 approved a call to parishes to heighten their awareness of crises around the globe. In the introduction to Called to Global Solidarity: International Challenges for U.S. Parishes, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Newark, N.J., chairman of the bishops' International Policy Committee, encouraged Catholics to “build on the remarkable commitment of the Church in the United States to the Universal Church and the poor of the world.” In sketching out problems to which U.S. parishes should be attuned, the document cites such grim global realities as:
√ 35,000 dying daily of hunger.
√ 26,000 injuries or death yearly by anti-personnel land mines.
√ Religion-related harassment or persecution in China, Indonesia, the Middle East, and elsewhere.
The document points to Pope John Paul II's call for solidarity as a response to such problems, and says that U.S. Catholics must respond to them dynamically at the parish level.
“A key of a parish's 'Catholicity'is its willingness to go beyond its own boundaries to preach its Gospel, serve those in need, and work for global justice and peace,” the document says. “This is not a work for a few agencies or one parish committee, but for every believer and every local community of faith.”
As the bishops met, the stand-off between the United Nations and Iraq continued heating up as Iraqi president Saddam Hussein refused to let American members of a U.N. team inspect Iraq's weapons facilities. Although not officially on the agenda, the volatile situation prompted a discussion about what position the bishops' conference should take. Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit urged the bishops to condemn the U.N. sanctions that have lead to the devastation of Iraq's economy and widespread deprivation among its citizens.
But Archbishop McCarrick said the bishops have expressed concern and solidarity with the Iraqi people in a number of statements since sanctions were imposed in 1990 and that a new statement “could easily be misunderstood or fail to have any constructive impact on policy.”
In a compromise move, Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, president of the bishops' conference, offered to write a letter to Church leaders in Iraq expressing the solidarity of the American Church with them.
Hispanics and Other Items
In other business, the bishops took two steps to reach out to the growing Hispanic community in the U.S. Church. They voted to hold a fourth Encuentro (Gathering) in the year 2000 for Catholic leaders aimed at facilitating the integration of Hispanics into “the full life” of the U.S. Church. The most recent Encuentro took place in 1985. The bishops also unveiled the first Spanish-language Sacramentary-the text used for Masses-specifically for use in the United States. A vote to approve the new Sacramentary for Hispanics, who are expected to make up more than half the U.S. Church within 25 years, was inconclusive and will have to be decided by mail ballot.
A discussion of the best day to celebrate the solemnity of the Ascension- on the Thursday 40 days after Easter or the following Sunday-also occupied the bishops. The original agenda called for a vote on the issue, but the Committee on Liturgy opted for a general discussion. There appeared to be a general split between bishops on the East and on the West coasts-where for the last four years the feast has been celebrated on Sunday.
Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles said the Ascension should be celebrated on Sunday along with the other central mysteries of the Catholic faith including the Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost. But Cardinal James Hickey of Washington said changing the feast from its Thursday place as a holy day of obligation would be a “grave mistake” that stripped away a practice that has long contributed to a sense of Catholic identity. (See sidebar for a brief look at all business covered by the bishops.)
It wasn't until the final day of business that Always Our Children, the controversial letter addressed to parents of homosexual children and issued Oct. 1 by the bishops'Committee on Marriage and Family Life, was addressed in a public session. Committee chairman Bishop Thomas O'Brien of Phoenix defended the letter saying it “remains loyal to the magisterial teaching of the Church” and that “it recognizes the complexity of homosexuality and the dignity of each person.”
Bishop O'Brien's committee distributed a five-page background paper to the bishops that included responses to Always Our Children from homosexual people, parents, pastoral workers, and others. The background paper said less than 10% of some 500 letters received were critical of the document. While most observers have found positive elements in the document, many take issue with who was (and who was not) consulted in drafting it, its ambiguity on some points, and the way in which it was released.
In a question to Bishop O'Brien, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., seemed to have that last criticism in mind: “This is a statement of the Marriage and Family Life committee, not of the entire body [of bishops], is that correct?”
“Yes, it is,” Bishop O'Brien replied.
For the general public, for the media, and even for many active Catholics, that distinction in identifying the document's issuing party-a committee rather than the entire body of bishops-has been lost, giving the document more weight than some believe it should have.
Presidential Call for Unity
Even as such fine, albeit important, points occupied the conference, Bishop Pilla's presidential address Nov. 10 urged them to always follow the road of unity and reconciliation. He noted that disagreements within the conference are “usually free of bitterness, personal antagonism, or mistrust,” but said that wasn't true within the U.S. Church at large.
He called for an end to Catholic polarization and pointed out four areas where reconciliation is most needed: among those with differing views of the liturgy, in public discussion of Church issues, in response to people who have been hurt in any way by clergy ("I am thinking especially of those who have been victims of sexual abuse"), and regarding matters of doctrine.
But Bishop Pilla made it clear that reconciliation isn't synonymous with compromise.
“eing Catholic is not a personal and subjective matter alone but involves accepting all of Church teaching and practice and, with regard to both doctrine and practice, the right and duty of the Pope and the bishops to teach, to guide, and to ask for, and insist on adherence to both,” he said. “Reconciliation not based on the truth, however difficult the truth may be to accept at the moment, will not be full and lasting reconciliation.”
Larry Montali is editor of the Register.