DENVER — It was supposed to be a prayerful spring retreat, which the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops enjoys every five years, away from the scrutiny of the media.

Instead, the bishops’ June 14-19 meeting at the Inverness Hotel in Englewood, Colo., a suburb of Denver, became the center of major political policy questions with unwanted press attention and a hot agenda with big-ticket election-year ramifications.

The bishops approved a statement June 18 regarding public officials who publicly endorse positions contrary to Church teaching on abortion. The statement said it is up to individual bishops to decide whether to deny Communion to such persons.

A U.S. bishops’ task force has been studying the question, and Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., recently met with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, to discuss options, said Msgr. Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the conference.

“It's a serious pastoral concern when the Eucharist is not treated with respect,” Bishop Thomas Olmsted of Phoenix said in an interview. “St. Paul implores that we must examine our consciences before approaching the altar. I think all of us came here with great love for the Eucharist and have come in a spirit of prayer to determine what should be done.”

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, among a handful of bishops who have publicly admonished presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., and other pro-abortion Catholic politicians for partaking in Communion, told the Register before the conference voted that it appears a majority of his fellow American bishops agree with his position — one that includes refusing Communion.

Before Archbishop Burke left for the Denver retreat, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that “experts” predicted his colleagues would rebuke him at the retreat.

“That didn't happen,” Archbishop Burke said. “There's a lot more support for my position than anyone might expect.”

Almost no official information about the Denver meeting was forthcoming from conference officials, and most bishops declined to comment when contacted at their hotel rooms. Journalists who showed up at the conference were escorted from the building by sheriff's deputies and hotel security, who told reporters they would be arrested if they returned.

Marriage Amendment

Bishops received a seven-page memorandum from the Alliance for Marriage — a multidenomi-national organization — asking them to make discussion of the proposed federal marriage amendment a priority at the Colorado meeting and to lead a grass-roots campaign in favor of it.

Supporters fear they'll lose ground as other states follow the lead of Massachusetts, which legalized homosexual “marriage” in May, and that the amendment will stand little chance of passing if President Bush loses in November.

Bush reportedly asked Vatican officials June 4 during a visit to Rome to call on U.S. bishops to be more aggressive in supporting pro-family platforms, especially the federal marriage amendment.

The Denver retreat was the last meeting of the full conference of bishops before the upcoming elections.

“We're running out of time, and we need our American bishops to make support of the marriage amendment their top priority,” said former baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn, a Catholic and member of the Alliance for Marriage's board of directors, in an interview with the Register.

“All of these other issues, while extremely important, aren't going to matter much if the bishops don't do whatever they can, right now, to save the traditional family,” Kuhn said.

The amendment would define marriage strictly as the union of one man and one woman and leave it up to each state to decide whether to recognize, for example, civil unions between same-sex couples.

Last September the bishops issued a statement titled “Promote, Preserve, Protect Marriage,” in which they explained it's their duty to “advocate for legislative and public-policy initiatives that define and support marriage as a unique, essential relationship and institution.” The statement offered the bishops’ “general support for a federal marriage amendment … as we continue to work to protect marriage in state legislatures, the courts, the Congress and other appropriate forums.”

However, some amendment advocates have called into question whether professional staffers at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops headquarters in Washington, D.C., are fully behind the effort because it has more Republican than Democratic support.

In an e-mail letter to subscribers and supporters, Crisis magazine publisher Deal Hudson charged Msgr. William Fay, the bishops’ conference's general secretary, and conference lobbyist Frank Monahan with downplaying the bishops’ support of the amendment. He said Msgr. Fay recently told Washington legislators at a meeting that the conference didn't want the amendment to become a political issue or to impinge on anyone's rights.

“The [bishops’ conference's] staff doesn't want to do anything that might help President Bush's re-election,” Hudson told the Rocky Mountain News. “There are such old and strong ties between the [conference] and the Democratic Party that they get very nervous over supporting any issue that helps President Bush or hurts the Democratic Party.”

Princeton law professor Robert George, who co-authored the memorandum urging more support from bishops for the marriage amendment, said evangelical Protestant churches have done far more to promote the amendment than the Catholic Church has.

Msgr. Fay and Monahan, who were in Denver for the retreat, did not return calls from the Register.

But Msgr. Fay responded to Hudson in May, saying the Crisis publisher had failed to report things he actually said at the Washington meeting. He said he told legislators what they were doing was “extremely important, because the courts had hijacked the question of marriage.” He said he advised lawmakers to avoid joining other things to the amendment and that the movement to protect marriage “should address the issue of marriage as between a man and a woman, period.”

Hudson published the letter but stood by his account, as reported by three people in attendance.

Sex Abuse

Bishops at the June meeting were also dealing with issues pertaining to the sex-abuse scandal. Among their first orders of business was approval of an on-site audit of all dioceses to be completed by Dec. 31.

The audit will form the basis for the second annual report on the implementation of the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People by each diocese. Bishops approved the on-site audits by a 207-14 vote, with one abstention.

Kathleen McChesney, executive director of the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection, told Catholic News Service on June 16 that the vote leaves enough time to do the 2004 audits.

“Last year's audits began at the end of June,” McChesney said. “This leaves us approximately the same amount of time.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Boulder, Colorado.