National Catholic Register


U.S. Hierarchy Wants to Be Heard

Communications, young adults, higher education and economic policy top agenda at annual meeting

BY Joop Koopman

November 24, 1996 Issue | Posted 11/24/96 at 2:00 PM


A Register News Analysis

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Some cried foul, saying the hierarchy should have put up more of a fight. But when Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia got up to address the U.S. bishops Nov. 13 and expressed his support for new guidelines to implement the Pope's directives for higher education it was clear the text would pass without a hitch.

The uneventful deliberations were typical of this year's bishops' meeting, whose tone was further muted by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin's failing condition. Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, president of the bishops'conference, ran a tight ship. But the efficiency with which a number of weighty matters were dealt with—pastoral strategy aimed at young adults, Communion guidelines, televized Masses—could not prevent a certain blandness from slipping in. Ironically, that is precisely what the bishops say they want to do something about, as they announced ambitious media plans to ensure a “national presence” for the Church. If the level of faith commitment on the part of young adults is any indication, that effort is badly needed.

The sticking point in the higher education debate had been the role and authority of the local bishop vis-‡-vis theologians teaching in academic institutions located in his diocese. According to Canon 812 of Church law, the ordinary must formally approve of theology professors. Ever since Pope John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”), his 1990 call to maintain the religious identity of Catholic higher education, the episcopal mandate has been widely opposed as an infringement on academic freedom. Officials at leading Catholic universities such as Notre Dame, Georgetown and Boston College made it clear, publicly and privately, that such an adaptation of Ex Corde for the U.S. situation would never be acceptable.

The bishops, bringing to a close more than two decades of a “festering problem,” as Bishop John Leibrecht of Springfield-Cape Girardeau, Mo., chairman of the bishops' Ad Hoc Ex Corde Ecclesiae Implementation Committee, put it, ended up referring Canon 812 to a footnote saying the matter will be further discussed in future. They also acknowledged that possible disputes may be submitted to juridical procedures provided for in canon law. That was recourse enough for Church leaders like Cardinal Bevilacqua, who, at the bishops' assembly last June, had expressed concern that the U.S. hierarchy was falling short in bringing Ex Corde to bear on U.S. Catholic colleges. For the time being, the bishops expressed confidence that the schools themselves will be responsible for ensuring that their staff will teach in accordance with Church teaching and that preservation of the schools'Catholic identity is in competent hands. There are 235 Catholic universities and colleges in the United States, with a combined enrollment of 635,648 students.

The decision, which must be ratified by the Vatican—an action, sources said, that is as good as certain—was met with disappointment by conservative groups who had argued for a more prominent role for local bishops in the hiring—and firing—of theology professors. The Cardinal Newman Society for the Preservation of Catholic Higher Education said in a statement that the new ordinances approved by the bishops are “weak and unlikely to lead to a reversal of secularization at many Catholic colleges and universities, which are following the path of many historically Christian colleges … [that have] abandoned their religious heritage for prestige in an increasingly secular culture.” The Fellowship of Catholic Scholars, Women for Faith and Family and the Society of Catholic Social Scientists also made their displeasure known to the bishops. But for now the matter is closed, and as one critic of the hierarchy put it, “the document is unlikely to be heard from ever again.”

The bishops' meeting got underway less than a week after the presidential elections, but there was no mention of the fact that U.S. voting patterns contained some unwelcome surprises for the Church. A majority of Catholics voted for Clinton, whose support for partial-birth abortion apparently failed to harm his re-election effort. In New Orleans, retired Archbishop Philip Hannan outright labeled a vote for the President and a local pro-abortion rights Catholic politician as sinful. Both candidates won handily. The U.S. cardinals staged a prayer vigil on the steps of the U.S. Capitol and inundated Congress with postcards urging an override of the presidential veto of the partial-birth abortion ban. It all made little apparent difference.

To have more of an impact on society and to help ensure the future health of the U.S. Church, the bishops recommitted themselves to reaching out to young adults, whose overall level of Mass attendance and involvement in Church life is dangerously low. They also addressed the revamping of their communications efforts in the wake of the Catholic Telecommunications Network of America debacle, which cost millions but produced few results.

Sons and Daughters of the Light: A Pastoral Plan for Ministry with Young Adults—which proposes strategy at the local, regional and national levels— passed without opposition Nov. 12. The document reflects the bishops'belief that pastoral flexibility, up to a point, is crucial and should precede doctrinal firmness in dealing with Catholic young adults. “We have failed to adequately reach out,” said Bishop Tod Brown of Boise, Idaho, chairman of the Committee on the Laity, which had drafted the plan of action. “And that mostly has to do with attitude,” he said, adding, “so much depends on the local priest. The focus needs to be pastoral. The focus needs to be positive.”

Another natural avenue in the American context for the Church to get its message across, said Bishop Joseph Galante of Beaumont, Texas, is the media. The Philadelphia-born prelate is chairman of an ad hoc committee charged with developing the bishops' national media strategy. That job will ultimately fall to Bishop Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla., the chairman-elect of the bishops' Communications Committee. Bishop Galante suggested that funds are relatively scarce in the wake of the CTNA's demise and that the bishops plan to proceed cautiously, using a “building block approach” to creating a Catholic presence in print media, on cable, television and radio. The young adult document also discusses the Internet as a potentially powerful evangelizing tool. “We cannot expect to be at the top of the field in any particular technology just like that,” the Texas bishop said, but the Church must be a participant in all the media, he added.

Greg Erlandson, editor-in-chief of Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., one of the most successful Catholic publishing houses in the country, told a seminar later that Catholic print media often feel like the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, always steady and dependable, but underappreciated, especially today when television and the Internet get most of the attention. There are 549 Catholic publications in the U.S. with an estimated readership of 24 million. In a population of 60 million Catholics, that is a high penetration rate; but despite such impressive figures, Erlandson said, large sectors of the Church, including members of the hierarchy, seem largely oblivious of the potential of the print media. Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis, Mo. concurred, saying the press is “still a largely ignored tool of evangelization.” The Catholic press establishment hopes the bishops will devote more time, energy and funds to print media, but with the immediacy of new media holding such appeal, the chances that ordinaries will focus serious attention on their newspapers looks slim at best.

Despite their failure to have an effect at the polls Nov. 5, the bishops appear undeterred in their commitment to influence the nation's economic and social policies. Bishop John Ricard, SSJ, auxiliary of Baltimore, blasted the government and Congress in a talk Nov. 11. Speaking as chairman of Catholic Relief Services, the bishop charged that “compassion is going out of fashion as an element of our foreign aid concerns.” “As we protest,” he added, “at times seemingly alone—our government's attempts to balance the federal budget on the back of poor welfare families, so must we object when our leaders fail to pursue the global common good and leave unfulfilled basic responsibilities to the most vulnerable members of the human family.”

On Nov. 12, the bishops approved A Catholic Framework of Economic Life. The 10-point manifesto echoes the U.S. bishops' 1986 pastoral, Economic Justice for All. But while that letter raised a storm of controversy, the latest statement—which stresses that economic policies must have a moral foundation and that the “poor and vulnerable,” at home and abroad, are entitled to basic food and shelter—is unlikely to get much play in an era when Democrat and Republican policies are converging in their emphasis on budget cuts and a reduction in entitlement benefits. Answering those critics who say the Church should stay clear of politics anyway, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., said that “our defense of the poor, our pursuit of economic justice, is fundamentally a work of faith.”

Work on the restructuring of the bishops'conference, a project shepherded by Cardinal Bernardin, was postponed until June, but a motion to give voting rights to retired prelates in the matter was defeated. In a far cry from the lively debate over inclusive language two years ago, the hierarchy quietly approved revised English texts to be used worldwide in the Sacramentary. In other business, the bishops approved new guidelines for receiving communion (see page 2) and were given additional resource material on the Church's handling of sex abuse cases by the Bishops'Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse.

This year's meeting, though, seemed to mostly focus on the U.S. Church ad extra, as the bishops considered their impact on society at large—in particular its policy-makers and media-consumers, young Catholic adults included. As Archbishop Agostino Cacciavillan, the apostolic nuncio, made clear in his address to the assembly, the third millennium can be fruitful for the Church only if its voice is forcefully broadcast. That is the U.S. bishops' most urgent task in the waning years of the century.

Joop Koopman is the Register's editor.