Bishops May Pose a Pro-Life Challenge to U.S. Faithful

WASHINGTON—The U.S. bishops plan to issue a pro-life challenge to Catholics in this country, as well as release statements on disabilities and justice in a Washington meeting Nov. 16-19.

They will elect a new president and vice president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) and United States. Catholic Conference (USCC), in addition to several committee chairmen, since the three-year terms of Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland and Bishop Joseph Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston expire at the meeting. They will also elect several committee chairmen, in a meeting with a crowded agenda.

Perhaps most importantly, they will vote on proposals that would fundamentally restructure the two organizations in what some consider the bishops' “taking back” the NCCB and USCC from the committees that the bishops have set up to handle various aspects of their work.

The bishops' pro-life document, Living the Gospel of Life: A Challenge to American Catholics, calls on Catholics in the U.S., “especially those in positions of leadership — whether cultural, economic, or political — to recover their identity as followers of Christ and to be leaders in the renewal of American respect for the sanctity of life.”

The document has raised questions about whether bishops will publicly admonish particular Catholic politicians who favor abortion rights. Such moves are the correct pastoral response in many Catholics' minds, but others worry that pro-abortion politicians would use an admonition from the bishops to portray themselves as champions of the people and victims of a powerful Church.

The failure of the U.S. Senate to overturn President Clinton's veto of the ban on partial birth abortions has perhaps frustrated the bishops and they want to try a new approach.

The second document that the bishops are slated to finalize is titled Welcome and Justice for People with Disabilities. It is a 12-paragraph statement about the rights of the disabled and the Church's commitment to them, prepared by the Committee on Pastoral Practices.

The third document, a 3,000-word statement called Everyday Christianity: To Hunger and Thirst for Justice, challenges Catholics to meet “the demands of discipleship in the pursuit of justice and peace in everyday activity.”

“Catholics are called by God to protect human life, to promote human dignity, to defend the poor, and to seek the common good,” reads the document, which three committees of bishops drew up. “This social mission of the Church belongs to all of us. It is an essential part of what it is to be a believer.” More than 30 years after Vatican II, the bishops are trying to focus on one of its most central messages: the universal call to holiness and to participation in the mission of Christ.

The bishops will ask Catholics across the United States to sign a “Jubilee Pledge for Charity, Justice, and Peace,” which is an appendix to the statement, according to Catholic News Service. Signers will pledge to learn more about Catholic social teaching, pray for justice and peace, live justly in all aspects of daily life, give generously, reach out across boundaries that divide society, advocate policies that promote life, dignity, and justice, and encourage others to do the same.

On the issue of restructuring the NCCB/USCC, the bishops agreed in June 1997 to combine the two organizations into one, which they will call the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). Beyond simply a name change, however, the bishops are now considering transferring much authority from committees to regional meetings of bishops, as a way of carrying out the USCCB's mission.

What this means for the average Catholic in the pew remains to be seen, but some committees and staffers within the NCCB/USCC probably will see their influence recede. The policies that shaped the two organizations in 1967 were designed to broaden participation in the activities of the bishops. The current reorganization is not meant to discontinue the participation of others, but to establish a clearer basis for the bishops to act together as a conference of bishops.

The agenda also includes discussion of — but not a vote on — Our Hearts Were Burning Within Us, the Committee on Education's proposed pastoral plan on adult faith formation.

The bishops will also consider the draft document that Anthony Cardinal Bevilacqua's commission has promulgated concerning U.S. implementation of Pope John Paul II's 1990 document on Catholic universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae. The most criticized aspect of the Pope's document, based on Canon 812 of the Code of Canon Law, calls for theologians at Catholic universities to receive their mandates to teach from the competent Church authority, which is usually the local bishop.

Following up on a 1996 Vatican instruction, the bishops also plan to set tighter standards and procedures for reviewing applicants for the priesthood or religious life who have left or been dismissed from another seminary or religious order. (William Murray)

Further coverage of the bishops' agenda in next week's issue will include transferring observance of Ascension to Sunday, norms for clerical garb, and engagement ceremonies.

The Earth is Not Our Mother

“The main point of Christianity was this: that Nature is not our mother: Nature is our sister. We can be proud of her beauty, since we have the same father; but she has no authority over us; we have to admire, but not to imitate.”—G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy