Bishops Weigh Council on Cause of Crisis

WASHINGTON — At a week-long meeting in June in Denver, bishops will look at proposals to solve the root causes of the priest sex-abuse crisis.

One proposal is for a plenary councl (national bishops’ council) on doctrinal and pastoral concerns.

Two other approaches for dealing with the crisis will also be put out on the table in June. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati will propose initiatives within the current structure of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Bishop Leonard Blair of Toledo, Ohio, will propose regional councils that stop short of the plenary council approach.

The bishops’ six-day June meeting will be closed to the media, said Archbishop Daniel Buechlein of Indianapolis, chairman of the assembly and of the ad hoc committee on the plenary council.

No votes will be taken in June but “By the end,” Archbishop Buechlein said, “I think it will be clear what are the concerns that our pastoral leadership must address and what consensus is developing about what’ the best way to do this.” Final votes will come in November.

Bishop Allen Vigneron of Oakland, Calif., will propose that bishops hold a national council to focus on the identity, life and ministry of priests and bishops and the Church's teaching on sexual morality and celibate chastity.

He is one of eight bishops who first recommended a plenary council two years ago.

“I continue to be confirmed in my belief that this [council] is something we ought very much to consider,” Bishop Vigneron told the Register. “What we've gone through has disclosed some significant weaknesses and challenges in the life of the Catholic Church in the United States, so I think it's a providential moment for more intense renewal of the Church's life.”

“That was the message from the Holy Father to the American cardinals in 2002 — that from this experience we should have a holier priesthood and a holier Church,” he said.

The last plenary council in the United States was held in Baltimore in 1884, the third of a series of councils, and resulted in the publication of the Baltimore Catechism and advancement of Catholic schools. In recent years, national councils have been held in the Philippines and Poland.

Such a plenary council would not be so much about doing as about listening and responding, in the model of Mary, Bishop Vigneron said.

“We need to be more wholeheartedly dedicated to listening to the word of God and then embracing that,” he said. “A religious woman who spoke to me early on as this was unfolding told me, ‘We have in the word of God the basic resources we need to respond to this time.’ And I think that's very accurate. The [council] is a good way to respond to this moment in the Church's history.”

Other Ideas

Archbishop Pilarczyk said there is a crisis, but it does not call for special councils or new structures — just new initiatives.

“I am convinced the structures of the bishops’ conference are the best way to address this,” he said. “We have committees, we have offices staffed by expert staff people, we have a whole network of communications. If a letter comes to the bishops’ conference and this letter is addressed to the question of adult faith formation, we know what mailbox it goes in. People are familiar with the bishops’ conference.”

“I'm not saying that the conference has done everything that could possibly have been done,” said Archbishop Pilarczyk, who was president of the conference from 1989-1992. “But if we're going to look to the future, we can do that with the structures we have.”

The costs, planning and organization for a large-scale plenary council are unknown, he said. So are the possibilities of a synod and whether there would be one or more than one, he said.

On the other hand, he said, “I am sure we know how to run a bishops’ conference.”

A regional synod would be a halfway measure — more involved than the present conference but more manageable than a plenary council. Regional synods are convened by the Holy See for the bishops alone, whereas under canon law, a plenary council would also require participation by the wider Church, including priests, theologians, religious women and men, leaders in Catholic higher education and other lay people.

Bishop Blair of Toledo could not be reached for comment.

“The plenary council allows for some form of representation of the Catholic community as a whole,” Catholic commentator Russell Shaw told the Register, “and since everybody has a stake in the issues the plenary council would deal with, that is as it should be.”

Avoiding Factions

The disadvantage, however, is that a plenary council would be large and unwieldy, and therefore vulnerable to special agendas and media pressure, Shaw said. The last large-scale gathering of bishops, priests and laity in the United States was the 1976 Call to Action Conference in Detroit, attended by more than 100 bishops, 1,200 other voting delegates and 1,500 observers.

In the end, the conference was taken over by factions challenging basic magisterial teaching, such as openness to life and a male-only clergy. Although the bishops never enacted the recommendations within their dioceses, a national movement of dissent was born.

“Not everybody found that [conference] to be productive,” said Archbishop Pilarczyk, who was an auxiliary bishop of Cincinnati at the time but did not attend the conference. “Apparently things did not turn out the way some had hoped.”

One alternative to an open-ended council, said Shaw, who said he heard it while at the Vatican in March, would be for the Holy See to first convene a regional synod of bishops to set parameters and ground rules for a plenary council to follow later.

“Sounds like a good idea to me,” he said.

Bishop Vigneron said there are two ways to avoid factionalism.

“One is through a kind of negotiation, where people from their different positions find a least-common denominator. But another way to avoid factions is for a clear truth to stand in the middle of the group and draw everyone's adherence,” he said. “I think the second way is the only appropriate way to avoid factionalism in the Christian community. Our unity is not something that we construct. Our unity is a gift that's given to us by Christ in the Holy Spirit, Christ who said, ‘When I am lifted up I will draw all men to myself.’”

Multiple Concerns

Even if they differ over strategies, the bishops agree that the clergy abuse scandal has resulted from deeper problems within the Church.

“I think the clergy sex abuse has shown us that we have become confused, and the difficulty that we're going through has furthered our confusion,” Bishop Vigneron said. “The way to move forward in the time of trial, the time of crisis, is to refocus on a solid goal, a clear direction, and for the Church, that has to be the direction that Christ sets for her.”

“I have a sense that some people's feeling of hope is obscured right now,” he said. “I think we need to dispel that obscurity and hold up again the clear sense that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. He's conquered all of his enemies and in him we can be serene and moving toward the future.”

Archbishop Buechlein said the bishops have other serious issues to consider as well.

“We are very concerned about two generations who have not been catechized, about appreciation for the sacramental life of the Church, particularly the Eucharist, and simply an understanding of our faith — helping people understand more the why of our doctrines. That's big stuff,” he said.

Archbishop Pilarczyk said poor adult faith formation and the growing secularization of society also need to be addressed.

“I think we have concentrated for reasons that are understandable with how lay persons are supposed to busy themselves in the life of the Church,” he said. But “the main role of lay people is to busy themselves in the world.”

Throughout the June meeting the bishops will hear talks and reflections on Pope John Paul II's 2003 apostolic exhortation Pastores Gregis (on the role of the bishop) in a kind of extended retreat.

“It's a wonderful review and very timely for us,” Archbishop Buechlein said. “As always, he's right on the mark.”

Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.