Nation Conservative Catholics Urge Bishops to Challenge 'Dissenters'
Pro-Choice Catholics Unfit for Leadership Posts, Say Meeting Participants

By Joe Feuerherd
National Catholic [Washington]
September 19, 2003

The nation’s Catholic bishops should deny public honors to pro-choice Catholics and preclude them from serving in positions of church leadership, a group of conservative Catholics told leading members of the U.S. hierarchy Sept. 8.

Former Congressman and Clinton Chief of Staff Leon Panetta, a member of the bishop-appointed panel investigating the sexual abuse crisis, personifies the issue, Princeton University politics professor Robert George told the bishops.

Panetta’s pro-choice record, George said at a news conference following the all-day meeting, is “scandalous” and his appointment to the abuse panel “sends a message that we are not taking this issue too seriously if we then turn around and appoint to a position of great trust, indeed a position designed to advise the church on how to deal with a moral crisis, somebody who very publicly, very prominently, believes something that is contrary to Catholic teaching.”

Also problematic, though less so, given the range of opinion within the church on the death penalty, was the appointment of capital punishment enthusiast Frank Keating to chair the abuse panel, said George.

The closed-door meeting — attended by a who’s who of nearly 40 conservative Catholic journalists, intellectuals, clergy and activists — was the second such gathering in two months attended by Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and Bishops William Friend of Shreveport, La., William Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., and Robert Lynch of St. Petersburg, Fla.

The first meeting, in July, was called by Catholic philanthropist Geoffrey Boisi, who assembled a group of a decidedly more liberal bent (NCR, Aug. 1). Angered that the bishops met privately with the “kinds of liberal and dissident Catholics that would make a Call to Action conference jealous,” Crisis Magazine publisher Deal Hudson and Catholic writer Russell Shaw organized the more recent gathering.

Billed as a “Meeting in Support of the Church,” topics discussed included priestly celibacy, marriage, bioethics, and the potential of holding a U.S. church plenary council. But dissent from church teaching was, participants said, an overriding theme.

“I think that dissent is the major cause of the sexual abuse crisis because it has loosened priests and laity alike from their core beliefs, and particularly the core beliefs about sexual morality,” Hudson told the post-meeting news conference.

“There are those who are trying to take advantage of the scandal within the church, and in taking advantage of that scandal, are saying that the problem with the church is the teachings of the church,” said Atlanta businessman Frank Hanna. “We believe that the teachings of the church … are the answer to the problems within our church and within our society. And the bishops believe the same thing — so there was a nice unity of purpose.”

Among the more controversial topics: “When should or should not a bishop publicly reprimand” a Catholic politician who represents that his or her position is in accord with church teaching when it is not. Consensus broke down, according to the participants, not over the desirability of clarifying church teaching in such situations, but on the prudence of doing so.

The bishops voiced concern, said George, that “the effort to correct might cause a backlash because people might think the church is interfering wrongfully in politics and [such statements] might actually help the politician who is misrepresenting the church’s teaching.”

Said Shaw: “Nobody advocated excommunication or other canonical penalties” for dissenting Catholic politicians.

Another hot button: optional priestly celibacy, an issue raised most recently by Milwaukee priests who called on church leaders to discuss whether the priest shortage should prompt discussion of the issue.

Though meeting attendees who addressed the issue uniformly defended mandatory priestly celibacy, proponents of optional celibacy were not lumped into the dissenter category.

“No one was suggesting that someone who” favors optional celibacy is a “bad Catholic or an unfit Catholic or unfit to sit on boards or anything like that,” said George. “It is precisely the kind of question where faithful Catholics can disagree.”

The ground rules for the meeting stipulated that participants were free to share their own comments and provide an overview, but they agreed not to characterize with any specificity how the bishops responded. No bishops attended the news conference.


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