Bishops in Colorado for Crucial Dialogue:
Progress on Abuse-Related Reforms and the Role of Catholics in Public Life Are on This Week's Agenda

By Eric Gorski
Denver Post [Denver]
June 13, 2004

More than 250 U.S. Roman Catholic bishops will gather in Denver this week for a critical closed-door meeting at a time when divisions have appeared in their ranks.

In recent months, the leaders of America's largest religious denomination have staked out different positions on the church's proper place in the political arena, whether some church teachings should be emphasized over others, and whether Communion should be a forum for judging how Catholics stand on issues.

One goal of the six-day Denver summit, which begins Monday at the Inverness Hotel and Conference Center in Arapahoe County, is to narrow those gaps and find consensus where possible, observers say.

"The bishops don't like the appearance of arguing or disagreeing in public because they value very much the image of a united church," said the Rev. Tom Reese, editor of America, a Jesuit magazine. "Having different bishops say different things just destroys this image of unity."

The Denver assembly was to be a solemn prayer retreat - a gathering held every five years that differs from the bishops' semi-annual business meetings.

But events of the past six months caused at least two items of business to be added: a progress report from a committee of bishops examining Catholics in public life, and a likely decision on how to measure dioceses' latest progress in meeting reforms adopted after the 2002 clergy abuse scandal.

The political discussion was ramped up in January when Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis said he would not serve Communion to Catholic Democratic presidential hopeful John Kerry because Kerry backs abortion rights, in conflict with the church.

Since then, about 15 U.S. bishops have spoken out on the Communion question. Some have said they believe Catholic politicians who support abortion rights should refrain from the Eucharist. Others dread confrontations over the sacrament at the center of Catholic life.

Colorado prominent in debate

The emphasis on abortion has prompted criticism that some bishops are selectively emphasizing church teachings and not holding Catholic candidates accountable on the church's stands on capital punishment, war and other subjects - an approach, critics say, that benefits the Republican Party.

Some conservative bishops - including Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput - believe abortion is a litmus-test issue. Others do not.

"The reality of bishops having quite different points of view on sensitive issues is not a novelty," said Russell Shaw, a conservative Catholic writer and former spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "What we have now is somewhat different in that the differences have such a high degree of visibility."

Another unusual wrinkle is the prominence that Colorado, not a traditional Catholic center, has taken in the debate. The state's U.S. Senate race includes Attorney General Ken Salazar, a Catholic who supports abortion rights.

In a May pastoral letter, Colorado Springs Bishop Michael Sheridan warned that Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, euthanasia, gay marriage and stem-cell research in conflict with the church risk their eternal salvation.


Issues that will take center stage Monday through Saturday as more than 250 U.S. Catholic bishops meet in Arapahoe County:

Catholics in public life

A committee headed by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C., will update bishops on its work, which is scheduled to be completed after the November election. A few bishops have issued statements connecting Catholic politicians' stands on moral issues to their fitness to receive Communion. But only one - Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis - has explicitly stated he would deny Communion to presidential candidate John Kerry, a Catholic who backs abortion rights. McCarrick has said denying Communion to politicians puts the church on a "slippery slope" leading to denying the Eucharist to voters. There's a good chance the bishops will issue a statement in Denver on politics, given the attention the subject has been getting.

Scandal reforms

Bishops will discuss whether and how to proceed on a second annual review of how dioceses are meeting reforms adopted in 2002 in response to the clergy abuse scandal. Some bishops, including Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, have questioned whether annual reviews are necessary. A board of Catholic laypeople charged with monitoring the church's reaction to the scandal strongly questioned bishops' commitment to reforms. The future of the lay panel - known as the National Review Board - is in question, however. One bishop said the Denver assembly may lead to a "reformulation" of the group. A review last year found 90 percent of dioceses are enacting the scandal reforms, including abuse prevention training and forming review boards with laypeople.

Plenary council

This, the main event of the meeting, has been overshadowed by other business. Bishops will discuss whether to hold a plenary council - a nationwide meeting of bishops, priests and laypeople - on the state of the church in America. It likely would examine causes of the clergy abuse scandal. The last U.S. plenary council was in Baltimore in 1884 and resulted in the Baltimore Catechism. Chaput says it's premature to say whether another council is needed. "But if it does occur, it needs to be a real act of self-examination and renewal, with a critical eye not only on ourselves but on our compromises with American culture and habits of thought," he said. The bishops are expected to wait until their next business meeting in November to vote on whether to hold a plenary council.

He declared that dissenting politicians may not receive Communion. Sheridan later issued a clarification explaining that he was not denying anyone the sacrament, saying only that Catholics should refrain if they are not in good standing.

Sheridan went further than any other U.S. bishop by extending those same standards to rank-and-file Catholics who vote for dissenting candidates.

In contrast, Chaput's May 25 column on Communion did not delve into hot political topics. Catholic public officials or parishioners "living in serious sin or who deny the teachings of the church" should refrain from taking Communion on their own accord, he wrote.

The Denver archbishop said in an interview conducted by e-mail last week that while bishops sometimes have differing opinions, an underlying unity on the essentials always exists.

"Every bishops' meeting has differences," Chaput said. "That's the nature of honest discussion. I think quite a few bishops will have concerns at this meeting about strengthening the Catholic identity of American Catholic public witness."

Unease over differing messages

The bishops of the nation's 195 dioceses have the right to set guidelines for following church teachings in their respective areas. Even so, differing messages can make the Catholic hierarchy uneasy.

Pope John Paul II, speaking recently to American bishops at the Vatican, made reference to "the formation of factions within the church" in America.

The Rev. Richard McBrien, a liberal theologian at the University of Notre Dame, said the bishops conference is overwhelmingly conservative, so the divide is not about ideology.

He believes a gulf does exist over pragmatism. A majority of bishops, McBrien argues, are in the pragmatic camp, concerned about being identified with one political party or candidate and mindful that most Catholics resent when bishops interfere with the political process.

"(Bishops) do not want to find themselves leading a march in which the only people behind them are militant pro-lifers and Republican partisans," McBrien said. The faithful "would resent any efforts by the bishops that would have the effect of making Sen. Kerry's election more difficult, and the bishops' credibility, already mortally wounded in the sexual-abuse scandal, would suffer even further damage."

Controversies over Catholic politicians have flared before: in the presidential campaigns of Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 and in the 1980s with the candidacies of Democratic vice presidential nominee Geraldine Ferraro and New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, who support legalized abortion.

The latest debate was preceded by a November 2002 Vatican doctrinal note that underscores the importance of Catholics taking part in political life. The document decries a "kind of cultural relativism" and restates church stands on abortion, euthanasia, war and other issues.

In response, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops formed a task force to draft a new policy on the responsibilities of Catholics in public life. The group, which will issue a status report in Denver, is not expected to wrap up work until after the November election.

But a fraction of bishops already have gone public with statements about politics and Communion. That has some concerned that the statements of a few are being given inordinate weight. Several U.S. bishops are hoping to issue a statement on politics out of Denver.

Chaput has called abortion the "contemporary human rights issue of our time" and said he would never vote for a pro-abortion rights candidate.

Going beyond the abortion issue

Not all bishops are so single-issue minded. Pueblo Bishop Arthur Tafoya in May released a statement emphasizing Catholics should consider not just abortion but also poverty, war, the death penalty and working for peace and justice.

Tafoya, 71, is part of an earlier generation of bishops cut from the cloth of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin of Chicago, who advocated a "consistent ethic of life," or a "seamless garment."

A 2003 U.S. bishops conference statement on faithful citizenship, produced for this election year, outlines the importance of respecting life from conception to the grave. It highlights a litany of issues ranging from avoiding war and nuclear-weapon use to reducing poverty and promoting marriage.

But special status is given to abortion and euthanasia, "preeminent threats to human life and dignity because they directly attack life itself, the most fundamental good and the condition for all others."

Some Catholics believe focusing narrowly on abortion will only hurt the church's standing. Linda Pieczynski, a board member of the reform group Call to Action, said establishing a "hierarchy of evils" diminishes other Catholic social teachings.

"As a Catholic voter, you have to look at candidates and see how they stand on all issues and see which one violates their concerns the least, because neither party embodies Catholic teaching all the way down the line," she said.

Pieczynski said that while abortion is a mortal sin, she could never support President Bush, who opposes abortion rights. She believes Bush is guilty of other mortal sins: waging "an unprovoked war" on Iraq and signing death penalty warrants as Texas governor.

Robert George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, dismisses comparing abortion to the death penalty and war because Catholic teaching allows for capital punishment and war under certain conditions.

He also argues that the scope of the abortion issue - 1.3 million are performed annually in the United States - elevates its importance in the public realm.

"I know Republicans who want the bishops to keep quiet about this because they are worried about a backlash," George said. "I don't think bishops should let Republicans dictate their positions. They should be concerned about being obligated to teach what the Gospel teaches about human life."

Conservative Catholic groups applaud the few U.S. bishops who are holding Catholic politicians accountable at the Communion rail to the church's abortion teachings. Catholics "who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin" are not to take the Eucharist, according to church law.

"We have gone 30 years without doing much about these politicians," said Deal Hudson, publisher of Crisis magazine and a Catholic adviser to the Bush administration and the GOP. "There's a basic consensus that the reasonable first step is to ask pro-abortion politicians to examine their own conscience. A few bishops think these politicians are well aware of what they're doing and they don't need that kind of warning, period - they can go right to sanctions."

Hudson believes U.S. bishops within two years will reach a consensus to strongly discourage or publicly refuse to give the Eucharist to Catholic politicians who back abortion rights.

Reese, of America magazine, said the Denver assembly should show a majority of U.S. bishops believe they should lay out the church's teachings about Communion but ultimately let individuals decide whether they're fit. Most bishops want no part of denying anyone Communion, he said.

That seems in keeping with the spirit of the bishop of Rome.

Reese points out that at a private Vatican Mass last year, Pope John Paul II was said to have given Communion to British Prime Minister Tony Blair, an Anglican who supports abortion rights.

Staff writer Eric Gorski may be reached at 303-820-1698 or .


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