Bishops Poised to Pick Leader; Unsettled Times for Catholics

By Janet I. Tu
Seattle Times [Seattle WA]
November 14, 2004

Spokane Bishop William Skylstad, left, is a candidate to succeed Wilton Gregory, right, as bishops' conference leader. !The ongoing sexual-abuse crisis. Dioceses declaring bankruptcy. What to do with Catholic politicians who don't hold to church teachings. Restoring credibility in the eyes of an increasingly frustrated laity.

When the nation's approximately 300 bishops gather in Washington, D.C., tomorrow, they do so against a backdrop of extraordinary challenges.

Adding to the challenge: The bishops themselves disagree on how to best deal with those issues, and even on the role their organization the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops can and should play in resolving the problems.

Those divisions are likely to be reflected in one of the first actions the bishops take this week: electing a new president and vice president to lead them through the next three years.

Bishop Wilton Gregory of Belleville, Ill., is ending his three-year term as president, having guided the group through possibly the most tumultuous period in its history. His vice president, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane, is expected to be elected president, per tradition. But even there, unprecedented events have taken over; Skylstad announced last week his diocese would file for bankruptcy within the month.

Some Spokane parishioners and sexual-abuse victims have called for Skylstad's resignation as bishop and for him to withdraw his name as a presidential candidate. They say that in the past he failed to prevent a priest he supervised from molesting children, even after repeated complaints from parishioners.

Experts are divided on the effect of the bankruptcy issue, some saying it lessens his chances, while others think it's not enough to prevent his ascendancy.

What is clear, though, some observers say, is that some bishops think the conference should take a more active role in tackling those problems, while others are wary of the group overstepping its bounds.

Sets guidelines

At its core, the bishops' conference is not a governing or enforcement body but rather a collegial one that can only set guidelines that direct the church on a national level. That's partly because central to Catholic theology is the belief that bishops report only to God and the pope.

The bishops' group, which has existed in one form or another since World War I, can make rules on some things, such as what the liturgical texts are going to be for Mass. But it has no binding authority over individual dioceses.

"Usually what the bishops do is propose guidelines" that individual bishops can choose to follow or not, said the Rev. Thomas Reese, editor of the Jesuit publication America. "It's much more like an association of governors than a House of Representatives. They get together to share ideas, talk about issues, maybe pass some resolutions."

Officially, this week's agenda won't include discussions of the group's role or the other challenges. Instead, the bishops are expected to talk about adult catechism, Spanish-language liturgical books and joining a new ecumenical organization.

But longtime observers of the conference are watching the election closely because "there's enormous significance" on whom the bishops choose as their next president and vice president, said Francis Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, a consortium of foundations that fund Catholic causes.

"You get an idea of where [they're] going as a conference," Butler said.

He says the elections could well be a referendum on whether bishops think the bishops' conference overstepped its bounds last year by appointing a group of lay Catholics to monitor how well dioceses are enacting sex-abuse reforms.

Or, he says, the bishops could choose leaders who think the conference should focus more on issues such as financial mismanagement, or the precipitous decline in the number of priests.

"Those are the types of practical issues that many bishops feel need to be addressed as a body," Butler said. "You're not going to piecemeal your way into that."

But there is leeway in what issues the group decides to take on and what positions it takes and that's where some of the divisions lie.

Divided over focus

Some bishops think the conference should focus on internal issues such as priest shortages and financial management, Reese says. Others say it should have a strong voice on external issues such as war and health care.

Also, there are traditionalist bishops who think the group should be tougher in its statements on, say, abortion and loyalty to the pope. "Some of them feel they should lay down the law, say: 'This is what the Catholic Church teaches. If you don't like it, take the highway,' " Reese said.

Still others think the best way to convince people is to have a dialogue with them, not scold them.

That division became highly public this year when a few bishops said Catholic pro-choice politicians such as Sen. John Kerry may not be fit to receive Communion. Even the pope has weighed in, telling the bishops such public disunity must stop.

That's why Reese thinks the bishops will elect a president and vice president who will be able to listen and unite the bishops. Reese, who says Skylstad is highly regarded among his peers, believes he will win election. Only twice in the history of the conference has a vice president not been elected president, Reese said.

"If they break from tradition and elect somebody else as president, that would be a clear sign that they would want the conference to move in a different direction," he said. "That would be quite extraordinary."

But, some experts say, these are extraordinary times.

"New territory"

Tom Roberts, editor of the newsweekly National Catholic Reporter, says this election "is all new territory," with the sexual-abuse scandals and bankruptcies having an unknown effect on the standing of individual bishops.

Roberts cites a recent national study from Catholic University of America and Purdue University showing that 72 percent of Catholics think the failure of bishops to stop the sexual abuse was a bigger problem than the abuse itself.

"For Catholics to say they're embarrassed by their bishops, by their leaders, is an enormous breach in what we're used to," Roberts said.

Butler wonders at the large number of powerful names on the slate of candidates, including two cardinals and the archbishops of Indianapolis, Denver, Milwaukee and San Francisco. Traditionally, the group's leaders have come from smaller dioceses, as a sort of balance to the power of archbishops and cardinals.

"You would normally see token opposition to whoever was vice president, and that would fade very quickly," Butler said. But this year, "there are archbishops and cardinals who've decided they would like to be considered for the presidency at a time when the hierarchy itself seems to be highly polarized. ... Anything, I think, is possible here."


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