Bishops Focus on Church's Problems

By Rachel Zool
Quad-City Times
November 13, 2006

Baltimore (AP) — There was a time when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was a powerful force for bringing the church's moral teachings to bear on national policy debates.

In the 1970s, the bishops led the fight against abortion after Roe v. Wade. During the Cold War, they drew international notice when they questioned the morality of nuclear deterrence.

But the bishops now face a different world — one where their moral authority has been diminished by the clergy sex abuse crisis, where money for church programs is scarce and where many American Catholics have little understanding of, or regard for, church teaching.

At a national meeting starting today in Baltimore, the bishops are expected to make changes that adjust to their new circumstances. They will channel resources away from broad social pronouncements and focus more on defining Catholicism for an often uninvolved flock.

"It's not that the bishops as a national organization no longer will be interested in sociopolitical issues," said Russell Shaw, a writer on Roman Catholic issues who spent more than 15 years as a spokesman for the conference. "But the emphasis is shifting to the life of the church itself, and its own internal problems."

The new focus is clear from the agenda for this week's gathering.

The bishops will vote on documents explaining the church's ban on artificial contraception and worthiness for receiving Holy Communion. The prelates also will consider new guidelines on ministry to gay Catholics, which explain the theological underpinnings of church teaching that marriage should be limited to one man and one woman.

In addition, the bishops will take up a proposed restructuring of the conference's Washington headquarters to reflect their new priorities. Under the plan, American dioceses would send less money to the conference, which would in turn cut jobs and committees.

For many Catholics, the changes are long overdue. Bishops have complained for years that the funds they turn over for conference work are badly needed in their home dioceses. Others consider the large staff unnecessary, a hangover from the conference's heyday in the early 1980s, when revered Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin was guiding its work and the prelates undertook such ambitious projects as the pastoral letter on nuclear war called "The Challenge of Peace."

"Some of the younger bishops are less formed by the bureaucracy and are more suspicious of it and more likely to want to have more direct ways of responding to crises," said Helen Hull Hitchcock, director of Women for Faith & Family, which represents traditional Catholics.

But critics see the turn inward as disturbing. The Rev. Thomas Reese, former editor of the Jesuit magazine America, noted that the agenda included no mention of the war in Iraq, although bishops could still raise the topic from the floor.

"It's the most important moral issue facing the country, and in the past the bishops would have said something about it," Reese said.

The proposed changes partly reflect a transition in the church hierarchy.

Older bishops who experienced the modernizing reforms of the Second Vatican Council have been retiring in significant numbers. They have been succeeded by appointees of Pope John Paul II who have taken up the late pontiff's defense of Catholic orthodoxy.

"Unfortunately, the bishops have interpreted the signs of the times as calling for a circling of the wagons," said R. Scott Appleby, a University of Notre Dame historian who has written extensively about the church. "That is maybe politically or culturally realistic, but it lacks the kind of courage and embrace of the theological virtue of hope that characterized the Vatican II generation of bishops."

The bishops also have been conducting more business behind closed doors. This week, 1 days of the 3-day meeting will be in executive session. Formerly, the conference held only a half-day executive session at its fall meeting, but a spokeswoman said the extra time was needed for "prayer and reflection." Shaw said the bishops understandably feel more comfortable talking in private, but he called the extra closed sessions "a mistake."

"God knows, I don't begrudge the bishops meditation and prayer, but they have many opportunities to do that," Shaw said. "They don't have to carve large chunks of time out of a working meeting to do that when their work affects us all."

On the move

Bishop Martin Amos, the incoming leader of the Diocese of Davenport, will miss the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops because he will move from Ohio to Davenport this week.

He did attend the Bishops' conference when they drew up new guidelines to update practices about how adults relationships to children, a reaction to the sexual abuse scandal. This includes requiring background checks on all volunteers, special training of Catholic teachers and other practices. His installation is set for Nov. 20 at St. John Vianney Catholic Church, Bettendorf.

— Deirde Cox Baker


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