2024 election, Vatican vision for future expected to be key topics at Catholic bishops’ meeting in Baltimore

Baltimore Sun [Baltimore MD]

November 13, 2023

By Jonathan M. Pitts

The 2024 presidential election, and considerationof a recent Vatican conclaveto shape the future of the Catholic Church, are expected to be among the key elements that propel the agenda when America’s Catholic bishops gather in Baltimore for their annual fall meeting this week.

About 300 bishops from across the United States are set to converge Monday morning for the conference at the Baltimore Marriott Waterfront, where they’ll kick off three days of meetings, discussions and voting that will help establish priorities for the American church for the coming year.

One item that looms large in the background is not listed on the published agenda: the scourge of clergy sexual abuse. The topic has dominated the news in the Archdiocese of Baltimore, the first and oldest Catholic diocese in the U.S., since the bishops last met in their customary host city nearly a year ago.

It was shortly after the prelates left town last November that the Maryland Attorney General’s Office announced that it had completed its four-year investigation into the sexual abuse and torture of children by priests and brothers in the archdiocese over an eight-decade span and efforts to cover it up. The report was released in April, and the archdiocese filed for bankruptcy this fall, anticipating a crush of lawsuits filed by survivors.

With the fall plenary session, as the November gathering is formally known, geared toward focusing on national topics, the bishops are set to address how American Catholics should weigh key issues underlying what many are expecting to be a watershed election next year for president.

While it remains unclear who will be at the top of the major party tickets, with Democratic President Joe Biden’s poll numbers in decline and former President Donald Trump, the Republican front-runner, facing criminal charges in New York and elsewhere, a number of issues that matter to Catholic voters, particularly abortion, are expected to be at the center of public debate.

The bishops will discuss and vote on a proposed new introduction to “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” a document that helps define what the church views as the political responsibilities of the faithful and the moral concerns it sees underlying the political issues of the day.

The bishops are not considering a full revision of the document, which was written in 2007. But a committee dedicated to keeping an eye on the subject of “faithful citizenship” has been working on a new introduction, one that could end up inserted in church bulletins across the United States as Americans consider their choice of chief executive.

One church observer says the fact that the bishops haven’t put out a new version in such a long time reflects political divisions within the faith that have become as pronounced as they are in American society — but how they decide to reframe it could say a lot about the direction the bishops will take in coming years.

“They’ve been talking about rewriting the document for years, but they can never agree on what they want to say,” says Thomas J. Reese, a Catholic Jesuit priest, author and journalist who focuses on the U.S. church. “But it will be interesting to see what’s in it. How much will they cite Pope Francis? If they give short shrift to global warming, it will say a lot about where their priorities are.”

Reese cited what he called the “change in the abortion environment” since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson case last year overturned the ruling in Roe v. Wade that established a constitutional right to abortion in 1973.

“The pro-life people haven’t won anything since then,” he said, pointing to the results of a Tuesday election in Ohio in which voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment guaranteeing a right to abortion, the seventh such result in a U.S. state since Dobbs. “That has to be disappointing to the bishops. What are they going to say?”

Among the other activities on a packed agenda, the prelates will discuss and consider reauthorizing a committee that aims to address “the grave sin” of racism, decide whether to implement a framework for ministering to Indigenous Catholics, hear reports from a committee working to revive Catholics’ commitment to the sacrament of Holy Communion, and vote on a budget for the coming year.

Another issue will speak to what many perceive as a political divide between the Vatican and the traditionally more conservative U.S. Catholic Church.

This week will mark the bishops’ first opportunity to respond to the results of a landmark gathering of more than 450 church leaders called by Pope Francis at the Vatican last month. The assembly was the first of two global conclaves to be held as part of the Synod on Synodality, a worldwide effort by Francis to encourage the church to develop what might be described as a less autocratic, more grassroots approach to its mission of saving souls.

Steven P. Millies, a professor of theology at the Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, says many of the 14 bishops the U.S. church sent as delegates to the gathering have expressed reservations over the pope’s signature initiative, and it will be revealing to see to what extent they’re willing to express support for it now.

“It’s the first read that we’re going to get on whether the idea of participating in the synod, and in the changes Pope Francis is trying to bring about in the church with the synod, is getting through to the U.S. bishops,” Millies said. “This will be the first chance we have to see whether the bishops who were there have changed their minds about it and would like to try to give it more emphasis here in the United States.”

The summit also comes on the heels of Pope Francis forcibly removing a conservative American bishop on Saturday. Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, has symbolized the polarization within the U.S. Catholic hierarchy and accused the pontiff of “undermining the deposit of faith.” The Vatican asked Strickland to resign Thursday, but he declined, prompting Francis to remove him from office.

Regarding the worldwide issue of clergy sexual abuse, the focus in the Baltimore archdiocese has been on the Maryland Attorney General’s Office report. Its nearly 500 pages documented its investigation of more than 150 priests and brothers it said sexually abused and tortured more than 600 children in the diocese between the 1940s and the early 2000s.

Survivors, many of them from the Baltimore area, have frequently picketed the bishops’ conference in Baltimore as part of their efforts to raise awareness of the issue, press for further investigation and seek justice. David Lorenz, director of the Maryland Chapter of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, or SNAP, said the group will hold a demonstration outside the hotel on one of the three days of this year’s conference.

Terry McKiernan, the founding director of the BishopAccountability.org, a research center on clergy abuse, said American bishops have made significant progress in developing protections against abuse. But he’s concerned that bankruptcy — a method the Baltimore archdiocese is using that halts lawsuits and limits transparency — is becoming a churchwide tactic.

He also would like the bishops to urge dioceses that have not published lists of predator priests to do so and that, as they explore ways of revitalizing Catholic sacraments, they remember that abuser priests have used the confession booth to groom victims.

“I accept that they have a lot of things on their plate,” he said. “Unfortunately, survivors and their issues are not always going to be at the top of the list. But they’ve got to be on the list somewhere. I hope they will be.”

The Associated Press contributed to this article.