U.S. Bishops Project 'Air of Unity'

By John L. Allen Jr.
National Catholic Reporter
November 23, 2007

Efforts to grapple with two defining traumas of recent American Catholic experience, the sexual abuse crisis and political tensions between pro-lifers and peace-and-justice advocates, took center stage at the Nov. 12-15 fall meeting of the U.S. bishops in Baltimore.

On the political front, the bishops issued a document titled "Faithful Citizenship," intended as their most important statement to Catholic voters heading into the 2008 elections. It says that Catholics should be concerned with a variety of issues related to human dignity, from abortion to poverty relief, war and health care. On that continuum, however, pride of place must go to moral absolutes, principally the defense of human life.

U.S. bishops gather for Mass after they adjourn on the first day of their annual fall meeting in Baltimore Nov. 12.
Photo by Nancy Wiechec

"The direct and intentional destruction of innocent human life is always wrong and is not just one issue among many," the statement says.

Abortion is not the lone "intrinsic moral evil" cited by the bishops, who also pointed to other absolute wrongs such as racism, torture, euthanasia and embryonic stem-cell research. They acknowledged that in rare circumstances a Catholic might vote for a pro-choice candidate, despite rather than because of that stance, for "grave moral reasons." (Bishop William Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., chair of the bishops' Committee on Doctrine, stressed that Catholics should "go through some hoops" to reach such a conclusion.)

For the first time, the document was jointly prepared by committees on Domestic Policy, International Policy, Pro-Life Activities, Communications, Doctrine, Education and Migration, representing the bodies traditionally most identified with both the pro-life and the social justice concerns of the conference.

"This document is the result of an unprecedented process of listening carefully, consulting broadly and working diligently to build an ecclesial consensus that is true to Catholic teaching and can unite our conference," said Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio of Brooklyn, who led the effort.

"Faithful Citizenship" says that on political questions, the role of the bishops is to form consciences, with specific voting decisions to be made by individual Catholics. It also says that "voter guides" produced by other Catholic groups should not be distributed through official church channels.

The bishops did not directly tackle the vexed question of Communion for pro-choice politicians, though in response to media inquires they confirmed that it remains up to individual bishops to decide on a case-by-case basis.

In one sign that the hard-line position does not command a majority, however, Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis lost a race to become head of the Committee on Canonical Affairs, drawing just over 40 percent of the vote. Burke is the American prelate most identified with the push to deny Communion to Catholic politicians opposed to church teaching on abortion.

Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio

On the sexual abuse crisis, the bishops heard preliminary findings from a $2 million study on the "causes and context" of the scandals by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. Early results appear to suggest the crisis mirrored broad patterns in American society, such as the sexual revolution of the 1960s, rather than arising from unique forces within the church. "This is in conflict with the idea that there is something distinctive about the Catholic church that led to the sexual abuse of minors," Karen Terry, a researcher with John Jay College, told the bishops.

Speaking after the session with the bishops, Margaret Smith of John Jay College said that while the researchers do not have hard data on sexual abuse in other institutions, nothing they've seen suggests that the problem has been proportionately worse in the Catholic church than in other sectors of society.

While many bishops appeared to welcome the findings, a few warned that they offer no more than cold comfort.

"It's a bit like my doctor telling me that my cancer is no worse than my hospital roommate's cancer. ... Our situation should be much better," said Bishop Robert Conlon of Steubenville, Ohio.

Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, who was elected president of the conference, offered an additional note of caution. Learning that the church behaved like any other social institution, he said, could suggest the conclusion that religion doesn't make much difference in how believers, including clergy, conduct themselves.

"If that's the case, then the secularists shouldn't be disturbed about religion, because it has nothing original to say anyway and it's not going to impose itself on anybody's behavior," George said. "However this thing finally turns out, it will inform the larger issues now before us in this country about secularism [and] the influence of religion in society."

In another move partly related to the crisis, the bishops adopted a new church law, which requires Vatican approval, obligating bishops to receive consent from their finance council and their college of consultors before taking five specific financial actions:

  • Going into debt beyond $1 million for a diocese with more than a half-million Catholics, or $500,000 for dioceses with smaller populations;

  • Legal settlements exceeding those same amounts;

  • Running a business not directly related to the spiritual or charitable purposes of the church;

  • Any contract or agreement that involves a potential conflict of interest for the bishop or other senior diocesan officials;

  • Going into bankruptcy.

Archbishop John Myers of Newark, N.J., who heads the committee that produced the new controls, told NCR that work on the proposal goes back more than 10 years, predating the estimated $2 billion paid out as a result of the sexual abuse crisis, as well as recent financial headaches such as a $30 million debt in the Detroit archdiocese to fund the under-utilized John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington.

Yet, Myers conceded, the overwhelming vote in favor of the new measures was clearly "related to these concerns." The controls passed with 98.6 percent support, meaning only two negative votes were cast.

The conference also heard a report from Bishop Daniel Walsh of Santa Rosa, Calif., in favor of systematic parish audits.

"There have been cases in which large amounts of money have been diverted from the intended purpose by those with criminal intentions," Walsh said. "Organizations with ineffective internal controls are particularly vulnerable to costly mistakes or the illicit actions of the unscrupulous."

Cardinal Francis George

While the bishops took pains to project an air of unity in most matters, so that by the time documents came to a vote majorities often exceeded 90 percent, tensions occasionally surfaced.

On Monday, for example, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane issued a statement in his role as president of the conference, referring to the current situation in Iraq as "unacceptable and unsustainable" and calling for a "responsible transition." A few bishops objected that the statement, and similar ones issued by the conference at different times, seemed to downplay the threat posed by radical Islamic terrorism.

Later, when it came time to vote on "Faithful Citizenship," Auxiliary Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Chicago proposed adding a reference to "the continuing threat of fanatical extremism and global terror."

"Those whom the coalition forces are fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, are not the poor and oppressed seeking to throw off their chains, but jihadist fanatics who believe they're doing God's will," Paprocki said.

Paprocki's amendment was adopted by a vote of 57.3 to 42.3 percent. Bishop Thomas Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chair of the International Policy Committee, later said the vote should not be read as an endorsement of the White House's position on the war in Iraq.

In perhaps the most revealing vote over the four days, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., was elected vice president of the conference, putting him in line to become conference president at the end of George's three-year term. Kicanas defeated Archbishop Timothy Dolan of Milwaukee by a final count of 55 to 45 percent.

The vice president's race is the most closely watched, since the choice of president is generally a formality.

Though both Kicanas and Dolan are popular figures, Kicanas is seen as a centrist deeply committed to the bishops' conference, in the tradition of the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, while Dolan is viewed as more of a "John Paul II" bishop with an evangelical outlook rooted in a strong sense of Catholic identity and something of a distaste for ecclesiastical bureaucracy.

The election of Kicanas was taken as a sign that moderate forces still command a majority. Dolan later narrowly lost another race to become the conference's secretary, a post that went instead to Bishop George Murry of Youngstown, Ohio.

In other moves, the bishops adopted a new set of guidelines on music in the Mass, promoting broader use of Latin hymns and Gregorian chant; adopted a new set of guidelines on religious education intended to bring textbooks into greater alignment with the Catechism of the Catholic Church; and offered an enthusiastic thumbs-up to a series of public service announcements promoting marriage, which some wags compared to similar splashy media efforts by the Mormons.

If there was a clear winner over the four days in Baltimore, it may well have been the city of Chicago. Three of the top five positions in the conference are now held by bishops with a Chicago connection; Murry, a Jesuit, served as an auxiliary bishop of Chicago from 1994 to 1998, and George and Kicanas are both natives.

Chicago's most famous priest, Fr. Andrew Greeley, quickly dubbed the George/Kicanas team "a perfectly balanced ticket -- a Cubs fan and a White Sox fan."

John L. Allen Jr. is NCR senior correspondent. He can be reached at


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