November 14, 2006
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops had a productive Tuesday, conducting a flurry of activity Nov. 14 as they gave their approval to several important documents on pastoral and practical concerns (see yesterday’s report for background details).
It remained a more focused and efficient fall meeting than has been seen in recent years, with greater commonality and less spirited debate than observers have come to expect.
Revisions for the Lectionary readings for Advent and a plan to develop a “core repertoire” of music appropriate for liturgy won handily without extended discussion in the morning’s first session. Somewhat more scrutiny was accorded to strongly catechetical and pastoral documents on contraception in marriage, pastoral care of persons with same-sex attraction, and proper preparation to receive holy Communion.
In another highly significant decision, the bishops voted overwhelmingly to approve a strategic plan that would restructure the conference itself.
The document on contraception, “Married Love and the Gift of Life,” passed by a wide margin (220-11, one abstention) with relatively little debate. In response to Bishop Elden Curtiss’ concerns voiced the previous day, Bishop Arthur Serratelli of Paterson, N.J., announced that several “talking points” had indeed been developed to help bishops handle media questions and that these points “will be on the bishops’ website by the time we leave for home.”
The 24-page “Ministry to Persons with a Homosexual Inclinations: Guidelines for Pastoral Care” was hung up in debate for a time over whether it should include an explicit endorsement of the organizations Courage and Encourage rather than simply a generic mention of support groups and ministries that help persons with same-sex attraction to live chaste lives. While all bishops who spoke to this amendment praised the work of Courage, some felt that to single out one organization might make all other such ministries suspect, even those at local or diocesan levels that also adhere to Catholic teaching on homosexuality. In the end, after some parliamentary wrangling, an explicit reference to Courage and Encourage was accepted as a footnote to the text.
Pastoral concerns were raised again prior to the vote on the document. Bishop William Weigand of Sacramento, Calif., noting that the lengthy first part of the guidelines, which are addressed to the bishops themselves, comprises fundamental “general principles,” wondered aloud whether the document might better be addressed to persons of homosexual inclinations.
Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., suggested that perhaps the document’s assertion that there is “no consensus on therapy” to change one’s homosexual inclination should be nuanced further to state that some Catholic therapists have indeed reported great success in this area. His motion that the document be remanded to committee for further development, however, was turned down by voice vote.
After close of debate, the document won handily (194-37, one abstention).
In the noontime press conference, one reporter asked whether a person with homosexual inclination has an obligation to undergo corrective therapy. Bishop Serratelli replied that the obligation was “to seek counseling to help live a chaste life.”
The afternoon brought action on “Happy Are Those Who Are Called to His Supper,” the doctrine committee’s statement on proper disposition to receive the Eucharist. The statement stems directly from concerns in previous years over whether “pro-choice” Catholic public officials should be refused holy Communion, and the specter of that debate, which for some has not been resolved satisfactorily, hung over the day’s discussion.
Archbishop Raymond Burke of St. Louis, who in 2004 told his priests to refuse Communion to pro-choice politicians, said in his intervention that “something needs to said here” about Communion for those engaged in public sin. Leaving the question unaddressed directly “does not serve well those who act in such a way because there is no call to conversion on their part,” he said.
There’s a risk that public persons “notorious for their violations of the natural moral law” might be photographed as they receive holy Communion from a bishop and have the picture published in Time magazine, which would be “an open affront to the Church and to her most sacred teachings. It’s profoundly confusing,” he added.
Bishop Serratelli said the issue was not raised because the document was addressed to lay people so that they may properly evaluate their readiness for Communion, not as a guideline for bishops.
Some bishops suggested additions to the statement’s list of common serious sins that could prevent someone from receiving the Eucharist. Auxiliary Bishop Salvator Cordileone of San Diego, for example, offered that use of contraception was “a matter of the most serious consequence and it very widespread. It’s just too important to omit from this document.” After some discussion, it was suggested that a reference to extramarital sex should be amended to read “engaging in sexual activity outside the bond of a valid marriage, or engaging in sexual activity with the use of contraception even within the bond of a valid marriage.”
The suggested wording left some bishops and observers concerned it was too broad, noting that it does not address the rare exceptions of condom use within marriage when one spouse is infected with AIDS or HIV, nor of women who must use the pill due to debilitating medical problems within their reproductive system. These concerns led to the amendment’s defeat by a 2-to-1 margin.
Paralleling Archbishop Burke’s concerns, Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I., asked what would happen “if someone who should not be receiving Communion continues to do that?” He suggested that a mention of that situation would “strengthen the option of bishops” in undertaking a “firmer response.” His amendment failed, but a prior amendment approved in committee quotes a passage from Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia in which the Church’s involvement may be called for “in cases of outward conduct which is seriously, clearly and steadfastly contrary to the moral norm” (No. 37).
When it finally came up for a vote, the document was approved (201-24, two abstentions).
In deliberations over the proposed “2008-2011 Strategic Plan and Reorganization,” several bishops raised impassioned concerns about reductions in staff or committees in various departments. In interreligious and ecumenical affairs, Several bishops rose to state their fears that important dialogues with Muslims, Jews and the Orthodox would be compromised by cutting an associate director’s position. In pro-life activities, a cut from 11 to eight staffers was seen as incompatible with the bishops’ stated priorities that include concern for the dignity of human life. All such objections were answered similarly by Archbishop Michael Sheehan of Santa Fe, N.M., chairman of the Committee on Priorities and Plans: A “more organic” approach will permit each department and committee to continue its important work in a sufficient manner.
The strategic plan and reorganization, the first major restructuring of the U.S. bishops’ conference since 1961, passed easily (213-19).
In other matters, the bishops approved a 16-percent cut in the diocesan assessments (158-6), endorsed a set of priorities and plans for 2007 (210-20, three abstentions), and elected several heads and members of committees.
As the bishops adjourned for the day – nearly two hours later than scheduled – there was a palpable sense of accomplishment and even relief at having negotiated several rather sensitive issues. Catholics who seek more leadership and stronger catechesis from episcopal statements will generally be well pleased with what the conference has produced this week, although there remains a question of how much the bishops’ teachings and pastoral advice will filter down to the average lay Catholic. The streamlining of conference committees and personnel, not unlike the prudent scaling back of bureaucracies that sometimes are necessary in corporations and governments, ought to enhance the bishops’ pastoral ministries by making them more efficient and effective in carrying out their mission with a superior sense of stewardship of resources.
Wednesday and Thursday are closed executive sessions, primarily for prayer and reflection, and little is expected to be revealed outside the meeting room. I’ll offer some concluding observations on the U.S. bishops’ fall meeting in my third and final report tomorrow morning.
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