U.S. Bishops Reflect on What Went Wrong
Annual Conference Continues with Closed-Door Session Examining How the Church Strayed So Far from Its Principles

By Laurie Goodstein
The New York Times
Downloaded June 21, 2003

ST. LOUIS - In a closed-door meeting they described as "A Day of Prayerful Reflection," the nation's Roman Catholic bishops began a re-examination of the sexual-abuse crisis by asking themselves how the American church had strayed so far from its ideals.

To focus the discussion, bishops said they had polled themselves in the last few months, and fixed on these problems as their priorities: the low attendance of Catholics at Mass and confession; the corrosive effects of American culture on faith; and the confused identity and spirituality of many bishops and priests.

To consider these and other ills, the prelates on Friday debated a proposal to hold a plenary council, a major assembly of bishops, priests and laypeople that the church in the United States has not seen since 1884.

Some bishops argued on Friday for smaller forums that could be organized more quickly, like "listening sessions" with laypeople, or a synod of bishops. The earliest a plenary council would be held is three years from now, and the bishops will not even decide whether to move forward on the proposal for at least a year.

But no matter the outcome, Friday's meeting made clear that the sexual-abuse scandal had prodded the bishops into a collective reassessment of the church in the United States - a step some laypeople have been urging for years.

Bishop Allen H. Vigneron, who initiated the call for a plenary and was recently named bishop-elect for the Diocese of Oakland, said in an interview, "The problems of a year ago dealing with the abuse of children and young people by clergy indicate that we need to regain a clear focus about our identity and life as a church and as pastors in the church."

"The question is," he said, "what weaknesses in our life have been disclosed to us by the crisis?"

When told Friday of the bishops' agenda, leaders of some Catholic lay groups said they were surprised to hear what had emerged at the top of the bishops' list of concerns. Some questioned whether the bishops would adequately involve laypeople in the discussion but agreed the bishops were raising legitimate issues.

"My generation of baby boomers was brought up at a time when it was a sin not to go to Mass on Sundays, it was a sin to eat meat on Fridays," said Linda Pieczynski, spokeswoman and former president of Call to Action, a Catholic reform group with 25,000 members and 49 chapters across the country. "Our children are not getting out of the sacraments what my generation got out of it."

But others said the bishops were trying to deflect attention from their own responsibility for the crisis.

"The biggest issue facing the bishops is their credibility," said Barbara Blaine, a leader of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.

Vigneron was among eight theologically conservative bishops who last year called for a plenary council as a galvanizing event that would return the church to the path of tradition and orthodoxy. They envisioned a council focused on the theme of how to recommit bishops, priests and laypeople to lives of holiness and purity.

The proposal gained the backing of 107 bishops. But as Vigneron acknowledged, some of those bishops signed because they wanted a debate on the proposal, not because they necessarily supported the theological framing of the event.

The idea has clearly captured the imagination of many bishops, but there has been no straw vote yet to indicate how many would support it. But with the bishops discussing a plenary council Friday and again at their meeting in June 2004, Catholics across the country are likely to hear about and weigh in on the debate.

Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan of Milwaukee said that in Friday's meeting, the bishops had thrown the net much wider than the theme of holiness because, he said, "We need to examine our whole mission."

He said the bishops had found Friday's discussions "rewarding," even exhilarating, after more than a year burdened by the sexual-abuse controversy. "We felt like bishops, we felt like pastors, we felt like priests," he said. "There was almost a sense of relief, of, 'This is great.' "

There have been three plenary councils before in the United States, all in the 19th century, all in Baltimore. The plenaries produced the catechism, the codification of church teaching that Catho lics know as the "Baltimore Catechism."

Cardinal William Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, said in an interview that if the bishops decide to have a plenary, he would invite them to hold it in Baltimore. He said he was still making up his mind about whether he favored the event.

Others also said they were not yet persuaded. Cardinal Francis George, archbishop of Chicago, said: "We need more information about what it would entail," including the expense and who would participate.

"I wonder if this is the time," said Cardinal Edward M. Egan, archbishop of New York.

The Rev. Philip J. Murnion, director of the National Pastoral Life Center, said in a telephone interview that the church needs a plenary, but only if the agenda includes issues of concern to the right wing in the church, like personal morality, and the left wing, like a church structure that excludes women and laypeople.

"What puzzles me is why the bishops needed to have this conversation in a closed session," he said, "since what this is about is how to have a more open discussion about the needs of the church."


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