At their meeting in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 15-17, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops elected new leaders, approved a catechism for adults and joined a new ecumenical group aimed at bringing together all the Christian churches in the United States for common witness and dialogue.
Elected president of the conference for the next three years was Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash., who has been vice president. He succeeds Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., who over the past three years guided the country’s bishops through the crisis of clergy sexual abuse of minors, widely regarded as the worst crisis facing the U.S. Catholic Church in its history. Bishop Skylstad, 70, was elected from among 10 presidential nominees on the first ballot, receiving 120 votes out of 232 cast.
From among the remaining nine candidates, Cardinal Francis E. George, O.M.I., of Chicago was named vice president. He was elected on the third ballot with 118 votes out of 230 cast in a runoff with Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, the candidate who received the next highest number of votes in the second vice-presidential ballot.
Archbishop Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., of Denver, who became prominent during the recent presidential election for promoting the exclusion of pro-choice Catholic politicians from Communion, received only six votes for vice president. Wuerl and George, on the other hand, did not support this view.
Cardinal George’s election was a surprise in that he is the first cardinal to be elected president or vice president of the conference since 1971. Both he and Bishop Skylstad headed the Diocese of Yakima, and they are friends who expect to work well together. If the bishops follow their normal procedures, Cardinal George will be elected president in three years.
Less than two weeks before his election, Bishop Skylstad announced, after a collapse of mediation efforts with victims of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy, that the Diocese of Spokane would enter Chapter 11 federal bankruptcy protection proceedings by Nov. 29 in order to deal as fairly as possible with all abuse victims.
That decisionmaking Spokane the third U.S. diocese to announce bankruptcy proceedings, after Portland, Ore., and Tucson, Ariz.led to media speculation that Bishop Skylstad might withdraw from candidacy or not be elected, despite the bishops’ usual practice of electing their vice president to the presidency.
An experienced ecumenist and articulator of Catholic social policy, Bishop Skylstad is also known for his outreach to Hispanic migrant farmworkers. He has been Catholic co-chairman of the U.S. Catholic-Methodist theological dialogue and headed the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Domestic Policy.
He was a key figure in the development of the environmental pastoral letter titled The Columbia River Watershed: Caring for the Common Good, published in 2001 by 12 Catholic bishops of the U.S. Pacific Northwest and British Columbia, Canada. Less than a month before the bishops’ meeting on Nov. 15-17, he was one of the conveners of a major national Catholic scholars’ conference on the environment, human dignity and the poor in Owatonna, Minn.
As chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Domestic Policy in the late 1990’s, Bishop Skylstad took strong stands opposing capital punishment. Under him the domestic policy committee also issued statements supporting a higher minimum wage and opposing cutbacks in welfare benefits.
He headed the subcommittee of the domestic policy committee that drafted guidelines for practices to be observed in Catholic-related hospitals where employees were trying to unionize. Those guidelines had a significant impact on labor relations in a number of Catholic hospitals in California.
During Bishop Skylstad’s term as co-chairman of the U.S. Catholic-Methodist Dialogue, the group issued a 64-page guide of dialogue themes, common prayer, Bible study and resources for joint activities for use by local Catholic and Methodist congregations. Bishop Skylstad has been a supporter of involving local congregations in ecumenical dialogue so that people at the parish level can be very up front and honest about issues and obstacles to unity.
After his election as vice president, Cardinal George resigned as chair of the bishops’ Liturgy Committee. The nominations committee proposed Cardinal Justin Rigali of Philadelphia and Bishop Allen H. Vigneron of Oakland, Calif., as candidates for the vacancy, but in an unusual move, the bishops rejected these in favor of Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pa., who was nominated from the floor. As past chair of the committee, Trautman had defended inclusive language translations of the liturgy prepared by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy (ICEL).
In another surprise, Bishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Knoxville, Tenn., defeated Archbishop Sean P. O’Malley, O.F.M.Cap., of Boston, 151-92, for chair of the Committee on Marriage and Family Life.
In a close election, Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J., defeated Auxiliary Bishop Gabino Zavala of Los Angeles, 121-116, to become chair of the Canonical Affairs Committee. Another close election named Bishop Thomas G. Wenski of Orlando, Fla., chair of the International Policy Committee, defeating Bishop Michael W. Warfel of Juneau, Alaska, 122-115.Conference Will Join New Ecumenical Group
The U.S. Catholic bishops took a historic ecumenical step by joining the new national ecumenical forum, Christian Churches Together in the USA. It marks the first time that the U.S. Catholic Church is a partner church in such a national body, although Catholic churches in about 70 other countries belong to national councils of churches or similar bodies. The bishops approved the proposal to join C.C.T. by a vote of 151-73, or more than 2 to 1.
Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs, presented the proposal to the bishops and urged its adoption, noting that the Holy See has also encouraged it. He called the new organization a forum for participation through which Christian churches can pray together, grow in understanding together and witness together.
The U.S. bishops never joined the National Council of Churches because of fears that, because of its size, the Catholic Church would dominate the council.The C.T.T. will operate by consensus, so no positions can be taken without practical unanimity among the participants.Bishops Approve New Catechism for Adults
The U.S. bishops on Nov. 17 approved the U.S. Catholic Catechism for Adults, the first official national catechism in this country aimed specifically at adults. Dotted with brief biographies illustrating the faith lives of American saints and other well-known figures in U.S. Catholic history, the new catechism is meant as a complement to the universal Catechism of the Catholic Church, issued in 1992 by Pope John Paul II. It addresses Catholic belief and practice comprehensively, but often from the perspective of special questions or challenges to Catholic faith that arise out of the American social and cultural context.
The bishops adopted the 456-page text by a vote of 218-10, well beyond the number, two-thirds of all active members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, needed for approval. The text must still receive a recognitio, or confirmation from the Holy See, before it can be published as an official catechism.
Begun in June 2000 as a project of the U.S.C.C.B. Ad Hoc Committee to Oversee Use of the Catechism, the draft went through three national consultations before it was brought to the bishops for a debate and vote. Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans, chairman of the ad hoc committee, and Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, chairman of the five-bishop editorial oversight board that handled the writing, introduced the document to the bishops near the end of their fall meeting in Washington, D.C.
The bishops said they hoped it would be especially helpful to young adults desiring to learn about their faith. Archbishop Hughes said it might also be used in high schools. Each chapter of the catechism is a self-contained unit that could be read by itself.Fewer Documents, More Discussion Wanted
In a series of votes on Nov. 15, the bishops made clear that they want to spend more time in dialogue and debate among themselves about what they need to do to respond to major issues facing the church across the nation. The major issues listed by the bishops include evangelization and catechesis in the U.S. church, declining Catholic participation in the Eucharist and other sacraments, and the dramatic decline in vocations to the priesthood and religious life. They rejected the idea of having a national plenary council or regional synod, preferring to devote their spring meeting in 2006 and/or 2007 to discussion of these issues.
At the same time, the bishops indicated that they wanted fewer documents and more discussion time at conference meetings. The U.S. bishops overwhelmingly approved a series of recommendations aimed at limiting the priorities and projects of the U.S.C.C.B. The recommendations were also prompted by a desire to keep diocesan assessments for conference operations from rising, said Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, chairman of the bishops’ Task Force on Activities and Resources, which drafted the recommendations.
After adopting these recommendations, the bishops went on to approve a new committee and collection for Africa. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk chided the bishops for their inconsistency and unwillingness to stick to their self-imposed restraint. He succeeded in getting them to postpone a document on the Bible, but they rejected his motion to remand to committee a proposal to have a document on marriage and family, which will probably be brought to the bishops in 2007.
A sense of urgency about emphasizing the church’s teaching on marriage and family seemed to outweigh U.S. bishops’ concerns for their new procedures for setting priorities. We can help to create a positive climate that places healthy marriages at the heart of strong families, a strong nation and a strong and holy church, said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Savannah, Ga., chairman of the Committee on Marriage and Family Life. This is a pastoral moment we should seize upon. Some bishops stressed the need to teach that marriage is between a man and a woman; others noted the need to present the church’s teaching on contraception.Report From Task Force on Bishops and Politicians
The U.S. bishops will develop a Reader on Catholics in Public Life and two committees will take up the matter of church teaching on when it is proper for Catholics, including Catholic politicians, to receive Communion. The prominent attention to Catholic teaching in this year’s presidential election campaign was addressed in a three-page written report issued without comment or discussion in public session, although the bishops did discuss the issue behind closed doors. The report of the Task Force on Catholic Bishops and Catholic Politicians, headed by Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., reflected on the challenges and controversy for the church this election year that generated more discussion than perhaps ever before about what it means to be a Catholic and a citizen of the United States.
The task force’s report noted that some bishops have been unfairly attacked as partisan and others have been called cowards. Some have been accused of being single issue,’ indifferent to the poor or unconcerned about the war, it said. Others have been called unconcerned about the destruction of unborn human life, but preoccupied by poverty or war. That is not who we are.
The report said the bishops’ doctrine and pastoral practices committees have agreed to take up the matter of church teaching on the proper disposition for reception of Communion.Data Collection on Abuse Will Continue
The U.S. bishops approved a proposal to gather annual information on the number of new accusations of sexual abuse by members of the Catholic clergy and other church personnel, the resolution of existing cases and the related costs of handling such cases for dioceses. The bishops also approved streamlining the 2005 audits to see if dioceses are observing the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, allowing for fewer on-site inspections and more self-reporting. Under the modifications, full on-site audits for 2005 will be conducted only in dioceses and eparchies that did not participate in the 2004 audits or were in complete noncompliance.
In regional groupings at their November meeting, the bishops also discussed a new draft of the Dallas charter, which was presented by the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Sexual Abuse. The draft includes only minor changes in the 2002 text and still calls for zero tolerance, the permanent exclusion from ministry of any cleric who has sexually abused a minor. The bishops will vote on a revised charter in spring 2005.
Kathleen McChesney, who set up the U.S. bishops’ office to help dioceses implement child sex abuse prevention policies, plans to resign on Feb. 25 after publication of the 2004 diocesan compliance audits. Children are safer now under the church’s policies, but the bishops’ Office of Child and Youth Protection will continue to function, Ms. McChesney said on Nov. 15. She said that her two-year contract called for her to set up the office, conduct a diocesan compliance audit and establish ongoing procedures to assure implementation of the bishops’ policies; and these have been accomplished.News Briefs
The Vatican has approved on a trial basis for five years the National Directory for the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, which the bishops approved in 2003. It will take effect on Aug. 10, 2005.
Catholics will make up 29 percent of the 109th Congress when it convenes in early January, with a slight rise in the number of Catholic Republicans and a similar drop in the number of Catholic Democrats. With 128 representatives and 24 senators identifying themselves as Catholics, according to a survey by Congressional Quarterly, Catholicism remains the largest single religious affiliation claimed by members of the new Congress. Baptists were second, with 65 House members and seven senators.