Signs of the Times

Catholic Official Hails A.M.A. Vote as Protecting Conscience Rights

The American Medical Association’s rejection of a resolution aimed at forcing Catholic hospitals to provide sterilizations and contraception was a vote in support of freedom of conscience, said the Rev. Michael D. Place, president of the Catholic Health Association. A substitute resolution recommended by the A.M.A.’s Reference Committee B and approved by the House of Delegates reaffirmed previous A.M.A. policy that neither physician, hospital nor hospital personnel shall be required to perform any act violative of personally held moral principles. Although the original resolution did not specifically mention abortion, which is most often performed not in hospitals but in clinics or doctors’ offices, it called on all hospitals to provide birth control, tubal ligations and vasectomiesall of which are contrary to Catholic teaching.

Annan Says Vatican’s U.N. Status Not Unfair to Other Groups

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said on June 14 that he does not think the Vatican’s permanent observer status at the United Nations gives it an unfair advantage over other religious groups. Other religious bodies do not have that status, but all are free to come and go at the world body, he said. Critics argue the church should be put on the same consultative level as various nongovernmental organizations that represent religious agencies and communities. But the United States supports continuation of the Vatican’s status, even though the Clinton administration disagrees with the Vatican on abortion. And no government represented in the General Assembly has indicated it favors ending the Vatican’s current status.


Ambassador: Government Mishandled Gerardi Investigation

Guatemala’s new ambassador to the Vatican told Pope John Paul II his government accepts responsibility for mishandling the investigation into the 1998 murder of a bishop and is committed to finding the truth. Auxiliary Bishop Juan Gerardi of Guatemala City was murdered two days after he released a report on human rights violations in the country.

Rwandan Bishop Acquitted of All Charges in 1994 Genocide

Rwandan Bishop Augustin Misago of Gikongoro was acquitted of all charges of having organized and participated in the country’s 1994 genocide of more than 500,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu. The packed courtroom burst into applause when Judge Jaliere Rutaremara dismissed all seven charges at the end of a 90-minute judgment: All accusations against Misago have been dropped. Misago is free. Misago has won the trial, he said. Bishop Misago, still dressed in his pink prisoner’s uniform and wearing a pectoral cross around his neck, walked freely from the courtroom minutes later. I am very happy with the verdict, he said, as well-wishers from the crowd cheered him. The trial, which started in September, had uncovered the truth, he said.

The judge said Bishop Misago had always acted to save those in his protection, including a group of priests and schoolchildren who were later killed, instead of plotting to have them killed, as the prosecution insisted. Bishop Misago participated in meetings with local officials who later organized massacres, the judge said, but the evidence suggested the purpose of the meetings was to distribute aid to displaced people. The bishop had been incarcerated in Kigali’s notoriously overcrowded central prison for 14 months.

Prayer Before Public School Football Games Overruled

In rejecting a Texas school district’s plan for allowing student-led prayers at high school football games, the Supreme Court on June 19 added to case law limiting organized prayer in school settings. The court’s 6-to-3 ruling found that the Santa Fe Independent School District policy established an improper majoritarian election on religion, and unquestionably has the purpose and creates the perception of encouraging the delivery of prayer at a series of important school events. The policy created a system in which students would vote on whether to elect a student to deliver a pre-game inspirational message before each home game, replacing a previous system that involved a student council chaplain. Although the school district asserted that a prayer before games should be permitted because participation in football games is voluntary, Justice John Paul Stevens said that we are nevertheless persuaded that the delivery of a pre-game prayer has the improper effect of coercing those present to participate in an act of religious worship.

Catholic Church Taught Muslim Respect for Other Faiths

Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid, a Muslim who heads a predominantly Muslim country, said the Catholic Church taught him how to respect other religions while maintaining his own belief. He said the bishops at the Second Vatican Council taught that all people have the right to follow the teachings they believe are true, and that the Catholic teachings were the right ones for us. Handling the issue that way is important for interreligious cooperation, the president said. Wahid spoke and responded to other participants in a forum held on June 13 on Religious Cooperation for the Common Good, sponsored by the World Conference on Religion and Peace, an interreligious agency based in New York.

Vatican Refutes Claim It Wants to Erode U.N. Support for Women

Charges by Amnesty International that the Vatican entered into an unholy alliance with some U.N. members to undermine support for women’s rights are absolutely false, the Vatican’s U.N. nuncio said. Archbishop Renato R. Martino said in an interview on June 7 that the Vatican was always on the side of women and supports the view that human rights applied to women and men alike. Amnesty International made its allegations in a statement regarding a special session of the U.N. General Assembly held to review implementation of the Plan of Action adopted at the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women. Archbishop Martino said the accusations from a human rights agency showed lack of awareness of what actually happened in the preparatory process, and were surprising because the Vatican had always supported human rights in every respect. Differences arose when some countries tried to impose the concept that practices such as same-sex marriage or abortion were human rights, he said.

U.S. Bishops Meet in Milwaukee

Media, catechetics and ongoing formation of the ordained were among major concerns the U.S. Catholic bishops faced as they met in Milwaukee on June 15-17. The bishops also discussed pastoral challenges the church faces with fewer priests, problems in the U.S. criminal justice system and proposed changes in the structure of the International Commission on English in the Liturgy.

On the media the bishops:

Approved a statement, Your Family in Cyberspace, offering parents advice on how to encourage their children to use the Internet responsibly and fruitfully, with tips on dangers to watch for.

Issued a statement, Civility in the Media, urging journalists to respect the human dignity of those about whom you report and not turn legitimate debate into personal attacks.

Launched a five-year campaign to get Catholics to pledge specific actions to promote greater attention to moral values in the media.

Established a voluntary protocol under which media can seek approval from a bishop to label themselves or some of their products as Catholic.

In the field of faith formation the bishops:

Approved a project to develop a national adult catechism based on the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

Agreed to a time line for the National Directory for Catechetics that they had previously decided to develop.

Adopted new bylaws and a new committee handbook, two of the final steps in their eight-year project to restructure their twin national bodies, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops and the U.S. Catholic Conference, into a single body, to be called the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The changes will make it more difficult for conference committees and chairs to issue statements.

The bishops learned from a statistical study by CARA (Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate) that the ratio of priests to people in the United States changed dramatically during the 20th century from 1:900 in 1900, to 1:650 in 1950 and 1:1,200 in 1999. There are now 3,086 Catholics per parish, up 67 percent from 1950. The shortage of priests is most acute in the western part of the country.

Another table showed that since 1980 the number of ordinations has not kept up with the number of priest deaths. Departures have further reduced the number of priests for a net loss of about 400 priests per year during the last five years of the century. Meanwhile, the average age of the clergy (currently 57 for diocesan priests and 63 for religious priests) continues to climb.

Some bishops blamed the culture and parents for not encouraging vocations. Others warned against pessimistic talk that they felt would exacerbate the problem. They called for more intense vocation programs like those that have produced good results in some dioceses. Privately other bishops felt that some of the dioceses with numerous seminarians were not adequately screening their candidates. Those conducting the study said that ordaining married men or women did not come up for discussion in the focus groups studied.

Bishop Joseph A. Fiorenza of Galveston-Houston, president of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, appointed Archbishop Daniel E. Pilarczyk of Cincinnati to chair a committee to develop concrete procedures whereby a theologian applies for a mandatum and a bishop grants, withholds or retracts it. The other members of the committee are Cardinal Anthony J. Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, Bishop Donald W. Wuerl of Pittsburgh, Bishop Thomas G. Doran of Rockford, Ill., and Auxiliary Bishop Edward K. Braxton of St. Louis.

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