Signs of the Times

Sexual Abuse and Many Other Topics on Bishops’ Agenda

Members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops opened their fall general meeting in Washington. D.C., by hearing a challenge from their president to direct the energy of the whole church to the eradication of sexual abuse and the healing of its victims. Shortly after Bishop Wilton D. Gregory of Belleville, Ill., made that call, the bishops approved the addition of one full-time and two part-time staff members in their Office for Child and Youth Protection, at a cost of more than $265,000 through 2005.

The bishops also dealt with a dozen other topics during their meeting, held at the Hyatt Regency Capitol Hill on Nov. 10-12. Documents on agriculture, popular devotions, socially responsible investment, stewardship, conflict-of-interest policy and several liturgical matters were debated and approved. The first day also had an international flavor, with reports by Bishop Paul Nguyen Van Hoa of Nha Trang, Vietnam, president of the Vietnamese bishops’ conference, and by Coadjutor Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, Ireland. The bishops also heard a report on Nov. 10 about plans for their special assembly in Denver in 2004, which will involve discussions of a possible plenary council of the U.S. church. No decision was made. [Full texts of statements approved by the U.S. bishops this week, such as the statement on same-sex unions, are available on the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Web site. ]


Bishops Approve Document on Popular Devotions

The U.S. bishops on Nov. 12 approved a pastoral statement encouraging popular devotions but cautioned that they should never supplant the liturgy, the primary form of the church’s worship and sacramental life. By written ballot they adopted the 21-page statement, Popular Devotional Practices: Basic Questions and Answers. The vote was 236 to 6, with two abstentions.

Bishop Donald W. Trautman of Erie, Pa., chairman of the bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, called the document a pastoral statement that is intended to take a supportive and encouraging approach to popular devotions. He also noted that the document does not recommend any particular devotion, but rather seeks to explain the role of such devotions in the lives of Catholics.

While supportive of the place of popular devotions and pious practices in Catholic life, the statement emphasizes that such prayers and practices must always be in accord with church law and teaching and cannot take precedence over the liturgy, which the Second Vatican Council described as a sacred action surpassing all others and the summit toward which the activity of the church is directed.

The statement says the bishops wanted to address commonly asked questions about piety and devotion and their relation to the liturgy because popular devotional practices have such an important role in the spiritual life of Catholics. Among examples of popular devotional practices the statement cites pilgrimages, novenas, processions and celebrations in honor of Mary and the other saints, the rosary, the Angelus, the Stations of the Cross, the veneration of relics and the use of sacramentals.

It says the liturgy must always be the primary reference point for the spiritual lives of Catholics. Since the liturgy is the center of the life of the church, popular devotions should never be portrayed as equal to the liturgy, nor can they adequately substitute for the liturgy.... What is crucial is that popular devotions be in harmony with the liturgy, drawing inspiration from it and ultimately leading back to it.... Maintaining the proper balance may not always be easy and may require patient and persistent effort.

The statement also discusses the origins of devotions, their relation to the Bible, their relation to local cultures, the rich variety of devotional practices, the role of the saints in the life of the church and the special role of Mary.

It notes that in Catholic belief proper veneration of the saints does not interfere with the worship due to God, but rather fosters it. It adds that proper veneration of Mary does not detract from worship of God. Even as the mother of the Savior, Mary’s place is in every way subordinate to and dependent upon that of her son, who is the one mediator between God and humanity.

Like liturgical worship, devotional practices should foster a sense of responsibility to work for the common good and especially to care for the poor, it says.

Noting that some devotions are based on private revelations, such as visions or apparitions, the statement says, The church distinguishes between public revelation, which God has given to the church as a whole and to which all the faithful are bound, and private revelations, which God has given to a particular individual or group and which place no obligation on the rest of the church.

It says the church judges private revelations and any devotions arising from them by their conformity with public revelation and that the bishop has a particular responsibility in his diocese to foster sound popular devotions and monitor their appropriateness.

In its four-page appendix on indulgences, the statement says that although forgiveness of sin and the guilt due to it is given through the sacraments of baptism and penance, this does not remove the temporal punishment for sin that can be expiated in this life or in purgatory.

Through an indulgence, God grants the prayer of the church that the temporal penalty for sin due to someone be reducedor possibly eliminated, it says. By God’s grace, participation in a prayer or action that has an indulgence attached to it brings about the necessary restoration and reparation without the suffering that would normally accompany it. The statement notes that the conditions for reception of a plenary indulgence include sacramental confession, reception of Communion, praying for the intention of the pope and complete detachment from all sin, even venial sin.

Bishops Back Document on Agriculture, Food, Farmworkers

The U.S. bishops on Nov. 12 unanimously approved For I Was Hungry and You Gave Me Food: Catholic Reflections on Food, Farmers and Farmworkers, its first new document on agriculture in 14 years. For I Was Hungry examines agricultural issues, from genetically modified crops to crop subsidies and market forces affecting rural life both in the United States and in the nation’s trading partners.

Bishop Ronald M. Gilmore of Dodge City, Kan., chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Agriculture Issues, said, Men and women are impaled on the jagged edges of this [agricultural] system. He added, There is imbalance in it [the system]. There is inequity in it. It cries out for an adjustment. To continue the system as it is will probably hurt them [rural families] more, Bishop Gilmore said, yet to try to change the system will probably hurt them as well.

For I Was Hungry observes that the increasing concentration and growing globalization of agriculture are having the effect of pushing some ahead and leaving others behind. They are also pushing us toward a nation and world where the powerful can take advantage of the weak, where large institutions and corporations can overwhelm smaller structures, and where the production, marketing and distribution of food and the protection of land lie in fewer hands, it says.

Food aid, according to For I Was Hungry, should not be a means for developed nations to dispose of surplus commodities, create new markets for agricultural products, displace local food production or distort world food prices.

In its most controversial section, the statement also sides with the third world in the debate over farm subsidies that led to the breakdown of trade negotiations at the World Trade Organization. Current U.S. and European subsidies, supports, tariffs, quotas, and other barriers that undermine market access for poorer countries should be substantially reduced, it said. For I Was Hungry acknowledges that this will not be easy. It must take into account the time needed for farmers and farmworkers in developed countries to adjust.... It proposes beginning by targeting subsidies to small and moderate-size farms and eliminating them for large, corporate farms. Two-thirds of the subsidies go to 10 percent of the farms, reports Bishop Gilmore.

The statement also calls for keeping a watchful eye over the use of genetically modified crops and increasing the pay of farmworkers, most of whom are immigrants.

Bishops Approve Document on Same-Sex Unions

A same-sex union contradicts the nature of marriage, said the bishops in their statement Between Man and Woman, approved at their fall meeting on Nov. 12. Because a marriage and a same-sex union are essentially different realities, it is not unjust to treat them differently. In fact, justice requires society to do so. The document urges Catholics to oppose the legalization of gay marriages or of making domestic partnerships and marriage equal under the law.

On the other hand, it supports the provision of health care and other basic benefits to everyone. This is not a consequence of one’s marital status. It follows, rather, from the right to what is necessary to life. It noted that some benefits currently sought by persons in homosexual unions can already be obtained without regard to marital status. For example, people can agree to own property jointly with another, and can generally designate anyone they choose to be a beneficiary of their will or to make health care decisions in case they become incompetent.

Bishops to Develop Guidelines on Relations With Politicians

The U.S. bishops have begun work on a set of guidelines for themselves on how to handle relationships with Catholics whose actions in public life are not in accord with church teaching. The goal for the guidelines is to help bishops make distinctions between respect for the office and approval of the distinguish between fundamental moral principles and prudential judgments on the application of those principles, between essential substance and tactics, said Bishop John H. Ricard of Pensacola-Tallahassee, Fla., chairman of a new task force charged with addressing the issue.

He explained on Nov. 10, during the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ fall general meeting, that the task force was created after a vote in September of the bishops’ Administrative Committee, at the request of Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick of Washington, D.C., in response to a new Vatican document on Catholics in political life issued earlier this year. The task force is composed of the chairmen of seven major committees of the U.S.C.C.B.

Bishop Ricard said the bishops face a serious pastoral challenge for many reasons. Some Catholic politicians defy church teaching in their policy advocacy and legislative votes, first and most fundamentally, on the defense of unborn life, but also on the use of the death penalty, questions of war and peace, the role of marriage and family, the rights of parents to choose the best education for their children, the priority for the poor and welcome for immigrants, he said. Some Catholic legislators choose their party over their faith, their ideology over Catholic teaching, the demands of their contributors over the search for the common good, Bishop Ricard continued.

Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Neb., suggested that resolving the problem is simply a matter of bishops’ being firm with Catholic politicians whose public actions do not reflect church teaching. Our job as bishops is to say the truth without any obfuscation, said Bishop Bruskewitz. Cardinal McCarrick pointed out that it is impractical to expect church leaders to cut off all contact with every politician or judge who disagrees with the church on some issues. But he acknowledged that it confuses many Catholics when the church condemns certain actions by elected officials, then works closely with those same politicians on other issues.

News Briefs

Justice Anne Burke, interim chair of the National Review Board monitoring diocesan compliance with the bishops’ program to protect children and respond to clergy sexual abuse, told the bishops that the board plans to release two major studies on Feb. 27. They are the national study on the extent of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy since 1950, by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and the board’s consensus report on interviews with bishops, priest-abusers, victims and a wide array of professionals regarding the causes and context of the abuse crisis, she said.

Pope John Paul II condemned a car-bomb attack on an Italian military post in southern Iraq and offered his condolences to the families of the dead. At least 17 Italian military personnel and nine Iraqi civilians were reported dead after the attack on the headquarters of the Italian military police in An Nasiriyah.

The U.S. bishops’ Committee on Catechesis has begun work on four projects to benefit the American church, said its chairman, Archbishop Daniel M. Buechlein of Indianapolis. Areas to be covered in the committee’s work are education in human sexuality, the education and formation of catechists and catechetical leadership, the development of doctrinal guidelines for high school-level catechetical instruction and a project to outline key doctrinal elements in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Archbishop Alfred C. Hughes of New Orleans said the ad hoc committee had reviewed 25 high school catechetical texts since mid-2001 and found most of them lacking in key doctrinal areas.

Despite previous indications that the clergy sexual abuse scandal was causing a drop in church contributions by Catholics, a new report says U.S. Catholics actually contributed more to their parishes in 2002 than in 2001. The report said contributions to diocesan appeals nationwide declined slightly, however. The report was issued by Joseph C. Harris, a Seattle-based researcher who analyzed nationwide data compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in Washington.

In response to accusations of a secret meeting, the text of 10 presentations and a summary of the discussions were released from the July 7 meeting at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center sponsored by Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life. Also released were 15 suggestions for consideration compiled from the results of a questionnaire sent to each participant after the meeting, which discussed the sexual abuse crisis. Some conservative Catholics attacked the meeting, which included Catholic C.E.O.’s and some bishops, for allegedly excluding conservatives from the conversation. The texts were released on Nov. 13 along with a poll of Catholic elites and the Catholic public on the sexual abuse crisis by Zogby International. The recommendations included encouragement of lay participation in church decision making, greater transparency in church finances and improved personnel policies.

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