Thursday, November 18, 2004

The nation’s Catholic bishops voted overwhelmingly yesterday to begin a pastoral initiative on marriage, saying deficiencies in the church’s public witness on the subject plus the national debate on same-sex “marriage” compels them to act.

The initiative will include a pastoral letter that will specifically address for the first time the necessity of marriage and its importance in Catholic theology. The bishops also will fund more church anti-divorce programs and will convene fact-finding groups with married couples.

“The debate about ‘same-sex marriage’ has demonstrated that most Americans understand and support marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman,” said Bishop J. Kevin Boland of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo. “However, many struggle to connect this ideal with what they encounter in life. What can we offer them?”

In other business, the approximately 250 bishops gathered at the Capitol Hyatt for the annual business meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB):

• Agreed to fund a sexual abuse database.

• Received a final report on pro-choice Catholic politicians that praised the public discussion as refining the Church teachings on receiving Communion.

• Voted for the first time to join an ecumenical group with some liberal-leaning evangelical Protestants.

Miami Auxiliary Bishop Felipe de Jesus Estevez labeled the marriage initiative, which was approved on a 195-20 vote, as a chance to aid in the “evangelization of the U.S. culture” to counter such groups as Planned Parenthood, he said.

Bishop Boland cited a series of statistics on falling marriage rates, both in general and within the Catholic Church, and the rising number of divorces, annulments and couples living together outside marriage.

The letter “will deliver a needed, positive pro-marriage message,” according to a bishops’ statement, “one that is oriented more toward affirming and strengthening marriage than toward countering certain threats.”

Besides the letter, the marriage initiative also emphasizes church teaching on the sacrament of marriage, including gathering information from married couples — whom Bishop Boland called “the ministers of the sacrament of marriage.”

The pastoral letter, which is budgeted at $85,182, will be researched, written and presented to the USCCB during 2005 and 2006, then disseminated to Catholics in 2007.

During a hearing, Bishop Victor Galeone of St. Augustine, Fla., wondered if it was “too little and too late.”

Citing a letter from the Family Research Council, he said that “already gay activists are figuring out how to do an end run around the 11 states that passed same-sex marriage bans and how to get their agenda in action.”

“I think we should invest our energies into mobilizing our people on the most pressing issue, the passing of a constitutional amendment on marriage being between one man and one woman,” Bishop Galeone said.

No action was taken on his suggestion.

The bishops also authorized on a 137-85 vote a database that will track new sexual abuse cases in the Catholic Church, including the number of victims, the number of accused perpetrators and the money paid out in lawsuits.

The database, a response to the sexual abuse crisis involving more than 4,000 Catholic priests first publicized in early 2002, will be compiled by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Costing $39,000 a year, it will be paid for by an anonymous donor.

Bishop Blase Cupich of Rapid City, S.D., a member of the bishops’ ad hoc committee on sexual abuse, said the conference wanted to issue its own compilation of statistics to the media and Catholic laity instead of relying on information given out piecemeal by individual dioceses.

Archbishop Harry Flynn of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, also a member of the ad hoc committee, lamented that the USCCB lacked the resources for a database of past sex offenders among priests, deacons and church personnel, including persons dismissed or rejected from church employment or lists of priests and deacons moved from diocese to diocese.

“For a nongovernmental agency to establish such a database is daunting,” he said.

A few bishops objected to the data collection, including retired New Orleans Archbishop Philip Hannan, who said continued publicity on the sexual abuse crisis “causes a real problem with the morale of our priests and our people.”

But Bishop John F. Kinney of St. Cloud, Minn., disagreed, saying the continued collection and publicizing of data was “very important in this crisis.”

He added, “The appearance of transparency is important so that people in this country realize how we are addressing this issue.”

The database is a continuation of extensive research done by New York-based John Jay College on priestly sexual abuse, which was first publicized earlier this year. It will track new cases brought before diocesan review boards established in 2002 to conform with new church rules on sexual abuse charges.

The charter set out a list of guidelines as to what dioceses must do to track sexual abuse cases and a national review board of Catholic laity is completing a second round of audits on how well dioceses have followed its instructions. Results of the 2004 audit will be presented in February.

In a written statement to the gathered bishops, Washington Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick issued a final report on a task force he heads on how bishops should handle pro-choice Catholic politicians. The report does not suggest any new guidelines or make any new insights on whether dissenting politicians should take Communion.

Instead, the cardinal promised to produce a “Reader on Catholics in Public Life” for bishops on what the responsibilities of Catholic politicians should be in the future.

In June, bishops approved a statement giving individual bishops leeway on whether to deny Communion to politicians, such as Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who dissent from church teaching on abortion, embryonic stem-cell research, euthanasia and other “life” issues.

About two dozen bishops either said Mr. Kerry and like-minded politicians were not welcome at church altars or put out statements suggesting pro-choice politicians refrain from Communion.

“The media or partisan forces sometimes tried to pit one bishop against another,” Cardinal McCarrick said. Bishops were “unfairly attacked as partisan” or “called cowards,” he added.

“Some have been accused of being ‘single issue,’ indifferent to the poor or unconcerned about the war. 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 bishops also voted to join Christian Churches Together in the U.S.A., an ecumenical alliance that would be the broadest Christian group ever formed in the United States, even including the current National Council of Churches.

While the group, scheduled to start in 2005, also includes mainline Protestants, Orthodox Christians, and black and other minority churches, it marks the first formal Catholic cooperation with many American evangelical churches. However, such conservative Protestant groups as the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptist Convention are not involved.

With more than 60 million members in the United States, the Catholic Church would be the alliance’s largest denomination by far.

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