A scandal-weary U.S. Catholic Church continues to battle the homosexual clergy crisis. Eight American bishops have called for a controversial and seldom-used plenary council to seek a unified means to reaffirm Catholic moral teachings.
A plenary council is the highest-level council possible for a national conference of bishops. No such council has been held in the United States since the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884.
In a confidential letter dated July 18, the eight bishops urged their colleagues to consider the council in order to attack the “root causes” of the scandal in the United States.
“There is no mystery, here,” said a Washington D.C.-area priest. “The ‘root causes’ are the bishops themselves. It is a failure of fidelity to the teachings of the Church. Our bishops have abandoned their role as shepherds in order to accommodate the popular culture.”
The letter specifies that a council is needed to answer painful questions: “What has happened to the life and ministry of bishops and priests that makes us vulnerable to the failings that have humiliated us all? What things need to be going on so that in this cultural milieu priests and bishops will preserve their celibate chastity along with all the other virtues that constitute the life of holiness proper to pastors? How can the purification upon which we shepherds have embarked help us, in turn, support our people in achieving greater holiness?”
The National Conference of Catholic Bishops gathers twice per year to discuss administrative concerns. The circulated letter requests that the proposal for a plenary council be brought before the entire body of bishops for a vote at their next scheduled meeting in November.
The publisher of the Catholic periodical Crisis magazine, Deal Hudson, broke the news of the surprising letter in an email to subscribers July 30. Hudson wrote, “Notice the absence of wishy-washy bishop speak. These men know there’s a problem, and they’re going to face it squarely.”
Conservative critics of the special June meeting of the U.S. bishops in Dallas insist that the prelates did not tackle the thorny issue of homosexuality. Rather, the focus was on pedophile priests, though 97 percent of the victims were teen boys, not children or girls.
Priests who spoke to WND on the condition of anonymity pointed to the 1961 Vatican directive that prohibited the ordination of homosexuals.
“If the U.S. bishops had been obedient to the pope’s directives we would have avoided this debilitating crisis,” said a 36-year-old Florida priest.
The bishops’ letter acknowledges that lapse. It lists key goals, among them the need to refocus the U.S. Church on Catholic moral teachings: “Solemnly receiving the authentic teaching of the Second Vatican Council … on the identity, life and ministry of bishops and priests; on matters of sexual morality in general … on celibate chastity as an authentic form of human sexuality renewed by grace and a share in Christ’s own spousal love for His Church.”
Liberal Catholics, however, propose a new power structure for the Catholic Church. The Boston area watchdog organization, Voice of the Faithful, attracted over 4000 people to its first conference in late July. Leaders urged participants to explore various measures that would change Catholic policies and open the administration of the Church to the laity.
Speakers at the Voice of the Faithful gathering included former priest, Thomas Groome. Groome and others at the Voice of the Faithful support the ordination of women, a policy counter to Catholic teaching. Catholic theology teaches that the priest is “like Christ” who is the “bridegroom” to the Church. The marital imagery between Christ and Church is inconsistent with women priests, according to Church doctrine.
Charlotte Allen, author of “The Human Christ” has doubts about the intent of lay groups with “not entirely desirable, agendas,” such as Voice of the Faithful. In a Wall Street Journal editorial Allen wrote “there are signs that Voice of the Faithful wants to transform itself into a large, well-financed interest group, agitating for a restructuring of the Catholic Church in the U.S.”
Part of the call for “restructuring” of the Church includes permitting Catholic priests to marry. The bishop’s letter calling for a plenary council, however, outlines a more stringent observance of celibacy “to foster the acts of virtue required of pastors and the means needed to achieve those virtues, especially celibate chastity (e.g., daily celebration of the Mass, frequent Confession, daily meditation, regular acts of asceticism, obedient submission to Church teaching and discipline, simplicity of life).”
That goal reflects the challenge given to the U.S. bishops in April by Pope John Paul II when he urged the bishops toward “purification of the entire Catholic community … a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier church.”
According to the letter, the proposed plenary council would assist priests in teaching the gospel “in regard to sexual morality, so that we can support the lay faithful in responding to their call to holiness.”
The authors of the letter calling for the plenary council are: Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse, Wis.; Daniel A. Cronin of Hartford, Conn.; Bishop Daniel N. DiNardo of Sioux City, Iowa; Archbishop James P. Keleher of Kansas City, Kan.; Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala.; Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Helena, Mont.; Auxiliary Bishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit; Archbishop John G. Vlazny of Portland, Ore.
The 1983 Code of Canon Law, the legal framework for the administration of the Catholic Church, sets out the terms for a plenary council: “A plenary council, that is, one for all the particular churches of the same conference of bishops, is to be celebrated whenever it seems necessary or useful to the conference of bishops, with the approval of the Apostolic See.”
It remains to be seen if Pope John Paul II would approve of the proposed council. Some observers caution that the council could be “hijacked” by those who will use the urgency of the crisis to attempt to reconfigure the Catholic Church as an “American church” operating independently of Rome.