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Spotlight Report

Amid scandal, bishops propose rare council

By Sacha Pfeiffer, Globe Staff, 8/3/2002

Saying that the Catholic Church must focus on addressing the ''root causes'' of clergy sexual abuse now that it has approved a national policy for protecting children from predatory priests, eight American bishops have proposed a rare, massive gathering of church leaders and lay people - the first in more than a century - to reaffirm traditional Catholic teachings on celibacy, sexual morality, and the authority of bishops.

The plenary council proposed by the eight bishops, who have not been publicly identified, would bring together the nation's nearly 400 bishops, as well as all vicars general, Episcopal vicars, major superiors of religious orders, rectors of ecclesiastical and Catholic universities, deans of theology and canon law faculties, seminary rectors, and lay people.

The number of people gathered could exceed 1,000, and the gathering could be on par with a Vatican Council, several theologians said yesterday.

If convened, it would be only the fourth plenary council ever held in this country, and the first since 1884, according to the Rev. John P. Beal, an associate professor of canon law at Catholic University, who described past councils as ''extremely significant.''

The gatherings require Vatican approval.

The proposal was made in a six-page letter sent to members of the American church hierarchy last month and obtained by Crisis magazine, a conservative Catholic monthly in Washington, D.C., which notified its 5,000 subscribers of the letter by e-mail.

In their letter, which is markedly conservative in tone, the eight bishops write that a plenary council could bring about a ''holier priesthood'' and ''purification'' of the church by reaffirming ''authentic'' church teachings on celibate chastity and ''matters of sexual morality in general.''

''What has happened to the life and ministry of bishops and priests that makes us vulnerable to the failings that have humiliated us all?'' the letter reads. ''What things need to be going on so that in this cultural milieu priests and bishops will preserve their celibate chastity along with the other virtues that constitute the life of holiness proper to pastors?''

The last plenary council was held in Baltimore in 1884, when the number of people gathered was probably no more than 100 due to the church's considerably smaller size at the time, according to Beal.

No council has been held since, due in part to an increased centralization of church authority that ''wasn't friendly to local initiatives,'' he said.

Beal also said a modern-day plenary council would be a ''logistical nightmare'' because of its sheer size.

At a plenary council, bishops have a ''deliberative'' vote, while others attending, including lay people, have only a ''consultative'' vote. But the gathering could provide an open forum for freewheeling debate over a wide range of issues, and could have the potential to dramatically affect church policy, several theologians said.

The letter acknowledges that the proposed plenary has drawbacks, including the possibility that it would be viewed as duplicating or discrediting the mission of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, which approved a national child-protection policy at its semiannual meeting in Dallas in June.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops' conference, played down the significance of the proposed plenary, calling it a procedural matter that amounts to a proposed agenda item for the group's November meeting in Washington, D.C.

The conference's 47-member administrative committee will vote on whether to place the plenary proposal on the agenda for that meeting, she said.

Dan Mahoney, a spokesman for Oklahoma Governor Frank Keating, who heads a national advisory board charged with overseeing the conference's newly established Office for Child and Youth Protection, said yesterday that Keating was out of the country and hadn't seen the letter.

But Mahoney said that if the bishops' proposal was ''in line with the theme of the bishops' conference charter, which is zero tolerance, transparency and criminal referral, the governor would be in support of it.''

Deal Hudson, the editor of Crisis magazine, said he had obtained a copy of the letter from one of the eight bishops who signed it, and publicized the letter to promote the proposal. He refused to identify the eight bishops, but said they ''represent a broad spectrum of what you might call the theological left and right of the church.''

The eight comprise four of the nation's 44 archbishops, three bishops who head dioceses, one auxiliary bishop, and no cardinals.

''This was not written by a group of disgruntled conservative bishops,'' added Hudson, who said the proposed plenary ''means that the bishops recognize that this is not the kind of discussion that can be dealt with in two weekend bishops' meetings a year. There's simply more work to be done that can be squeezed into these meetings.''

''This scandal provides a providential opportunity for the church to articulate and defend the unique character of its priesthood,'' Hudson added. ''And in a culture which doesn't believe in the possibilities of sexual fidelity, to uphold the norm of a celibate clergy is exactly the kind of witness the church ought to be offering.''

This story ran on page A9 of the Boston Globe on 8/3/2002.
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