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Online Edition - Vol. IV, No. 9: February 1999

Bishops Mull Restructuring
Part II of II - Conclusion

Following is the conclusion of AB 's coverage of the November 1998 meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. The first part , which appeared in the December 1998/January 1999 issue, reported on controversies over moving the celebration of the Ascension from Ascension Thursday to the following Sunday, and over the proper age at which the Sacrament of Confirmation is to be administered.

NCCB November Meeting Report

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

The pope's recent document Apostolos Suos , addressing the place of bishops' conferences in the life of the Church and the authority of their various documents, was barely mentioned during last November's semi-annual meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops [NCCB]. But a pervasive awareness of its principles seemed to undergird more than one discussion, especially those concerned with restructuring the conference.

The Ad Hoc Committee on Statutes and By-Laws, established last year to continue the work of the late Cardinal Bernardin's "Mission and Structure" committee, oversaw the discussions. Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk of Cincinnati heads this ad hoc committee, as well as the Committee on Doctrine. Other members are former Conference presidents Cardinal William Keeler (Baltimore), Archbishop John Roach (Saint Paul-Minneapolis 1975-95), Archbishop Thomas Kelly (Louisville), former General Secretary Bishop Robert Lynch (Saint Petersburg), and Bishop Michael Cote (auxiliary of Portland, Maine).

In the final hours of their meeting, on Thursday, November 19, 1998, during the continued discussion of the proposed restructuring plan, the bishops focused on the different categories of conference statements and how they are produced and issued. Several bishops acknowledged that the laity are often confused by the torrent of documents released by the NCCB some as statements of the entire conference, some by conference committees approved only by the Administrative Committee without the vote of the full body of bishops (such as "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship" [1978], "Always Our Children" [1997], and "From Words to Deeds" -- another "women's pastoral plan", released October 13).

In the discussion, Cardinal Francis George singled out in particular EACW (he called it the "Art and Environment" document), which has been used to justify changes in the design and renovation of churches, including the rearrangement of sanctuaries, the placement of tabernacles, and the removal of communion rails, kneelers and statues. EACW was the work of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy and was approved by the Administrative Committee in 1978, but never discussed or voted upon by the full body of bishops. A revision of EACW is being hashed out in closed committee meetings that were originally to be completed by November 1998, but which continue. The rewrite is scheduled to appear this year. Meanwhile, a new printing of the original version of the controversial statement was recently issued by the NCCB/USCC.

Truth in Labeling?

The exchange over conference and committee statements began when Cincinnati Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk, chairman of the "restructuring" subcommittee, responded to a suggestion that episcopal documents be labeled more clearly concerning their relative level of authority: "Perhaps there should be a series of brief paragraphs prepared which would go inside the front cover in addition to the General Secretary's paragraph saying, for example, 'This is a committee statement. This means that it [represents] the views of the committee members and not those of the Administrative Committee or the NCCB'".

Archbishop Justin Rigali replied that "The question here is, 'Do members of the NCCB approve in principle the current procedure of issuing conference statements?'. So you're using the phrase 'conference statements' to include statements of committees?"

Archbishop Pilarczyk: "That's correct."

Archbishop Rigali: "I think that is one of the sources of the difficulty that we have. I think it would be good to add 'conference statements and statements of the committees' to make a clear distinction between the two."

Bishop David Foley (Birmingham): "Mine was a similar question and might be clarified ... the committee statements are being interpreted on the street as conference statements, and I was wondering about calling it a committee forum..."

Bishop Donald Trautman, Erie, former BCL chairman, said, "I think there's need for some guidance to help us discern what should be a conference statement as opposed to a committee statement...."

EACW: "a status beyond all comprehension"

Cardinal Francis George agreed. "I second very much what Bishop Don Trautman just said. We may talk sometimes, sarcastically, about 'creeping infallibility' [in] all these statements that come out from the Holy See. And to some extent that is what we're faced with [in the bishops' conference] which wouldn't necessarily be bad. Because some of the lesser statements ... of the committees are very well done.

"The problem is, when you've got a very few statements and I think in particular of the 'Art and Environment' document that has just been elevated to a status beyond all comprehension. People who dismiss 'Art and Environment'. And I'm given that when I ask, 'Why don't you just, please, enlarge the clothes closet in which you've put the Blessed Sacrament?' I'm, you know, pumped with the 'Art and Environment' document. And so it's a source of great difficulty, and some resentment, frankly, on my part."

The EACW statement had also been the subject of a question earlier at this meeting, when Bishop William Wiegand of Sacramento had noted on Wednesday that in the printed committee report, no timeline was listed for the appearance of the new guidelines to replace it. He pointed out that "a year ago the hope had been to bring a document to the assembly of bishops at this meeting."

"I can appreciate the consternation", said Bishop Frank Rodimer of Paterson, chairman of the drafting committee. One problem, he said, is getting the drafting committee together. "We have been able to set a date. We have a document a draft". He said that the drafting committee had been expanded to include two other bishops, and that they intend to meet in February 1999. "We will have a draft for the Administrative Board in March", he said. "We hope to have a document prior to the November meeting for examination and comments".

Sources close to the committee have indicated that there is serious disagreement among the drafters of the new statement, and suggest that this is the main reason for the delay. The initiative to redo EACW came from a resolution of the Federation of Diocesan Liturgical Commissions (FDLC) two years ago, after the authority and theology of the statement had been publicly challenged by the Adoremus Bulletin and others. The FDLC resolution implied that they wanted to issue a new statement which would have the authority of the full conference; but the FDLC also made it clear that they expected a new statement merely to strengthen the principles of the twenty-year-old statement, not to change them in any substantial way.

Cardinal George had also emphasized serious problems with EACW in his address, "Liturgy, Culture and Language", to the Society for Catholic Liturgy at the Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago in September.

In that address, the cardinal said that some liturgists "have conducted war against devotion" and that "mistakes surfaced in the Environment and Art [in Catholic Worship] letter". "Environment and Art, in essence, relegated the Eucharist to a closet", he said, but indicated that he believed the new guidelines will change that.

A Moratorium on Statements?

As Cardinal George's remarks on statements of Conference committees suggest, it's not only the laity who are impatient with layers of bureaucracy and endless streams of documents.

Perhaps even more surprising than Cardinal George's qualms about EACW was Archbishop William Levada's suggestion that maybe committees should not produce these statements: "...I wonder if we shouldn't also at least raise a question and examine whether it is appropriate for committees to be issuing statements at all. I think the work of a committee is to prepare work for the general body to discuss and work out its policy and things in general like this, or to help us by knowing a resource for the implementation of a policy decided in a statement, or to ... give us a report simply.... We find statements, general policy statements, statements of recommendation of bishops to do this, dioceses to do that, parishes to do the other, which never come before us. And therefore, they come back to us as a certain commitment that the conference has made and we have no opportunity to comment on it."

Bishop William Lori, auxiliary of Washington, DC, agreed. He echoed Archbishop Rigali's view that there should be a distinction between statements made by the whole body of bishops and by a committee, and said that "anything that suggests action in all the dioceses we represent should have the discussion of the whole body."

Bishop Thomas Doran, Rockford, agreed with all these reservations. "We are all bound to defend these statements even when we have had no voice in them", he said, and suggested considering whether committee statements should continue to be produced as they are.

Archbishop Rembert Weakland, Milwaukee, commented, "I remember years ago that no new document or statement that the whole body was going to approve was even started without the approval of the body. Remember that? Have you forgotten that? Is that still a part of the rule or isn't it?"

Bishop Lynch remarked that it had been agreed that no statements related to the priesthood should be issued unless they come before the full body, and that certain topics "by their very nature" should come before the whole body.

A Vote for Change

Responding to these comments, Archbishop Pilarczyk asked if the bishops would like to change the current procedures for producing statements, something "more specific and refined", and called for a voice vote

The bishops voted "yes", with no dissenting voices.

This exchange gives a glimpse of an episcopate, at least part of which is at times befuddled by its own staff and unsure of how to negotiate the labyrinth of its own bureaucracy. Many bishops besides Archbishop Weakland may not be fully aware that when they approve the "Priorities and Plans" of the NCCB committees at each meeting, they signal their prior approval of any committee's plans to produce documents.

At a press conference, AB editor noted the Conference practice of en bloc approval of committees' plans, and observed that the bishops actually give prior approval for production of statements, often without being aware of it. Bishop Emil Wcela, speaking for the sub-committee on Pastoral Practices, confirmed that this is standard Conference procedure.

An example: two years ago, when the bishops routinely voted to approve the Priorities and Plans, they tacitly approved their Committee on Women's proposal to write the "pastoral plan", From Words To Deeds and earmarked more than $30,000 to fund the project. Released last October as a committee statement, it promotes preferential hiring of women for all Church jobs not requiring Holy Orders.

The need for this latest "women's pastoral" is not clear, since women are arguably over-represented in paid, full-time parish and diocesan work. According to Bill Daly, of the National Association of Church Personnel (NACPA), in 1995, 42% of all such jobs were held by women. The NACPA figures, based on a survey of 100 dioceses, included data only for full-time employment, and did not include figures for non-ordained men holding such jobs.

How many bishops truly support this "pastoral plan"? Like Always Our Children, a 1997 statement of the Committee on Marriage and Family to parents of homosexuals which the Holy See later required to be revised, From Words to Deeds was not presented to the assembly of bishops for debate and vote.

At present, as Jesuit pundit Thomas Reese drily observed after the release of the controversial Always Our Children, few people know or care whether a statement carries the full weight of the bishops' conference, or is simply the opinion of a small number of members and staffers. But these statements provide the basis for initiating new programs at the local level, often designed and promoted by the same bureaucrats that produced them.

Cardinal George's extraordinary expression of frustration with committee statements, which undermine his authority within his own diocese, underscores the bishops' problem of how to control bureaucracies that almost inevitably become self-perpetuating and too easily become self-serving.

Given that not a few documents released in the bishops' name become controversial upon release, even leading to public controversy within their ranks and in at least one recent case have required Vatican intervention to correct serious defects the procedures for creating and approving these statements should surely allow for closer oversight by the bishops.

Although the American bishops' discussion of these issues reveals their increasing concern about the authority and integrity of statements issued by the conference and its committees, as well as the uses to which these statements are put in the local Church, it remains to be seen whether they can achieve real and necessary change.

Helen Hull Hitchcock and Susan Benofy attended the November 1998 bishops' meeting. This story was compiled from their notes and tapes.

***

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