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Voices Online Edition
Winter 1997-Spring 1998
Volume XIII, No. 1-2
Liturgy, Pro-Life Statement, Holy Days, Friday abstinence
Following is a report on the Fall 1997 meeting of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops [NCCB], held in Washington, DC last November 10-13. As we went to press with this issue of Voices, the bishops' 1998, Spring meeting was in progress in Pittsburgh (June 18-20). Press representatives at the June meeting include Susan Benofy and Helen Hull Hitchcock, who also prepared this report.
Several items on the agenda for the bishops' November 1997 meeting related to liturgy, but for the first time in several years none of these items concerned the translation of the Roman Missal (Sacramentary and Lectionary) into English. (The revision of the Sacramentary, or prayers used for Mass, finally approved by a majority of the bishops last year, is, at the time of this writing, still awaiting the necessary approval of the Apostolic See before it can be used in the liturgy.)
At the November meeting a scheduled discussion and vote on the revised translation of Volume II of the proposed Lectionary (scripture readings for Mass) was removed at the request of the Liturgy Committee. The vote on Volume II was rescheduled for the June 1998 meeting, where it is expected to be approved. (Volume I of the Lectionary had been revised after a consultation between a committee of US bishops and Vatican officials held in Rome in March 1997.)
A Spanish translation of the Sacramentary was approved, however, and there was a discussion of the celebration of the Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord. The agenda also included an item concerning lay ministry (see related story), a pro-life statement and a proposal to re-institute the practice of Friday abstinence.
Roe vs. Wade 25th anniversary statement
Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, Chairman of the Bishops' Committee on Pro-Life Activities introduced the statement Light and Shadows: Our Nation 25 Years After Roe vs. Wade, which was later passed by a unanimous voice vote.
This short statement notes that in the 25 years since the Roe vs. Wade decision more than 35 million children have been killed "and reasons used to justify abortion are now extended to excuse infanticide." The decision has led to a "deadly blindness" to the right of innocent lives to be protected. It praises those in the pro-life movement as "bearers of our nation's most noble aspirations", and notes that the current debate over partial birth abortion has focused attention on the plight of the child in the womb. It calls on Catholics to defend life and especially addresses Catholic families:
Catholic families should be living symbols of our conviction that life is always, always a gift from God. Teach your children to respect human life from conception to natural death. Pray as a family for an end to this evil that destroys the weakest of the weak, the poorest of the poor.
Cardinal Law also introduced another initiative of the Pro-Life Committee, a proposal to study the possibility of reinstituting the practice of abstinence from meat on Fridays as a penitential practice particularly aimed at overcoming the culture of death.
Cardinal Law explained that most pro-life activity is aimed at changing public policy. But he noted that "as we face the growing challenges of a culture of death more and more the words of Jesus echo in our hearts: 'This kind can be cast out only by prayer and fasting.'" Moreover, the sense of Fridays as penitential days has been lost. Thus the committee proposed a study the practice of abstinence in order to gain a better understanding of the appropriateness of observing Fridays as penitential days, and the special appropriateness in our day of linking this observance to the overcoming of a culture of death.
Friday abstinence to overcome "culture of death"
In the discussion that followed, most bishops seemed to support the proposal of observing Fridays as penitential days. Cardinal Adam Maida of Detroit recounted the "overwhelming" positive reaction he had encountered when a secular Detroit paper reported on the proposal. However, some thought it should not be linked to anything specific like the culture of death. Others supported a link, but wished to make what they saw as a more positive application: establishing the culture of life. On the specific question of abstinence as some seemed wary of naming any specific practice, while others thought that abstinence alone would not necessarily be penitential and that fasting should be the preferred practice.
Bishop Sean O'Malley of Fall River feared that urging simply an unspecified penitential practice would be too vague, and fasting might be too difficult for many. He favored abstinence precisely because it was not too difficult. This made it something everyone could do and "if we're all doing the same thing I think it could be a wonderful act of testimony and witness."
A strong argument for linking the penitential practice to the effort to overcome the "culture of death" was made by Bishop Allen Vigneron, an auxiliary bishop of Detroit.
Bishop Vigneron pointed out that penance was about repentance and also atonement for sin. He said "we do need to do penance for ourselves, insofar as we are all by our sinfulness implicated in this tremendous evil."
In addition, he said, to do penance for others is "a very important act of a priestly people." He noted the particular problem in Detroit of Dr. Kevorkian:
I feel that for myself, one of my great obligations is to do penance on his behalf. And, perhaps, by that penance merit for him a grace of repentance. So I would like the committee, please, to consider exactly that part of this is a form of atonement, a form of penitence for the sins of our age.
The proposal to study Friday abstinence was passed by a unanimous voice vote.
Bishop Anthony Pilla of Cleveland, President of the NCCB will appoint a committee to report to the Conference on the study later this year.
Transfer of the celebration of the Ascension
Another discussion of changing a practice of Catholics also took place at the meeting. In this case, though, it was a proposal to eliminate, rather than restore, a distinctive practice. It was proposed that the celebration of the feast of the Ascension of Our Lord be transferred from the traditional "Ascension Thursday" to the seventh Sunday of Easter throughout the US. Although the original agenda listed this as an item to be voted on, the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy requested that it be changed to a discussion item only. So, though the proposal was discussed, no vote on implementing it was taken, and no change will be made, for now at least, in the celebration of this feast.
The Ascension is currently celebrated on the seventh Sunday of Easter in Los Angeles and several other West Coast dioceses, which were given an indult for this practice on December 4, 1993 by the Holy See. The indult was originally requested by the West Coast dioceses in 1992 after a proposal to move this feast throughout the US failed to receive the required 2/3 favorable vote in November 1991.
The request for transfer of the Ascension was justified partly on the grounds that more people would be able to celebrate the feast on a Sunday than on a Thursday. A different argument had been used to justify the removal of the obligation to attend Mass on some other Holy Days if they fall on a Monday or Saturday. The Feast of the Ascension never falls on either Saturday or Sunday.
The permission (indult) for transfer in West Coast dioceses was granted for a five-year experimental period. Since that time other bishops have requested a similar transfer for their dioceses.
None of these has been granted. The Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments specified that any other indult would have to "be presented according to the normal procedure, which presupposes a decision on the part of the episcopal conference on this matter."
Thus the bishops who want to transfer the Ascension to Sunday asked the conference to take up the matter.
Cardinal Mahony supported the idea. He wrote letters to Archbishop Hanus that respondents to a survey in the West Coast dioceses were "almost totally unanimous" in approving of the decision to transfer the feast. Cardinal Mahony said that he "would now find it impossible for us to consider reversing that decision."
Objections to transferring the holy day
Some bishops who favor transferring the Ascension cited in support of their request #23 of the Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, which says that "notable differences between the rites used in different regions should be avoided."
This may have prompted Cardinal James Hickey of Washington, DC, to say he found it "passing strange" that this question of uniformity was not thought important when the original West Coast indult was proposed, though some bishops had concerns at the time.
"But now to turn around and say that the whole nation should follow what some present 13% of the country is doing there's something wrong there", Cardinal Hickey said. He said he "strongly opposed" the motion.
Other bishops pointed out that a transfer would add to the confusion already introduced into the observance of Holy Days.
Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia pointed out that an indult is granted for specific reasons, and those cited by the West Coast dioceses do not exist everywhere in the country. He suggested that if the celebration were transferred to Sunday for the whole US, he might ask for an indult to restore it to Thursday in Philadelphia.
Several bishops thought that the matter involved not just the celebration of a single feast, but with the idea of sacred time. Bishop Alfred Hughes of Baton Rouge noted that a similar concept is present even in the celebration of secular holidays, and he alluded to the controversy that arose when several federal holidays were moved from their traditional dates to Monday to produce long week-ends.
It's rather interesting that we are debating this on Armistice Day. The veterans have insisted that the actual day be observed in order that the significance of what Armistice Day means be recognized by the people. And it seems to me that there is something important about preserving certain sacred days. We've already eroded that by the steps that we've taken with regard to Saturday and Monday observance of some of our holy days. But I would not like to see us take a further step away. This is an area wherein we're called upon to evangelize the culture, rather than letting the culture evangelize us in a secular way.
Bishop Raymond Burke of La Crosse agreed with this, saying that with modern transportation and evening Masses people could attend Holy Day Masses more easily than ever before, yet attendance has decreased. On the other hand, young people are joining more demanding religions. To move the celebration of the feast would be moving in the wrong direction, he said.
No vote was taken on the matter at this meeting .
Archbishop Jerome Hanus of Dubuque, Chairman of the Bishops' Committee on the Liturgy said his committee would discuss the matter at their March 1998 meeting. No date was set for further discussion or vote by the full body of bishops.
"Always Our Children":
Questions about process and content
One unexpected item on the agenda was entitled "Report on the May 2 letter from the Congregation for Catholic Education."
This was an account by NCCB president Bishop Pilla of his receipt of a letter, which he had not communicated to other bishops from Archbishop Pio Laghi, prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Education. The letter concerned sex education problems, and was addressed to the presidents of several bishops' conferences with a request that its contents be communicated to bishops. Bishop Pilla told the assembly that he had not divulged the contents of Cardinal Laghi's letter at that time because of his concern for its proper interpretation. (See story on Vatican letter.)
The reluctance to convey the contents of a letter to all the bishops contrasts markedly with the procedures for Always Our Children, a "pastoral reflection" addressed to parents of homosexuals, produced by the bishops' Committee on Marriage and Family.
The document was not presented to the body of bishops for their discussion and vote, but had been approved earlier by the NCCB Administrative Committee. It had been released to the press several weeks before the November meeting and was available on the NCCB web site only days after most of the bishops were first made aware of its existence.
As it had already been released in the name of the bishops, Always Our Children was not on the agenda for the meeting. Nevertheless, some questions were raised about the contents of the letter, and about the procedure used to approve it.
When a reporter directed a question about it to Cardinal Law, an official ruled the question out of order since it did not deal with a topic discussed at the previous session. The Cardinal, who was not on the committee that produced Always Our Children, originally declined to answer, but later responded to the question. The reporter asked about objections that had been made to the document's contents. Cardinal Law answered:
Yes, of course, I'm aware that there have been negative comments made about the statement of that committee of bishops. And I also have great respect for many of the persons whose [critical] comments I have received, and so I would necessarily take what they have to say very seriously.
The cardinal said that the intent was an attempt to deal pastorally with Catholic parents of homosexuals. On his initial reading he believed the document to be doctrinally sound.
Now, having read some of the criticisms, I would want to go over the statement rather carefully again, and were it possible for that statement to be rewritten, there may be a place here or there where I would like to see it written in such a way that it would not be [open to] misunderstanding.... I think that the style perhaps not the style so much, but, perhaps, the wording could have been a little bit more accurate to avoid the possibility of misunderstanding.
Shortly before the meeting ended, the issue of Always Our Children was raised again. During a time for committees to give reports on their recent work and answer questions on it, Bishop Thomas O'Brien of Phoenix, chairman of the Committee on Marriage and Family, which produced this document, asked to speak about it. He called it a "pastoral message recently released by the Committee on Marriage and Family" and continued:
The committee is eager to ensure that the message is accurately understood. The document must be read in full. This pastoral message remains loyal to the magisterial teaching of the Church; it recognizes the complexity of homosexuality and the dignity of each person. It focuses on parents and families trying to cope with the discovery of homosexuality in their adolescent or adult child.
Bishop O'Brien said that the committee had previously issued statements that had dealt with "other sensitive family issues":
While we have received a good deal of positive comment on Always Our Children , other reactions indicate a diversity of opinion about various aspects of the complex topic of homosexuality and its pastoral implications. At least one dimension of this topic has already been studied by the committee, and has been the subject of a statement and a resource paper sent out to all the bishops. I'm referring to the issue of same-sex unions. Additional dimensions of the topic of homosexuality may be explored at the discretion of the conference in the future.
At the end of Bishop O'Brien's statement, Bishop Bruskewitz asked: "Just a brief question. I'm sure I know the answer, but this is a statement of the Marriage and Family Committee and not a statement of the NCCB is that correct?"
"That is correct", said Bishop O'Brien, "This is a statement of the Marriage and Family Committee."
Bishop Bruskewitz's essay critical of Always Our Children, published this spring in the Social Justice Review, is reprinted in this issue of Voices with the bishop's permission and can be read here.
WFF's response to Always Our Children, which was sent to all bishops October 10, 1997, was published in the November 1997 issue of Voices. The statement can be read here.
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