Friday, April 13, 2007

The US Bishops: Comings... Goings... and Not Goings

At Tuesday's opening of the NCEA in Baltimore, the organizers made the unique decision of combining the Media Room with the Bishops' Lounge.

Suffice it to say, this made for some rather interesting moments... like when your narrator entered and, suddenly, there appeared before him the kindly archbishop of New York. And when, leaving for the day, I told a senior official of the Premier See that I'd be seeing him "soon."

"How soon?" he asked.

I could only reply, "You know not the day nor the hour."

...and neither do I... and, for now, neither does anyone else.

The subtext was the succession to Cardinal William Keeler, who turned 76 earlier this month and is expected to turn in the reins of US Catholicism's eldest diocese in the coming weeks. The same is in the offing in Detroit where, at 77, Cardinal Adam Maida is the Latin rite's second-oldest prince of the church still in office. (Prior background.)

Beyond these, eight superannuated Latin-rite diocesan bishops remain in place, and the count of US dioceses lacking permanent leadership now stands at seven following the early retirement of the "revered" Bishop Joseph Charron C.Pp.S of Des Moines, who has been suffering from a chronic inflammatory disorder. As an indicator of the docket's backlog, Charron, 67, submitted his resignation to Pope Benedict last August. It was accepted on Tuesday.

Freshly acquired from the Denver Post, the AP's newly-installed religion guru Eric Gorski takes a look at the appointment puzzle:
Two years into his reign, Pope Benedict XVI finally is poised to make a major mark on American Catholicism with a string of key bishop appointments and important decisions about the future of U.S. seminaries and bishops’ involvement in politics.

Benedict’s election on April 19, 2005, shook liberals and comforted conservatives who expected a doctrinal hard-liner. So far, they have found an easier hand – and someone who has not made the United States much of a priority....

Yet America’s turn might be coming. At the top of the list is a looming generational shift among the nation’s bishops, whose decisions at the local level greatly affect Catholics in the pews and can carry national weight. For instance, church leaders recently closed parishes in Boston and New York, while the St. Louis archbishop has clashed with a heavily Polish parish over control of its assets.

Key appointments are expected in New York, Baltimore and Detroit, where cardinals have reached retirement age – 75. And retirements or appointments are likely in at least seven other dioceses and archdioceses: Seattle; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Pittsburgh; New Orleans; Louisville, Ky.; Omaha, Neb.; and Mobile, Ala.

Then there is the potential ripple effect – if some bishops move to larger cities, then they too must be replaced.

“At the end of these two years, we will see what the enduring impact of this pontificate on the leadership of the U.S. church will be,” said George Weigel, a Catholic theologian and John Paul II biographer.

So far, Benedict has appointed former Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl to the prestigious Washington, D.C., archdiocese, and he chose former San Francisco Archbishop William Levada as his successor to head the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog. Levada is the highest-ranking American ever at the Vatican.

While faithful to Rome, neither man has a hard-line reputation. Wuerl, for instance, has refused to withhold Communion from Catholic legislators who support legal abortion. Levada has strongly affirmed traditional Catholic teachings while shepherding flocks in liberal cities – San Francisco and Portland – before that.

Benedict “has tended to appoint people who are moderate, who are good teachers, good communicators and pastoral,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University. “John Paul II was appointing people who frankly were kind of in-your face, who were more aggressive and liked playing cop.”

“These guys don’t want to do that. They’re more conciliators than fighters.”
Apparently, some in the secular press got a little carried away. Thinking that the cited appointments were to be made this morning, a media outlet in one vacant diocese dispatched a crew to the local chancery to cover an early-morning "announcement."

Meanwhile, in the Northwest, Bishop William Skylstad of Spokane -- the president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops -- has turned back a demand from four prominent donors for his resignation amid the diocese's bankruptcy and $48 million settlement.

The ultimatum to resign underscores fractures within the Catholic community about how best to handle the priest sex abuse crisis that persuaded the bishop to take the diocese into bankruptcy 2 1/2 years ago.

"We detect a backlash in the parishes, which we believe will only become more active when the complete details of the settlement are disclosed to the parishioners," they wrote in February, calling themselves The Committee Seeking the Resignation of the Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Spokane.

The bishop dismissed their demands in a three-page reply, calling the settlement – which would resolve 180 claims of sex abuse – a challenging yet necessary step to bring the church out of crisis.

"To put this settlement to the wind is a gamble no prudent man of business would consider," the bishop wrote in March, after pointing out that the diocese has secured $20 million from insurers as part of the deal.

The four men are business leaders and wealthy Catholic donors. They want the bishop replaced by someone who would review the settlement and put the deal to an up-or-down vote of parishioners....

The resignation demand surprised Shaun Cross, who is the diocese's bankruptcy lawyer.

"I'm not Catholic, but it's my understanding that only the pope can remove a bishop. It's also my understanding that Mr. Herak is not the pope," Cross said.

Parishioners have been asked to contribute $10 million toward the settlement by the end of the year. A fundraising effort has begun. Any shortfall may be collected through borrowing or by selling bonds. Parish property secures this $10 million commitment.

The bishop is expected to raise another $6 million. These financial terms are secured by several large parishes, including Our Lady of Lourdes Cathedral.

Diocese attorney Greg Arpin, a Catholic and Gonzaga alumnus, criticized the letter writers.

"They certainly have a right to their opinion and right to disagree," Arpin said, "but in our view these letters reflect a real misunderstanding of the nature and complexity of what has happened.

"Frankly, at this point, it involves a lot of looking in from the outside at a situation … and Monday morning quarterbacking."

The bishop wrote in his reply to the men that there are about 10,000 Catholic households with a combined annual income of about $450 million who give regularly to the church. About 12,000 more Catholic households don't give money to the church. He said the settlement is within reach of the diocese and unwinding it now could expose parishioners to potential jury awards or settlements influenced by high-dollar payouts in California....

After the bishop replied, Herak, Tilford, Caferro and Workland wrote again, taking exception to the bishop's insistence that the Catholic community of today must atone for the actions of pedophile priests decades ago.

"We are the perpetrators of the abuse," Skylstad wrote in his reply. "That 'we' is the perceived community of bishops, priests and laity, in communities over a 50-year period. You may not like being in that 'we,' but that is the way it is."

The four calling for Skylstad's resignation responded: "You are just wrong on that point. It could not be perceived by any rational person that any lay person could have perpetuated or condoned this long string of child abuse by a number of Spokane diocesan priests.

"Only a handful of the laity even knew this violation of both God and man's law was even taking place. This sin of pedophilia became known to the bishops of Spokane many years ago, but they chose to take limited or no action or even worse covered it up."

Skylstad's three-year term as president of the USCCB ends at this year's November Meeting. His vice-president, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago, continues his recovery from a fall during the Triduum. The 70 year-old head of the US' second-largest diocese made his first public appearance since his injury on Wednesday.

If the inviolate precedent of the episcopal conference holds, George -- who marks his 10th anniversary as archbishop of Chicago this month -- will be elevated to its presidency at the fall plenary. The last time a cardinal was elected to the American bishops' top post came in 1971, when the late Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia became the second president of the USCCB's predecessor, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference.