Friday, November 07, 2008

Back to the Drawing Board

It's been said before but bears repeating: for the first time since its inception in 1976, last year's November Meeting saw the latest edition of US bishops' presidential-year text on Faithful Citizenship debated and voted on by the entire body (as opposed to emerging from the conference's Administrative Committee), that the prelates might cast themselves in one voice before the nation and its Catholic fold with a document they "owned."

All 30 pages of it.

Initial signs were favorable: in a feel-good moment for all sides, the text passed with 98% of the bishops in favor... but, to put it mildly, something else happened along the way. Interest groups took the pieces they liked and ignored the rest; a critical mass of the bishops worked overtime at home to authoritatively clarify the document's emphases and intent; one of the bench publicly rejected it as having no authority in his diocese, and two leading Democrats -- the party's then-vice-presidential nominee and the Speaker of the House -- effectively spun out when asked about church teaching on Meet the Press.

All that as backdrop, the November Meeting that begins Monday won't just be seeing the scheduled discussion on "pastoral and practical implications of political support for abortion"... but a movement toward revisiting Faithful Citizenship itself as several prelates have taken up the call for the current edition to "be scrapped, or at least overhauled":
"We need a new approach to conscience formation in the public square," said Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver...

"`Faithful Citizenship' didn't and doesn't work because it's been applied by different people in very different ways."

Indeed, Catholic scholars like Nicholas Cafardi, whom the bishops appointed to a board investigating clergy sexual abuse, used "Faithful Citizenship" to buttress his argument that anti-abortion Catholics could back Obama in good conscience.

But it was Biden and Pelosi using "Meet the Press" to openly "misrepresent Catholic teaching" that put abortion and politics on next week's agenda, according to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

"As the teachers of the faith," the USCCB wrote in a September statement, "we also point out the connectedness between the evil of abortion and political support for abortion. We plan to discuss the practical implications of these serious matters."

Biden's elevation to the nation's No. 2 job on Tuesday adds an element of urgency to the bishops' discussion, said Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, N.J.

"It's a very big deal," Myers said. However, the archbishop said, his fellow prelates do not agree about how to handle the situation.

"We need to come closer to being of one mind on this matter," Myers said....

Russell Shaw, former director of communications for the USSCB, said the bishops could basically be divided into three camps: the "hardliners," who want to deny Communion to Catholic politicians who support abortion rights, and possibly those who vote for them; the "compromisers" who want to reach an agreement with politicians; and a large majority in the middle who "don't like messy unpleasant situations like this and are just hoping it will go away."...

Instead, the bishops decided to let each prelate determine his own policy.

"The failure to face up to serious questions has come home to roost," Shaw said....

Myers said the problem lies not with "Faithful Citizenship" but with its interpreters.

"It's kind of like Vatican II," the archbishop said, referring to the seminal conclave of the 1960s that lead to wide reforms in the church. "Very clearly there are some, like Senator Biden, who are saying the church for centuries did not have a clear position on abortion and have gone all over the ballpark in making up their own positions."
In another move to "double down" on the integrity and emphases of church teaching as expressed in political life, Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington is heavily-tipped to win election next week as the next head of the conference's Committee on Doctrine, whose current chair took a lead role in the unprecedented post-MTP public corrections.