Thursday, December 31, 2009

For '10, Five to Watch

And just like that, gang, we've come to the gate of the year….

Hard to believe, Harry.

Hope you've all been enjoying Christmas -- on a housekeeping note, with much of the scene on holiday hiatus for another fortnight or so, light posting will continue (barring anything breaking, of course) for a little while longer....

On this beat, see, you take the breathers you can get.

The Churchman of the Year will be announced in the coming days; nominations are still being taken, so keep in mind that prospective picks need not be ordained nor male, just one (or more) of us all who's had a singular impact on how 2009 will be viewed in the long run.

Sure, many takes are looking back in these days... but as we've always done things a little differently 'round here, let's look ahead at five stories that'll likely find themselves high on the radar in 2010 and, ergo, bear watching.......
  • First, while both have long been staples of the chattering circuit, two Roman initiatives on the ground are in for an uptick of note in the New Year as they reach new stages that, put bluntly, will see them "hit home" to a yet unseen degree. Announced in early 2009 and subject to fierce blowback through the year, the coming months will see the Apostolic Visitation of the US' women religious begin its most intensive phase: the Vatican team's on-site investigations of selected communities. While reports have emerged of resistance to the study's mandatory questionnaire -- parts of which were removed after an outcry from many communities -- the visits, slated to begin in the spring, will bring the process face to face with at least some of its critics… which raises the scintillating question of what'll happen "when worlds collide." (Tied in with this, of course, is the ongoing "doctrinal assessment" of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious -- the umbrella organization representing some 95% of the communities, roughly four-fifths of the nation's 65,000 sisters. Announced last April, CNS reported earlier this month that "the assessment was continuing," but no further details had emerged.) Even more prominently, a decade after the 1998 Sacramentary was mooted and Liturgiam authenticam changed the principles of liturgical translations, most American Catholics will finally learn what the clerical class has known and fought about for a seeming eternity: that, like it or not, a stem-to-stern revision of the Mass in English is parish-bound, and quickly. Rome's recognitio for the Anglophone translation of the Missale Romanum, editio tipica tertia is expected in the first half of 2010, and the global catechetical effort to ease implantation of the new texts will roll out even sooner... yet while a widely-publicized petition calling for a delay garnered significant buzz earlier this month, both Fr Mike Ryan's "wait" initiative and a countering drive saying "finally" garnered just over 10,000 signatures between them -- a telling indication of how, for a project that's shown little neutrality of reaction over the years, an astonishing bulk of English-speaking Catholics apparently remain unaware of the coming change… but, again, not for long. While most of the wide-scale attention given the Missal to date has come due to the protests it's received -- most prominently those of its longtime lead opponent, Bishop Donald Trautman of Erie -- with the battles behind and the texts' debut in the pews looming, the story now crosses from the realm of "inside baseball" to impending weekly reality for some 80 million Anglophone Catholics worldwide… that is, if any religion reporters are left to cover it. (The ongoing disappearance of full-time, specialized religion journalists from the mainstream press -- which, so he recently said, now threatens to claim the Boston Globe's highly-regarded Michael Paulson -- is a high-import story in itself, but one to revisit more deeply down the line.)
  • B16's Year of the Priest might be halfway through, but the New Year is looking to bring at least one significant development to the clerical map in Stateside Catholicism's fallen flagship of the Northeast. Almost seven years since the sex-abuse scandal erupted in Boston, no shortage of the national scene's yielded hordes of parish closings and administrative cuts, but one area of church life that's remained almost completely intact -- even amid continuing low numbers of recruits -- has been the shape of seminary formation… but again, possibly, not for long. In recent weeks, a top-level team of officials from each of metro New York's three local churches have begun meeting to study options for consolidating their four major and minor seminaries, most prominently Rockville Centre's Immaculate Conception in Huntington and Gotham's own St Joseph's, Dunwoodie. With the two holding a combined 65 theologians (as of the last published numbers), a plan for "improved collaboration" between the houses -- along with the collegiate programs of Neumann Residence (New York) and Cathedral College, Douglaston (Brooklyn) -- could emerge by late spring, its execution reportedly eyed for after the 2010-11 academic year. In the wake of the abuse crisis, the lone change to the makeup of the Northeast's 12 major diocesan houses came in Boston, where then-Archbishop Sean O'Malley shuttered the college division of St John's Seminary in 2005, dispatching its minor sems elsewhere. (Brighton's theologate, however, has since reported a "stunning turnaround.") While some Gothamites have expressed surprise in Archbishop Tim Dolan's backing of the process, it's worth recalling that, in his prior post, the freshly-arrived Strongman of 452 oversaw both the folding of Milwaukee's archdiocesan seminary into the formation program at nearby Sacred Heart School of Theology, and the near-sale of the Beer City's chancery to a local Catholic university, which deal fell through amid the rough economic climate. All that said, it bears reminding that, in its final report on the 2005 Apostolic Visitation of Stateside formation houses, the Congregation for Catholic Education opined that the question of "whether there are too many seminaries in the US" was "worth asking," and recommended the matter to an episcopal commission... the formation of which, as of this writing, is.....
  • Next, with the College of Cardinals currently eight members short of its full voting complement of 120 and at least 11 more openings to arise in 2010, all sides expect a consistory to create new red-hats in the New Year, likely within its first half. And with two Stateside seats opening up (among a total of six over the next two years and change), the question presents itself: Who's next? Of course, the 2007 intake stunned observers -- at least, elsewhere -- with the elevation of the archbishop of Galveston-Houston as the first cardinal of the American South, but the move placed B16 on-record as ready and willing (the first time a pontiff's so been in over a half-century) to pass over the nation's traditional princely sees and instead reward the new centers of "dynamic growth and vitality" on an American Catholic map whose energy and numbers have shifted dramatically to the South and West over the last three decades. Keeping that in mind, any talk of a 2010 class bears an important qualifier at the outset: for the first time, New York has a living retired cardinal, one whose voting rights in a conclave remain intact for the next two-plus years. As for the rest, Detroit's retired Cardinal Adam Maida loses papal suffrage on his 80th birthday in March, as does Washington's Ted McCarrick in July, while Cardinals William Keeler and Bernard Law reach the milestone in 2011. All that said, the coming consistory will almost assuredly see at least one American red hat augmenting not the modern low of five cardinal-archbishops on these shores, but the historically high contingent at the Home Office (currently four) with the expected elevation of the church's oft-controversial "chief justice," Archbishop Raymond Burke, now likewise a member of the Congregation for Bishops.
  • However you cut it, one of the year's top stories was the resurgence of the US bishops as a public-policy force, an emergence signified chiefly in the debate over health-care reform and capped by the conference's success in lobbying the Stupak Amendment to a successful floor vote in the House, one held in defiance of the pro-choice leanings of its leadership, but which assured the chamber's passage of President Obama's health-care reform package with bipartisan support. Sure, several aspects of the Senate bill -- most prominently, its language on abortion-funding -- fell short of the bench's standards, and the final outcome of the push remains to be seen, but Epiphany weekend raises the curtain on the next intended front of broad-scale ecclesial engagement: immigration reform, long a top cause of the bishops, which is widely expected to be Congress' next big-ticket agenda item following the health-care fight. While the effectiveness of the bishops' advocacy for an "abortion-neutral" health care package owed itself to the Catholic orbit's ability to present a sizable united front encompassing both sides of both the highly-polarized body and the church's grassroots, the coalition's ability to hold over immigration might prove tougher given the lack of affinity for the issue from significant elements on the right, which perceive border policy as a matter of prudential judgment, regardless of the issue's hierarchical interpretation as one of the basic rights of the family (namely, that no just law can divide the natural unit). Either way, more than the abortion fight, the immigration story has the potential either to manifest a stunning, possibly unprecedented unification of the US church's oft-divided camps on an issue beyond the foundational life plank, or to reveal American Catholicism's ideological and ethnic chasm to a heretofore unseen degree on the national stage. In other words, just when you thought the issue alone was high-stakes enough….
  • Speaking of the conference and its divides, late year will see the end of Cardinal Francis George's mandate as the US bishops' president, a three-year tenure that's been masterful in the Chicagoan chief's unique ability to craft consensus among a body where, it sometimes seems, what two plus two equals could spark a heated hourlong debate. With the presidency almost certain to pass to the current vice-president, Bishop Gerald Kicanas of Tucson, the dynamic shifts, too, but the extent of the change depends mightily on the body's choice of its next vice-president -- a vote that, still over ten months hence, is already garnering much buzz. While George's 2004 victory for the #2 slot saw him become the first cardinal since 1971 placed in line for the president's chair, the vote likewise began a seeming trend of alternating prelates affiliated with the right and left in the top post, so the prevailing wind would appear to indicate a more conservative lieutenant to the Bernardin-bred Arizonan. Still, as previously noted, the final vice-presidential ballot in the 2000s birthed an even more significant trend: the victors might've gone on to six years atop a ballroom dais, but the vanquished each landed something more prestigious -- a ticket to the "papal senate"; all the decade's runners-up for VP (Justin Rigali in 1998 and 2001, Donald Wuerl in 2004 and Tim Dolan in 2007) were placed in cardinalatial sees within roughly 18 months of losing the vote. So as the early goings shape up, it'd be wise to keep in mind that the presidency passes, but a red hat is forever. (As a bonus, the final months of George's term will see the development of the cardinal's announced, but yet unspecified, task forces to deal with Catholic identity as it's fleshed out by "Catholic universities, media claiming the right to be a voice in the church, and organizations that direct various works under Catholic auspices" -- a swan song that could well make for some fireworks in itself.)
  • And lastly, the talk invariably pops up 'round the edges, but with sex-abuse remaining front and center in other parts of the Anglophone world and keeping high on the Vatican's radar, the New Year will see at least one, and possibly two, significant echoes of the scandals in the US church: the finished "causes and contexts" report prepared for the bishops by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and, maybe, at long last, a return to the Dallas Charter, whose term in force was extended indefinitely by the Holy See after its intended 2005 "sunset," and ever since slated for reworking in light of the experiences that followed its initial passage in 2002. Amid continuing reports indicating either instances of lax adherence to the text's protocols as they relate to the rights of the accused, the need for better frameworks for restoring exonerated clerics to ministry or the oversight of those forcibly dismissed from the clerical state (and, ergo, beyond ecclesiastical supervision), the question of revision only becomes more pressing with each passing year and, with it, an added toll of morale, reputations and, most importantly of all, the renewal of church life Rome called for (and, in some places, still awaits) in the crisis' wake.....
OK, that was more than five, but it's easy to get carried away... still, the lot of it leads us to what could become the biggest story of 'em all -- that is, if it happens next year at all.

This refers, of course, to the next ad limina visit of the American bishops to the Holy See -- supposed to have come in 2009, but thrown off its traditional five-year timetable due to a backlog of other benches.

Last taken in 2004, the USCCB remains one of the few major conferences still to make the quinquennial pilgrimage in Benedict XVI's pontificate. While dates for the region-based trips have yet to emerge, at least the first American groups could be heading over before year's end both to brief the Pope and Curia on the state of their dioceses… and, indeed, to hear B16's judgment on the life of the Stateside church.

As always, more awaits, folks, so here's to it -- again, every wish for a Blessed New Year to one and all... for all the rest, as always, stay tuned.

SVILUPPO: Just to be clear, in further proof that the aforementioned ad limina's timetable remains up in the air, CNS' Rome chief John Thavis writes in his look-forward that " it now appears that US bishops... will not be making their visits until 2011 -- or even later."

Another year, another crapshoot... away we go, gang.

PHOTO: Reuters