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Eight bishops propose new plenary council of U.S. church

By Jerry Filteau
Catholic News Service


Eight U.S. bishops have asked their fellow prelates to consider convoking a national plenary council to promote holiness, priestly celibacy and sound sexual morality in the U.S. Catholic Church.

Such a council would be the first in the United States since the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884, which lasted nearly a month and led to the development of the Baltimore Catechism and strong efforts for Catholic schools throughout the country.

In a letter sent to the bishops in mid-July and obtained by Catholic News Service Aug. 6, the group said the bishops "took a first step in dealing with the crisis of sexual abuse of minors" at their June meeting in Dallas.

The letter added, however, that the bishops still need to address "the root causes of this crisis" and the challenge posed by Pope John Paul II April 23 when he called on the American hierarchy to "bring a purification of the entire Catholic community ... a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier church."

The proposal calls for the plenary council to have the aims of:

-- "Solemnly receiving the authentic teaching" of the Second Vatican Council and postconciliar teachings on the identity, life and ministry of priests and bishops, on sexual morality in general and on celibate chastity as an authentic form of human sexuality.

-- "Giving unequivocal endorsement and normative force to the means" set out in church teaching "to foster the acts of virtue required of pastors and the means needed to achieve those virtues, especially celibate chastity."

-- "Confirming the bishops in the authoritative exercise of our ministry" and strengthening priests in teaching the Gospel "especially in regard to sexual morality, so that we can give support to the lay faithful in responding to their call to holiness."

It asks the bishops to bring the question of a plenary council to a debate and vote when they gather in Washington this November for the fall general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

It calls for the bishops to designate the metropolitan archbishops of the country as the members of a general preparatory commission that would have chief responsibility to work out the preparations for a council.

In a five-page background paper two of the signers, Auxiliary Bishop Allen H. Vigneron of Detroit and Bishop Robert C. Morlino of Helena, Mont., outlined what the proposed plenary council would do and some of the pros and cons of convening such a council.

The others who signed the letter were Archbishop Daniel A. Cronin of Hartford, Conn.; Archbishop James P. Keleher of Kansas City, Kan.; Archbishop Oscar H. Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala.; Archbishop John G. Vlazny of Portland, Ore.; Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse, Wis.; and Bishop Daniel N. DiNardo of Sioux City, Iowa.

CNS was unable to reach any of the eight for comment Aug. 6.

One of the recipients, Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly of Louisville, Ky., said he was not convinced that the bishops should call a plenary council at this time, "but I'm very willing to listen to the arguments in a debate over this."

The idea of a plenary council "is very much alive in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. One of the tasks of the episcopal conference is to see if we think we need one," he said. "It's a legitimate form of coming together" to deal with pastoral issues confronting the church, he added.

The code says, "A plenary council, that is, one for all the particular churches of the same conference of bishops, is to be celebrated whenever it seems necessary or useful to the conference of bishops, with the approval of the Apostolic See."

It adds that it is up to the bishops' conference to convoke such a council, to decide where it is to be held, to select a president -- subject to Vatican approval -- and to set the agenda, topics to be treated and its opening and duration. The conference also can decide to transfer, extend or dissolve a council.

All diocesan bishops, coadjutors and auxiliaries in the territory of the bishops' conference and bishops who work in the territory by Vatican or bishops' conference assignment are automatic council members with a deliberative vote. Retired bishops can be invited, and if they are, they have a deliberative vote.

The code spells out a number of other participants who have a consultative voice in a plenary council but not a deliberative vote. These include all the vicars general and episcopal vicars throughout the territory, a determined number of representatives of major superiors of religious orders, rectors of all Catholic universities and deans of faculties of theology and canon law, and a determined number of seminary rectors.

Other priests and lay Catholics can be invited to participate with a consultative voice, but their number is not to exceed half the total of the other participants combined.

In addition, the bishops' conference can invite others, such as representatives of other churches, as guests.