US bishops to hear reports on marriage, sex abuse at meeting

This story appears in the USCCB Summer 2014 feature series. View the full series.
St. Louis Cathedral overlooks Jackson Square in New Orleans. The U.S. bishops are to meet in the city in June. (Dreamstime)
St. Louis Cathedral overlooks Jackson Square in New Orleans. The U.S. bishops are to meet in the city in June. (Dreamstime)

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The U.S. bishops are scheduled to meet in New Orleans June 11-13. On their agenda is a discussion of today's economy and its impact on marriages and evangelization. They are also to review their efforts in preventing sexual abuse of children, strengthening marriage, helping typhoon victims and preparing for upcoming church-sponsored events on family life.

The bishops are to hear presentations on "Marriage and the Economy" and "the New Evangelization and Poverty" on the second day of their gathering before they close for executive sessions.

The first day is to be filled with reports on upcoming events, including presentations on the Oct. 5-19 extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family and on the World Meeting of Families, set for Sept. 22-27, 2015, in Philadelphia.

The synod at the Vatican this October is to bring together presidents of bishops' conferences, the heads of Eastern Catholic churches and the heads of Vatican offices to discuss "pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelization."

Pope Francis has said the synod will take up the subject of church teaching and practice on marriage, including the eligibility of divorced and civilly married Catholics to receive Communion.

In preparation for the synod, the Vatican issued a survey for Catholic families and a handful of U.S. bishops have released some of the results of their responses submitted to the Vatican at the end of January.

The bishops were to hear a presentation by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput and Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the Pontifical Council for the Family, on the World Meeting of Families taking place in Philadelphia next year.

Organizers say the meeting will be open to families and people of different faiths, including no faith at all, and is meant to engage the wider society in dialogue and to strengthen families.

The bishops are also set to hear a report from Catholic Relief Services regarding relief efforts in the Philippines in the wake of November's Typhoon Haiyan. U.S. dioceses raised $24.5 million for these relief efforts. The amount collected includes $6.4 million specifically designated for humanitarian aid and $18.1 million to be equally divided between humanitarian aid and long-term church reconstruction and other programs.

Other items on the agenda for the meeting include:

  • The annual progress report of the bishops' efforts to protect children and young people from sexual abuse, presented by Francesco Cesareo, chairman of the National Review Board;
  • Debate and vote on the renewal of the bishops' Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, formed in 2011, for an additional three-year term;
  • An update on the work of the bishops' Subcommittee on the Catechism and their Subcommittee on the Promotion and Defense of Marriage;
  • Debate and vote on the request for renewal of the "recognitio," or Vatican approval, for the national directory for the formation, ministry and life of permanent deacons.

The bishops also will review and vote on a proposal by a working group on the bishops' statement linking church teachings to political responsibility. Every presidential election year since 1976, the U.S. bishops have issued a series of documents on the responsibilities of Catholic citizenship, which has become known as the "Faithful Citizenship" statement.

This will be the first "Faithful Citizenship" document drafted since the 1980s that is not being shepherded by John Carr, the longtime staffer of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Carr headed the bishops' domestic and international policy efforts for 25 years until retiring in 2012.

The Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty, chaired by Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, was established in September 2011 to address growing concerns over the erosion of freedom of religion in America. Announcing the new committee, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York, then president of the bishops' conference, said that religious freedom "in its many and varied applications for Christians and people of faith, is now increasingly and in unprecedented ways under assault in America."

"This is most particularly so in an increasing number of federal government programs or policies that would infringe upon the right of conscience of people of faith," he said. "As shepherds of over 70 million U.S. citizens we share a common and compelling responsibility ... to protect our people from this assault which now appears to grow at an ever accelerating pace in ways most of us could never have imagined."

From the outset, priorities of the committee were focused on:

  • A Department of Health and Human Services regulation, a provision of the Affordable Care Act, that mandated coverage of contraception in all private health insurance plans, which the bishops said "coerce[d] church employers to sponsor and pay for services they oppose";
  • The Obama administration's order that the Justice Department stop defending legal challenges to the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for federal purposes as only between one man and one woman;
  • Court challenges that the bishops said would undermine the "ministerial exception," a legal doctrine that exempts religious institutions from some civil laws when it comes to hiring and firing;
  • Proposals in state legislatures and various court rulings that favored same-sex unions and marriages.

The ad hoc committee organized three annual "Fortnight for Freedom" campaigns, a two-week period, June 21-July 4, in which the nation's bishops called on Catholics across the country to pray and act in defense of religious freedom.

Since the committee was established, the contraception mandate has been implemented with an exemption for religious institutions. The Supreme Court has struck down key provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act, but upheld the ministerial exception in a case involving a teacher at a Lutheran school. Meanwhile, 19 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage, and federal courts have struck down bans in 11 more states.

The bishops will also review the cause for canonization of Fr. Paul Wattson, founder of the Franciscan Friars and Sisters of the Atonement at Graymoor in Garrison, N.Y.

Wattson was born in 1863. Initially an Episcopal priest, he was ordained a Catholic priest in 1910. He initiated the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity in 1908 and co-founded the Catholic Near East Welfare Association. He died in 1940.

A version of this story appeared in the June 6-19, 2014 print issue under the headline: Bishops to hear reports on marriage, family, sex abuse at June meeting.

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