ATLANTA -- The nation's Catholic bishops have voted to draft a message on jobs, poverty and "a broken economy," but only after some bishops voiced concern that the statement would be perceived as a partisan attack on Republican budget priorities.
The 171-26 vote on the statement came at the semiannual U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Atlanta, where they also heard a 10-year progress report on their child protection charter and extensive reports on religious freedom in the United States and abroad.
A representative of the bishops, Sister Mary Ann Walsh, accepted a petition from protesters objecting to a Vatican mandate to reform the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella group for nuns that has been accused of doctrinal flaws and dissent. The petition had more than 57,000 signatures asking the bishops to pressure the Vatican to rescind the mandate.
Bishop Stephen Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the bishops' Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, called a statement on the economic crisis "not only timely but perhaps overdue." He said it wouldn't be a complex economic analysis, as the bishops did in their 1986 pastoral "Economic Justice for All." It is intended to be a brief message that could be used to stimulate discussion in parishes.
"We want to go beyond just ideological differences and [help people] understand that we are deeply concerned about the common good ... in terms of work as we face the issue of poverty," he said.
Some bishops expressed qualms. Bishop Earl Boyea of Lansing, Mich., said that a previous statement from the committee Bishop Blaire chairs was "perceived as a partisan action against Congressman (Paul) Ryan (R-Wis.) and the budget he proposed."
The bishops, he said, "need the humility not to stray into an area where we lack competence."
The March 6 letter to which Bishop Boyea referred said in part: "The moral measure of this budget debate is not which party wins or which powerful interests prevail, but rather how those who are jobless, hungry, homeless or poor are treated."
Bishop David Zubik of Pittsburgh strongly supported the proposed message.
"We have to be sensitive to the fact that so many people are suffering because of the economy," he said in an interview, reminiscing about growing up in Ambridge when his father was laid off.
"My concern is that so many things are focused through the lens of politics. This proposal comes from genuine concern for people and is based on the teachings of the Gospel," he said.
The bishops spent two hours discussing religious freedom. Regarding their opposition to a federal mandate requiring all employer health insurance to cover contraceptives, sterilization and morning-after drugs, the bishops' running theme was that the battle isn't over whether Americans should use those things.
They emphasized that, whatever accommodation President Barack Obama has proposed, their bottom line objection is to a government attempt to limit what a religious organization is by defining a religious charity as something different than a house of worship. The latter is exempt from the impending rule, while religious charities, hospitals and schools would be subject to some form of it.
It has been 10 years since the bishops adopted a child protection charter amid a national scandal over priests who molested minors and bishops who kept them in ministry.
Al Notzon, chairman of the National Review Board that they created to oversee the implementation of the charter, said enormous strides had been made, but those dioceses that don't comply disgrace the vast majority that do.
Dioceses now respond to allegations with pastoral care, he said. "The church learned that to respond to the victims in a strictly legal manner did not help either the victims or the church. It ... caused more pain, did more damage and cost more money," he said.
He scolded dioceses that did not respond promptly to allegations. Though he didn't name them, Philadelphia and Kansas City are embroiled in criminal trials regarding failed responses to such reports. Bishops are required to report allegations to the legal authorities and to advise victims that they can also do so, he said.
"When one bishop fails to do so, the whole church suffers," he said.
He acknowledged that zero tolerance is a controversial policy within the church but said "it is in the best interest of children and the church" to remove priests who are found to have molested minors, even if it is one accusation from long ago.
He warned against complacency. "We must never let our guard down. Now is not the time to drift from the moral requirement of the charter," he said.
Advocacy organizations for victims weren't impressed by the report. The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests said the charter should be scrapped and replaced after public hearings. The group urged the bishops to publicly censure members who fail to follow it. "We're in this mess largely because bishops are monarchs who answer to virtually no one. Their power must be reduced and shared. Unless that happens, tweaking an already vague, weak and largely unenforced policy won't change a thing," the statement said. The organization handed out a list of 12 prelates it considered worst offenders, including seven current and retired cardinals.
Nicholas Cafardi, dean emeritus of the Duquesne University School of Law and a former chairman of the National Review Board, defended the charter but called for better enforcement of its provisions.
"The charter works if every bishop in the United States honors it. When individual bishops -- Philadelphia, Kansas City -- do not, then their fellow bishops or the Holy See has to police them. SNAP's criticism has credibility only when individual bishops are allowed to go rogue with no consequence," he said.
Ann Rodgers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1416. First Published June 14, 2012 12:00 AM