American Bishops gather, discuss upcoming papal visit

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BALTIMORE – The announcement of dates and locations for Pope Benedict XVI’s U.S. visit next year highlighted the U.S. bishops’ Nov. 12-15 fall general meeting in Baltimore. The Holy Father’s April 15-20 trip will include visits to New York and Washington and an address at the United Nations.

“The announcement by Archbishop Sambi was certainly the emotional high point of the meeting,” noted Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, adding that the announcement was “well received and exciting for the bishops.... I think that the bishops understand that the Holy Father’s visit will be a blessed moment for our country and a real opportunity for spiritual renewal and new energy for the church in the United States.”

On Nov. 14, the last public day of the four-day meeting, the bishops approved the document “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility From the Catholic Bishops of the United States.”

The document rejects politics based on “powerful interests, partisan attacks, sound bites and media hype” and calls instead for “a different kind of political engagement.” That engagement must be “shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences and focused on the dignity of every human being, the pursuit of the common good and the protection of the weak and vulnerable," it said.

“This statement addresses a topic that is of great interest to Catholics in the United States, especially as we approach another election cycle,” said Bishop Tobin. “I think it is an excellent statement that avoids partisan politics but encourages Catholics to have properly-informed consciences when they go into the voting booth.

“It says in particular, that while abortion is not the only issue that we have to think about, it is one of the key non-negotiable issues that should form Catholic’s voting,” said the bishop.

On Nov. 13, for the first time in 36 years, the bishops elected a cardinal — Cardinal Francis E. George of Chicago — as their next president.

Cardinal George won the presidency on the first ballot with 188 votes, or 85 percent. He is completing his three-year term as vice president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He succeeds Bishop Skylstad, whose three-year term came to an end at the close of the meeting. Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas of Tucson, Ariz., was elected vice president.

“Cardinal George is a man of great intellect and vision,” observed Bishop Tobin.

The same day, with the approval of the body of bishops, a new statement on Iraq was issued in the name of the bishops’ outgoing president, Bishop William S. Skylstad of Spokane, Wash. It says that some U.S. policymakers “seem to fail to recognize sufficiently the reality and failures in Iraq and the imperative for new directions.”

The statement bemoans a “political and partisan stalemate in Washington" that parallels a "dangerous political stalemate” that blocks reconciliation in Iraq.

“As pastors and teachers, we are convinced that the current situation in Iraq remains unacceptable and unsustainable,” it says and notes that for almost two years, the bishops have called for bipartisan action.

“Our country needs a new direction to reduce the war’s deadly toll and to bring our people together to deal with the conflict's moral and human dimensions."

On Nov. 12 the bishops were briefed by the staff of the New York-based John Jay College of Criminal Justice on an ongoing study of the "causes and context" of clerical sexual abuse.

Researcher Karen Terry told the bishops that early research seems to indicate that the patterns of sexual abuse within the church are consistent with the experience of society as a whole, adding there are “clusters of hypothetical factors being studied” to explain the incidence of sexual abuse.

The bishops voted overwhelmingly Nov. 13 to draft a brief policy statement on embryonic stem-cell research and a pastoral document on reproductive technologies.

Earlier that day, the bishops took the final steps to formalize the new USCCB structure and approved a $147.7 million budget for 2008 and a 16 percent reduction in the diocesan assessment to fund the USCCB.

“It’s a good pruning process that will make the bishop’s conference slimmer, more focused and more effective,”?noted Bishop Tobin. “I am very pleased that the process is going forward.”

He added that the reorganization of the bishop’s conference will result in the reduction in the number of committees and staff, and a reduced budget.

Contributing to this story were Nancy Frazier O'Brien and Patricia Zapor in Baltimore and Brian J. Lowney in Providence.