Deal W. Hudson
As you may already know, the Catholic world has been buzzing about a confidential letter composed by eight American bishops in which they called for a Plenary Council to address problems in the Church.
Journalists and pundits have been speculating and debating about the alleged contents of the letter and the identities of the authors. But no one really knew for sure.
This morning, CRISIS managed to obtain a copy of the letter that was sent on July 18 to all the American cardinals and bishops. In it, a group of eight bishops asks that a Plenary Council is called as soon as possible to discuss the “root causes” of – and possible solutions to – the current crisis in the Church.
Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain what a Plenary Council is and why this letter is so dramatic. Basically, a Plenary Council is a meeting of all the bishops of a given area – in this case, the United States. This isn’t an ordinary meeting though. It’s the highest form of council that can be called on a national level. It would be like a Vatican Council for the States. In fact, the American bishops haven’t called a Plenary Council in more than 100 years.
And it’s much different from their semiannual conferences, too: There, the administrative business is done. A Plenary Council, on the other hand, is much more proactive, focusing on “teaching the truths of the faith” (as the letter says). Priests and laypeople would also be able to participate.
The eight bishops who wrote this amazing letter are taking a brave stand by urging discussion of those issues that were swept under the rug at the June bishops’ meeting. While I can’t send you the whole body of the letter, I can share some of it with you.
First, the authors of the letter seem to have a pretty clear understanding of the crisis. Here are a few of the issues they want to face head-on at the Plenary Council: “What has happened to the life and ministry of bishops and priests that makes us vulnerable to the failings that have humiliated us all? What things need to be going on so that in this cultural milieu priests and bishops will preserve their celibate chastity along with all the other virtues that constitute the life of holiness proper to pastors? How can the purification upon which we shepherds have embarked help us, in turn, support our people in achieving greater holiness?”
Notice the absence of wishy-washy bishop speak. These men know there’s a problem, and they’re going to face it squarely.
But it gets even better. The bishops get very specific about what they hope to accomplish at the meeting:
Goal 1: “Solemnly receiving the authentic teaching of the Second Vatican Council…on the identity, life and ministry of bishops and priests; on matters of sexual morality in general (cf. Gaudium et Spes, Humanae Vitae, Veritatis Splendor, and Familiaris Consortio); [and] on celibate chastity as an authentic form of human sexuality renewed by grace and a share in Christ’s own spousal love for His Church.”
It’s heartening to hear these bishops raise the issue of sexual morality as taught by Humanae Vitae, as well as “the very soul of holiness” for a priest! These topics have been taboo for so long that it’s phenomenal to see bishops address them head-on.
Goal 2: “Giving unequivocal endorsement and normative force to the means outlined in the documents of the Council…to foster the acts of virtue required of pastors and the means needed to achieve those virtues, especially celibate chastity (e.g., daily celebration of the Mass, frequent Confession, daily meditation, regular acts of asceticism, obedient submission to Church teaching and discipline, simplicity of life).”
You can’t argue with a return to the fundamentals of the priesthood. This is EXACTLY what priests need to hear: a public endorsement of their vocation and the support of the bishops in encouraging a real back-to-basics approach to religious life.
Goal 3: “Confirming the bishops in the authoritative exercise of our ministry for the health and well being of the church, and strengthening our coworkers in the Presbyterate in their ministry of 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.”
Who hasn’t been demanding greater accountability and action from the bishops? Clearly, these men seem to understand what’s really been bothering American Catholics.
The bishops who drafted the letter also listed the benefits of calling a Plenary Council: It “would provide a galvanizing focus that is authentically evangelical and true to the Church’s identity and tradition…[witness] unambiguously to the fact that the Church relies on the grace of the Holy Spirit…involve all strata of the People of God in the experience…have maximal impact in shaping the ecclesial culture…[and] give a definite stamp to identifying what is the authentic heritage of the Second Vatican Council.”
“Galvanize”…”witness unambiguously”…” maximal impact”…”definite stamp”… the “authentic” heritage of Vatican II… These are strong words for bishops – a group usually known more for its inaction than its decisive action.
One last thing. Unfortunately, I can’t reveal the names of the authors at this point. However, I can tell you that the list is surprising. These bishops represent the entire theological and political spectrum. That in itself is reassuring: The idea that we need a deep and lasting change isn’t limited to any political or theological ideology.
My hat is off to these eight courageous and dedicated bishops – all that’s left now is to hope their colleagues will follow suit and sign on.
In 10 years or so, when this current crisis has hopefully faded away, we may look back on this letter as the event that triggered the renewal of the American Catholic Church. Let’s all say a prayer of thanks for the eight bishops who took the first step.