“Only bishops can take part in the deliberations,” Bishop Joseph L. Bernardin, general secretary of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, reminded newsmen at the first press briefing. But he noted that NCCB president John Cardinal Dearden had just told the 221 prelates attending their semi-annual meeting in Washington, D.C., that priests and lay people had been brought in at various levels. “The levels of collaboration will expand,” Bernardin predicted.

Taking his cue from the Holy Father, Dearden had urged his colleagues to plunge into new arenas of shared authority, just as Pope Paul at the Rome synod a month earlier (see November 21 issue, page 36) had emphasized “the moral and spiritual value which collegiality must take on in each of us.…”

There were evidences during the five-day conference that many in the U. S. hierarchy intended to take their president’s plea seriously. But there also was a swelling counterpoint of dissent, sometimes rising to a shrill pitch, as an unprecedented number of unofficial Catholic (and some non-Catholic) groups clamoring for a medley of special interests tried to get the bishops’ ear.

Before adjournment, six persons had been arrested, a black Methodist minister and his Black United Front cohorts were turned back (in the nick of time) at the huge door guarding the bishops’ secret meeting, a lone priest successfully held a six-hour sit-in for peace while the bishops talked about celibacy and holy days, and the vice-president of the National Association of Laymen screamed an obscenity at two bishops who were attempting to hear out demands of his group.

The Rev. Patrick J. O’Malley, president of the National Federation of Priests Councils (representing about 35,000 of the nation’s 58,000 Catholic priests), became the first priest ever to address the U. S. hierarchy on priestly problems. At a closed session on opening day, the curly-haired Chicagoan warned of “disaster” to the church if priests were not granted “a share not only in the implementing of programs for the good of the church, but in the planning and decision-making for that church.”

O’Malley proposed a national policy-making board of priests, bishops, and laymen, and asked that at the April NCCB meeting, each bishop bring a priest representing his diocese as a voting member. The latter request was denied, but bishops at a press panel following O’Malley’s unprecedented address spoke of a national pastoral council, intimated by Vatican II, as the eventual solution to the problem.

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Presently, only the Netherlands has such a national council, and American bishops previously have shown an interest only in councils at the parish and diocese level. But Dearden indicated the NCCB is now definitely steering toward a national council.

The far-off promise of such collaboration failed to excite members of a radical congress of priests’ associations, which held a separate one-day meeting at an adjoining hotel.

Monsignor Thomas Reese, spokesman for the groups, noted that many were faced with falling membership, and criticized O’Malley’s federation as too establishment-oriented.

“The liberal, activist priests are going, going.… The brothers will be gone,” mourned the Rev. Joseph O’Donoghue, the first priest to be disciplined by Washington D. C.’s Patrick Cardinal O’Boyle last year over the birth-control controversy.

Another “first” for the bishops that will have direct bearing on such priestbishop disputes was a set of due-process guidelines prepared by the Canon Law Society. The document adopted by the bishops was hailed by Dearden as “a uniform way to deal with some of the tensions … eliminate suspicions, and the fear of the unknown.” The procedures—which are not mandatory in any diocese without consent of its bishop—cover conciliation, arbitration, and administrative (judicial) cases.

The preamble to the due-process statement states that all persons in the church should have, among other rights, “freedom to speak and be heard and to receive objective information regarding the pastoral needs and affairs of the Church.”

One young priest, eager to assert his “rights,” pushed his way through a service entrance and crashed the bishops’ meeting. The Rev. Charles Sullivan, 28, a leader of the unofficial Society of Priests for a Free Ministry, was allowed to remain after a lay companion was ejected for starting to read a statement attacking the bishops for “your seven-year silence on Viet Nam and your military mass.”Part of the blast prepared for the bishops read: “You are the last of the absolute monarchs as you gather in your palaces. Your credibility is so shaky that one would wonder how many people would buy a used car from a bishop.”

Sullivan, the first uninvited visitor to attend a closed NCCB session, sat crosslegged in meditation while the bishops continued business, recessed for lunch, and returned for another three hours of business. Emerging after hotel security forces threatened to arrest him, Sullivan described the gathering as a “boring Holy Name meeting with four cardinals [McIntyre of Los Angeles, O’Boyle, Krol of Philadelphia, and Wright, the new head of the Vatican Congregation on the Clergy] as spiritual directors.”

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The most ornate event of the conference (although not officially a part of it) was the mass for peace at the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. The program, on the eve of Veterans Day, included a spit-and-polish procession of servicemen, plumed Knights of Columbus, a military color guard with rifles, and the massed choirs of the Army, Navy, and Air Force academies in their first performance together.

Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, recently retired bishop of Rochester, New York, deplored the permissive society and the breakdown of Christian discipline in his sermon. More than 100 bishops attended.

The so-called military mass irked dissident groups all week, and the arrest of six persons outside the Shrine for “unlawful entry on private property” (they were distributing anti-war leaflets on the steps) added fuel to the fire.

Malcontent factions pointedly noted that the bishops issued no statement whatever on Viet Nam, except one urging humane treatment for prisoners of war.

The NCCB reaffirmed—for the third time in two years—the values and necessity of priestly celibacy. But the vote (145 to 68, only three more than the necessary two-thirds) indicated that the bishops are carefully weighing the matter. A minority wished an even stronger statement, it was reported, but many opposing it felt it would be heavyhanded to issue another one now. Archbishop Philip M. Hannan of New Orleans was among those who believe the U.S. church should one day consider ordaining to the priesthood men who are already married.

Meanwhile, a married priest and his wife spoke at a special forum on celibacy. The audience, including at least one bishop, applauded Catholic pastor, historian, and ecumenist Henry Beck when he declared: “Compulsory celibacy is infidelity to the Gospel,” and, citing ecumenism, “This obstacle makes no sense in a reunited Christian ministry.”

The NCCB formally approved the creation of a National Central Office for Black Catholics, and empowered a black caucus to appoint a steering committee. The new office will develop black leadership, work with black university students, and adapt liturgy to needs and experiences of Negroes.

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Midway in the conference, about fifteen members of the Black United Front, which has been hitting up Washington churches for a total of more than $20 million to “rebuild the burned out places of the city,” paid an expected visit.

Brushing past security guards, the Rev. Douglas Moore cornered Archbishop Hannan (his auxiliary, Harold R. Perry, is the only Negro bishop in the American church) and demanded to speak at the meeting. Hannan refused, and Moore settled for reading a series of “righteous requests” to the archbishop and a gaggle of newsmen (after allowing time for cameramen to plug in lights).

Among progressive measures taken by the NCCB this fall was the adoption of a new committee for the nomination of bishops. One bishop from each of seven regions of the country will screen nominations for bishop candidates before names are sent to the Vatican. This was seen as “a tremendous advance” that will give the U. S. bishops greater influence, while diminishing the intermediary role of the Apostolic Delegate.

The bishops also moved toward opening the financial records of the church’s 156 dioceses by authorizing preparation of a uniform system of bookkeeping, and approved a new, $50 million national crusade against poverty.

A statement on “the right to life” protested U. S. government population control programs limiting births.

Most of a long list of suggested changes in the mass and services of baptism and marriage were approved, making them more compatible with Consultation on Church Union and inter-Lutheran usage. All of the International Committee on English and Liturgy text was adopted, except for part of the new English translation of the Lord’s Prayer, and a new version of the Apostles’ Creed. All holy days of obligation were retained, but the changed rites may go into effect as early as next Palm Sunday.

Generally, the NCCB moved cautiously toward collaboration between the bishops and those priests and laymen who want—or at least are willing—to work within the sluggish, evolving system of the Church of Rome. Even impatient, suspended Father O’Donoghue conceded there was “a crack in the door.”

But for some revolutionized and radicalized Catholics, it already is too late.


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