ATLANTA –– During the public sessions of their spring meeting in Atlanta, the U.S. bishops received a 10-year progress report on their abuse charter, voted to draft a message on work and the economy, and heard reports about religious liberty issues in the United States and abroad.
They also listened as an Iraqi bishop made an impassioned plea on behalf of Iraq’s dwindling Christian population and called on the U.S. prelates to press the Obama administration to take steps to protect religious rights in the Middle Eastern country.
The meeting was June 13-15, with public sessions the first day and a half; the rest of the time was scheduled for executive session and not open to media coverage.
On the opening day, the bishops voted 171-26 to move ahead with a draft of a message on work and the economy as a way to raise the profile of growing poverty and the struggles that unemployed people are experiencing. It is expected to be ready in time for a final vote at the bishops’ fall meeting in November.
Titled “Catholic Reflections on Work, Poverty and a Broken Economy,” the message would advance the bishops’ priority of human life and dignity to demonstrate the new evangelization in action, explained Bishop Stephen E. Blaire of Stockton, Calif., chairman of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development.
It would be a follow-up to a Sept. 15, 2011, letter by Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, in which he urged bishops and priests across the country to preach about “the terrible toll the current economic turmoil is taking on families and communities.”
Al J. Notzon III, chairman of the lay-led National Review Board, presented a report marking the 10th anniversary of the “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.” The charter was part of the U.S. bishops’ response to the clergy abuse scandal that was a major concern when they met in Dallas in 2002.
While the Catholic Church has taken major steps in addressing allegations of clergy sexual abuse, it must continue to be vigilant in assuring that victims and their families will receive the attention and care they deserve, Notzon told the bishops.
Meeting that transparency remains a crucial component of building and maintaining credibility among the Catholic faithful as well as the general public, he said.
Despite the successes, Notzon said the church’s credibility continues to suffer because many Catholics and the broader community not only believe clergy sexual abuse remains at a high level but also think that local bishops continue to cover up the problem by not reporting allegations of abuse to local authorities.
“This suggests a trust problem and must be met with scrupulous adherence to the charter,” he said.
In a presentation on religious liberty issues, Archbishop William E. Lori of Baltimore ,chairman of the bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee on Religious Freedom, acknowledged the U.S. bishops’ “fortnight for freedom” campaign has come under heavy criticism in the secular media, in the blogosphere and by some Catholics as being a partisan political effort.
But the two-week period is meant to be free of politics and will emphasize church teaching on religious freedom, he said.
“Already we realize that defending religious freedom is not a walk in the park,” he said. “We’ve seen some reaction to our work that is sometimes hostile, sometimes unfair and inaccurate and sometimes derisive.”
The upcoming fortnight, which takes place June 21-July 4, will be a period of prayer, education and action aimed at explaining how a federal health care contraceptive mandate violates religious principles. The mandate requires most religious employers to provide free health insurance coverage for contraceptives, abortion-inducing drugs and sterilizations.
At the end of the discussion on religious freedom in the United States, the bishops affirmed by a unanimous voice vote a recent statement of the USCCB Administrative Committee regarding the HHS mandate titled “United for Religious Freedom.”
In his remarks to the assembly, Chaldean Auxiliary Bishop Shlemon Warduni of Baghdad made an impassioned plea on behalf of Iraq’s dwindling Christian population, and called upon the U.S. bishops to press the Obama administration to take steps to protect religious rights in the Middle Eastern country.
He said the country’s Christians are being targeted by Muslim extremists bent on ridding the country of all religious minorities.
He said in the session presented by the bishops’ Committee on International Justice and Peace that the difficulties Christians face emerged only after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
“As leaders of the church in the United States,” he told the bishops, “you bear a special responsibility toward the people and Christians of Iraq. In 2003 your government led the war that brought some terrible consequences. The U.S. government can and must do all it can to encourage tolerance and respect in Iraq, to help Iraq strengthen the rule of law and to provide assistance that helps create jobs for Iraqis, especially those on the margins.”
In a report on the Year of Faith, set to begin in October, Bishop David L. Ricken of Green Bay, Wis., chairman of the Committee on Evangelization, said the 2012-13 church-wide observance stems from Pope Benedict XVI’s call for a new evangelization. He said it will incorporate television, radio, social media and numerous online resources to better connect — or reconnect — Catholics with their faith.
In a presentation June 14, Bishop John C. Wester of Salt Lake City, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Committee on Communications, said the new evangelization calls for using new forms of media to reach people in their everyday lives.
From electronic books to social media to traditional forms of print and broadcast, the church is rethinking how to carry its teachings and its stances on public policy issues to broader audiences, including Catholics, he said.
Serious questions revolve around how to effectively communicate the church’s work while remaining true to authentic church teaching, Bishop Wester said.
The spring assembly opened with Mass celebrated by Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory at Sacred Heart of Jesus Basilica, who urged his fellow bishops to recall the life of St. Anthony of Padua to help them renew religious life. The saint — whose feast day was June 13 — demonstrated a deep devotion to Christ through his preaching.
“Certainly here our contemporary church ought to seek his assistance since we seem to have lost something of our confidence and vitality in proclaiming the Gospel,” Archbishop Gregory said in a brief homily.
“Unfortunately, we may also have occasionally misplaced clerical integrity and the facility of announcing the good news of Jesus Christ with conviction. Religious life has suffered confusion and needs serious renewal. That, perhaps, St. Anthony can once again help us to rediscover,” he said.