Published November 14, 2005
WASHINGTON – The nation's Roman Catholic bishops are convening a meeting that has an unusually light agenda — in public, that is.
Sessions are to be open to the news media and observers from Monday through midday Tuesday. But after that, the bishops will continue to discuss church business behind closed doors for another day or two — perhaps treating delicate topics such as Catholic politicians, the sex-abuse crisis or the ongoing review of seminaries.
This is scheduled to be the bishops' most secretive November session since they decided to open up their gatherings in 1972. The hierarchy also meets each June, and occasionally those sessions have been entirely private.
The unusual degree of closed-door deliberations this time is not a policy change but rather the product of an unusually short list of items that require formal action, said Monsignor Francis Maniscalco, spokesman for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
The public agenda includes a statement reaffirming opposition to the death penalty, policies for lay ministers who help overcome the church's priest shortage, liturgical and administrative matters, reports and elections.
Bishops' meetings at the Vatican and in other nations are usually secret, and over recent years some U.S. bishops have said their gatherings should provide more time in private.
"The reason I've often heard from bishops for the growing use of executive sessions is that bishops are more comfortable that way," said Russell Shaw, who was the hierarchy's information director when the open-meetings policy began. "I don't begrudge them comfort but there are larger issues at stake here than anyone's comfort level."
To Shaw, closed meetings are "a matter of serious concern for Catholics and for others who feel they have a stake in what the bishops do, and have a legitimate right to know what's going on among the leaders of the church."
The topics treated in secret are not disclosed, but there's no shortage of sensitive possibilities to take up. Among them:
—Continuing financial threats and legal tangles for U.S. Catholicism resulting from clergy sex-abuse scandals.
—The inspection of all U.S. seminaries being directed by the Vatican, an effort that resulted from the abuse crisis.
—Church policy on gays in seminaries and the priesthood, on which a Vatican pronouncement is expected soon.
—The question of whether to limit access to Communion or take other actions in 2006 against Catholic politicians who oppose church teaching on abortion or gay marriage.
On the question of Catholic politicians, an international synod of bishops at the Vatican last month declared they have a grave responsibility to uphold church teachings. However, it set no strict rules on admitting them to Communion, saying bishops should exercise "firmness and prudence" in their local situations.
A bishops' task force led by Washington's Cardinal Theodore McCarrick plans to seek advice on this at meetings with Catholic Democrats and Republicans who were recommended by their local bishops. The bishops' headquarters declined to provide further details.